This is the third of Hunt’s books set in the Kingdom of Jackals (I talked about the first here). It’s a while since I read the first two, and it took me a little time to get back into the convoluted politics of Hunt’s steampunk world. And now this whole world is under threat from an external foe, the terrifying Army of Shadows with its vat-grown slat soldiers, invincible as they sweep across the land draining its power and harvesting its inhabitants.
Molly Templar and Oliver both return in this book, Molly as the successful author of celestial fiction and Oliver as the sinister Hood o’the Marsh, a sort of dark Robin Hood in thrall to his brace of pistols. They are joined by an escapee from the royal breeding house, Purity Drake in a wild and desperate plan to defeat the Army, gathering together an unlikely cohort to embark on their mission: Coppertracks the steamman, Molly’s old friend, whose theories about the mysterious comet which has recently appeared in the skies above Jackals have been ridiculed; Commodore Jared Black, who led the u-boat expedition to search for Camlantis; Lord Rooksby, an autocratic scientist with a bitter antipathy towards Molly and her friends; Keyspierre and his daughter Jeanne, envoys from the neighbouring country of Quatérshift whose harshly utilitarian politics has long been the cause of tension between it and Jackals; and Duncan Connor, rescued after the Army of Shadows' first dramatic attack on Jackals. Assistance comes from the King of the Steammen in the form of a sentient – and short-tempered – rocketship, Lord Starhome.
As I approached the end of the 450-odd pages, I wondered how on earth Hunt was going to resolve matters in so little time, and recalled similar sensations from the two previous books. Were we going to be left with a cliff-hanger this time, I wondered, and would anyone survive? After three books I have some firm favourites among the regular characters, and would hate to lose any of them. But I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m not even going to tell you who they are, let alone whether they survive. I will say, though, since it’s clear to anyone who looks up Hunt’s books, that there is another in the series already published, and it’s going to be high on my TBR pile, because there is something very beguiling about the world he has created. It’s frequently harsh and cruel, even in the relatively peaceable Jackals, but it’s full of people you can care about. They are best read in order, by the way: worldbuilding of this complexity needs quite a bit of explanation, but in the later books Hunt keeps it to a minimum and new readers might find themselves adrift. Tom Holt describes Hunt as Philip Pullman on benzedrine; I thought more Jules Verne on acid, myself, though I continue to detect influences. I’ve already suggested Sterling, Gibson and Miéville. Here are elements of Dune alongside a bit of Star Wars and Michael Moorcock, all woven together to make something new and original. Such riches!