Monday, December 27, 2010

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt

This is insanely overdue. Understaffed Workplace and Sick Family Members and Visits to the Beautiful City of Cambridge and Christmas Shopping and Best Friend Catch-Up Drinking Binges and New WoW Expansions and Two-Year-Olds-With-A-Lot-Of-Will and Five-Inches-Of-Snow have transpired to make this a very very late review. I finished this book before my birthday, which was 22nd November. I'm sure you found a way to fill the gaping void with which you were left in my absence, and I'm proud of you. Moving away from this apology which had more in the way of explanation than apology, we will get to a review.

I generally do not go into bookshops with a "thing" in mind. Unless I'm looking for a specific title, I go into bookshops to browse and see what grabs me by the eyes and refuses to let go. In this instance, however, I wanted fantasy steam-punk, because I just did. I fear I may not have gotten as far away from Spring Heeled Jack as I'd like, or maybe Frankenstein sent me fleeing back to less "omgthismightactuallyhappen" territory, or maybe the obscene amount of points on my Waterstones card left me seeking productive retail. Whatever the reason, I had a shopping list in my head, which made life difficult for about an hour and a fifteen minutes while I looked for a cover that told me "This is What You're Looking For". I finally fell upon The Kingdom Beyond the Waves because it is turquoise, which is my favourite colour, and there is a tiny deep sea diver on the cover. This is very important. I will not have you judging my methods. I may also have been sick of looking and it may have met my every requirement, these are not as important as the tiny deep sea diver. Nothing is that important.

Look at how tiny!

  Here is the blurb:

A thrilling yarn of perilous quests, dastardly deeds and deadly intrigue...

Professor Amelia Harsh is obsessed with finding the lost civilization of Camlantis, a legendary perfect society. So when she returns from her latest archeological misadventure and finds that the university council has stripped her of her position in retaliation for her heretical research, she accepts an offer of patronage from the unconventional but incredibly wealthy Abraham Quest.

Quest believes he knows where the ruins of Camlantis lie, and he will pay Amelia handsomely to verify their existence. But as she travels deep into the dark heart of the jungle aboard an ancient u-boat crewed by an untrustworthy gang of freed convicts, the expedition is soon under threat not only from the hostile environment, but an unexpected and deadly enemy.  Meanwhile Amelia has no idea that her quest for the perfect society may bring her own world to the brink of destruction...


The story starts with Amelia mid-dig, with Mombiko her "ex-slave" assistant and some not-so-subtle-but-still-very-interesting talk about the "oil hordes" and how they destroyed the eponymous perfect city-state. The oil hordes were brutal, obsessed with the oil they needed for their machines which they needed for domination which they needed for money. It's not delicate, but I got the point and it's an important contrast to the apparently selfless ideals of Camlantis. Then they are attacked by treasure hunters (where there are traps, there's treasure), for reasons that don't seem important to the story as a whole, Mombiko dies, and Amelia is left stranded alone in the desert. She is rescued by a mysterious woman and then fired, it is sad.

Contrary to the impression given by the blurb, the story is told from several points of view, which is important and wonderful, as you see the entirety of the world Hunt has created, and learn many aspects of a very complex story. However, it wasn't until about a third of the way through that I learned Amelia had a kind of super-power. I don't want to be a characters BFF, but it seemed like something that should probably have been mentioned early on in the relationship. I can't decide if I missed it because I read quickly, or if it was meant to be: "Surprise! She isn't just determined and intelligent and a damned good fighter, she has super powers!" I did like it, and it's an asset to an awesome character, it just caught me off guard.

The other characters are also brilliant. The reclusive Cornelius Fortune and his avian ally Septimoth are adorable and loyal and a detective team to rival many others. They, like everybody else, have enough dark secrets and tragic pasts to satisfy even my "but, we keep switching people!" distress. Despite the switching between characters, I feel quite comfortable with each of the people into whose lives we are dropped. They feel established as characters rather than just necessary for the plot. Fortune's  housekeeper, Damson Beeton is surprising and wonderful and one of many references to British culture/history scattered throughout. I forget most of them, but they're there and they're subtle but they made me smile.

Mrs. Beeton, our housekeeper's namesake. Via. Wikipedia
 There are moral messages and dire warnings galore, which is I think why I found talk of the Oil Horde so interesting. Jackals (for that is Amelia's country) is clearly set on a far distant earth, and the message is not dissimilar to that of Spring Heeled Jack. This being primarily caution and "Just because you can it doesn't mean you should." and  "Ambition can go too far." and "You'd probably be better off if you'd just stayed at home." and "Don't mess with Amelia." Ok, perhaps some of those are my own constructions, but the consequences of advanced technology and vast wealth and insane dogma are writ large for all to see. Abraham Quest, who is a complex character and perhaps one of my favourites, is the clearest embodiment of this need for caution. He is brilliant and ambitious but with no notion of consequence or moderation. His ultimate aim and the name he shares with THE Abraham was a nifty little parallel, I thought. In terms of steam-punk-as-far-future-back-to-basics, the hints of wrecked super advanced technology, for example the bio-machinery left to go feral were terrifying and wonderful.

There's much I haven't touched on. Partly because the finer details, the ones that really make the book, are lost in the time since I read it. The things that I really loved and the things that bothered me have stuck around. The extreme emphasis on the FEMALE bodyguards and the FEMALE warriors was nice, it's satisfying to not have purely decorative female characters and I appreciate it. However it felt heavy handed to the point where it almost had the opposite effect. The religion of Jackals is also intriguing, the deliberate insertion of the phrase "oh god!" or similar with the Jackelian equivalent of "thank circle!" etc felt a little bit forced, but once the "religion" was explained, I felt compelled to forgive all. I loved the Steammen, the robot people, and a bajillion other things. The sparse details included in this blog are also an unfortunate side effect of my abhorrence of spoilers, so you'll just have to see for yourself.

The main thing I didn't like was the gasp!shock!surprise! fact that our plucky archaeologist is actually a special snowflake with a background that JUST SO HAPPENS to make about a third of the book possible. It was a teensy bit deus ex machina-ish, but I think the book gets away with it. Just. There is also a giant dinosaur called a Killasaurus Max (or similar), and that just rubbed me the wrong way. It is a genuinely frightening section of the book, so I'll let that go too I think. The publishers may sleep easy, because my opinions will affect the career of an established and very successful author. Obviously.

I hadn't heard of Stephen Hunt before now, although a brief google search will tell anybody that he's actually written tons and tons. I plan to read the other two set in this universe, and may or may not check out his 'flintlock fantasy' stuff, as Temeraire left me luke-warm. We shall see.

(Note from the Future! I got Rise of the Iron Moon from the boy-thing for Christmas!)

Let's see the cover reviews!

'Compulsive reading.' -The Guardian

Well, yes. I was compelled to continue! That's really the only reason anybody would even finish anything, but this was a fair bitmore compulsifying than other things.

'More than a dash of Jules entertaining and imaginative journey unto the unknown.' -Death Ray

Jules Verne! Yes. This is a thing that this book is like. I was both entertained and using my imagination all the while!! It's definitely an authentic adventure story, epic and self-mocking in turns. I imagine if Amelia and Indie ever got together for a dig, it'd be spectacular.

I loved this book, and it was one of those wonderful genuine experiences of highly concentrated escapism. Much love. 4 Mell-Heads. One was bitten off by a Killasaurus Max, then I forgot about it.