What do you get when you combine satire, comedy, steampunk-sci-fi and a grouchy old steamboat captain?
Why the Kingdom of Jackals, author Stephen Hunt’s crazy, tongue-in-cheek romp through adventure, human nature and Science! The Kingdom is a far cry from many steampunk stories in the themes it chooses to look at. While many steampunk stories are obsessed with Progress or Science!, Jackelian stories are a different beast. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of steam powered robots, airships, scientific societies and more to tickle your neo-Victorian sensibilities, but they’re not the focus in Jackals. Rather, Hunt turns these things into subtle (or not so subtle) metaphors for modern culture.
Some struggles in human history are timeless, and by setting them in a place that never existed he manages to both show us the extreme forms of some historical and sociological themes and let us enjoy watching fun, engaging characters deal with them using gratuitous quantities of coal powered, pressure gauge studded, improbable technologies.
Jackals is full of weird but entertaining ideas. It’s the Republic with a King. The state religion is the Circlist Church, which worships reason and math and views the word “faith” as blasphemy. Groundquakes periodically send huge sections of the ground floating into the air unless worldsingers can calm the pressure in the tectonic plates. And that’s just day to day living, before the evil cults, chosen wielders of ancient, thinking weapons, lost civilizations, alien invasions and displaced nobility is taken into account.
As I said last Friday, Hunt makes excellent use of his characters in these novels. There’s nothing exactly like a main character in the series. Although some characters, such as Molly Templar and Jethro Daunt, are the focus of more than one book, the closest thing to a central character is actually Commodore Jared Black, the only character to make an appearance in all six novels to date. While never a central character in any of the stories he manages to be consistently among the most surprising, engaging, human and personable. Among the wild tales of aspiring authors, outlaws, famous detectives and belittled archaeologists, Jared manages to be the voice of the Everyman – and that while harboring some impressive secrets for himself.
Steampunk is many things to many people. It is commentary on the Victorian era, a time of unprecedented progress and struggle. It is a reflection on the relationship between knowledge, reason and the human soul. And it is a great excuse for huge quantities of gratuitous cogs, gears and pressure dials. If you want all that, with a healthy dose of thought provoking ideas for today, then the Kingdom of Jackals might be a place to think amount visiting…