Jack Cloudie by Stephen Hunt
LET BATTLE COMMENCE…
Thanks to his father’s gambling debts, young Jack Keats finds himself on the streets trying to graft enough coin to keep him and his two younger brothers fed.
When a daring bank robbery goes awry, Jack narrowly escapes the scaffold on to be pressed into the Royal Aerostatical Navy. Assigned to the most useless airship in the fleet, serving under a captain who’s is most probably mad, Jack seems to be bound for almost certain death in the far-away deserts of Cassarabia.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Omar ibn Barir, the slave of a rich merchant lord, is unexpectedly freed and enters into the service of the Caliph’s military forces – just as war is brewing.
Two very similar young men prepare to face each other across senseless field of war. But is Omar the enemy, or is Jack’s true nemesis the sickness at the heart of the Caliph’s court? If Jack and his shipmates can discover what Cassarabia’s aggressive new regime is trying to conceal, he might survive the most horrific of wars and clear his family’s name. If not…
I have to admit that prior to picking up Jack Cloudie I hadn’t read any of Stephen Hunt’s previous novels. I’d heard his name mentioned around the Internet but I had never considered actively seeking out any of his work. What changed then? Why am I reviewing the fifth book in an ongoing series? Shortly after my last birthday at the end of July I was in my local bookshop and I spotted the cover for the book. A Victorian gentleman dressed to the nines with a top hat and cane. In the background, airships float in the evening sky. I have to admit I was intrigued and decided, on the strength of this cover, I’d give the book a go.
I am so glad I went with my gut and took a chance on this. Hunt’s writing has a splendidly evocative feel about. I was quickly drawn in to the tale of escalating conflict between two warring nations on an alternate Earth. Jack Cloudie follows the forces of The Kingdom of the Jackals, think a steam-powered Victorian-era British Empire, in their war with the Cassarabians, an empire in the Middle East who favour biotechnology over the steam engine.
Caught in the middle of various political machinations the reader is introduced to Jack Keats and Omar ibn Barir. The two young men have been forced, due to circumstance, to grow up before their time. Each is trying hard to survive as events spiral out of control all around them. Initially there are two separate narrative strands that alternate, following each of the young men independently, but eventually the two meet as the novel hurtles toward an epic climax where the fate of nations will be decided.
The fantastical elements of this story are where the writing really excels. The Royal Aerostatical Navy airship, The Iron Partridge, is a great setting for Jack’s induction into the military. The term ‘Jack Cloudie’ is the nickname that refers to those that serve on the ship. Each of characters Keats comes into contact with is vividly realised. A personal favourite for me was John Oldcastle, who I believe appeared under a different guise in a number of previous novels.
Meanwhile Omar is introduced to the biologicks (bio-engineered creatures) created by the Cassarabians priesthood. Due to a lack of the resources the Jackals use the Cassarabians have been forced to develop their technology in a completely different way. The different biologick variants have been designed to do everything. They form the bodyguard for the Eternal Caliph, act as beasts of burden, even draw salt from sea water.
Jack Cloudie is real rollercoaster of a novel. Loads of fast paced action sprinkled with intelligent characterisation and memorable events. Stephen Hunt has created a fully realized world featuring some truly inventive ideas. The good news is that there are another four novels prior to Jack Cloudie set in the same shared universe that I can look forward to reading. The great news is that there is another book due for release in the future. This is a splendid, self-contained tale that was a delight to read.