How Not to Write a Novel

This is my second attempt at reading Stephen Hunt’s Court of the Air, and it’s not going very well so far.

tl;dr —

Two disjoint MCs with seemingly unrelated stories
Unknown ages of said MCs
Poor story structure
Lack of emotion in said MCs
Unbelievable character reactions to serious events
Unoriginal names

The book has two protagonists (named Oliver and Molly). They are both orphans running for their lives from enemies with unknown intents, and both are more than they seem. Yet as far as a third into they book, they’d not met, didn’t know of each other, nor had there been any foreshadowing of their eventual meeting. Assuming there is one. If there isn’t, then why put both their stories in one book?

The characters are difficult to connect with. Hunt only hints at their ages. For Oliver we know:

  • His former schoolmates (he’s not allowed to go to school anymore) are done with their schooling in three months, and
  • His uncles housemaid has known him for 11 years, or since he was a “pup.”

The reader is not equipped to draw any conclusions on when children in this fictional society finish school. In addition, “pup” is far too vague to infer any age reference at all. We know Oliver is at least 11 years old.

As for Molly, we know:

  • She comes of age and can leave her orphanage in a year, and
  • From age 12 to 13, she worked as a “vent girl” cleaning out vents.

Again, we don’t know what age children are allowed to leave their orphanages in this society, so all we know is that she is at least 13 years of age. How telling.

Because of this, it’s difficult to get a feel for the characters’ personalities. Sometimes I can believe Oliver is only 11 years old, but other times he acts far older, especially in the calm way he reacts to certain situations. Similarly, Molly will occasionally display the curiosity of a 14-year-old girl, but other times has the logical, strategic mind of someone a few years older.

The book is oddly structured as well. At 600 pages, the First Plot Point should be around pages 120-150, or at about the 20-25th percentile. Unless I’m mistaken, the FPP for Oliver’s story is Chapter Four, which ends on page 48, and the FPP for Molly takes place in the following chapter. The reason these aren’t hooks is because the MCs’ motivations change drastically.


  • Initial intent: mope about as his uncle’s errand boy
  • Post-Ch4 intent: flee from the city with convicted criminal Harry Staves


  • Initial intent: suffer through her last year in the orphanage, now as an apprenticed brothel girl
  • Post-Ch5 intent: flee into the outlaw city to escape the ‘topper’ who was hired to kill her

According to this, chapters 4 and 5 must be the plot points for the two main characters’ stories, but at the 8th percentile.

The lack of emotion is another notable flaw. A good example of this is when Redrust, steamman (steampunk robot) leader, asks Molly to divine a message from cogs in oil, something only trained steammen should be able to do. Here’s what happens:

She knelt to look. The smell of the dark oil made Molly dizzy. ‘History. I see history, revolving, turning back into itself.’

Redrust seemed pleased with the answer. ‘I have lived many years. Seen generations of softbodies quicken past on your own wheel, filled with hurry and the hasty ambitions of your fastblood kind — but I have never seen one able to read the cogs.’

‘Remarkable,’ agreed Slowcogs.

Firstly, she’s looking at oil. I’m not entirely surprised she could see something “revolving” and “turning back into itself.” Not to mention her response is incredibly vague and hardly shows any sort of divination prowess. What on Earth does ‘history’ even look like? What’s so remarkable about her statement?

Secondly, Molly has nothing to say, think, or feel about any of it. Granted, she is there because she’s running from two men who want to kill her, but you’d think she’d have something to say. In fact, she doesn’t even show fear or apprehension about her situation. Not even on the long and uneventful trip that follows does she have a single thought to share about anything.

It’s as if events happen at these characters, instead of to them. Oliver hardly even frets when his uncle and housemaid are murdered. Then again, he did mention beforehand that he was more worried about his own well being than his uncles. So perhaps he’s just a sociopath.

The characters are contradictory as well. After a massive walk through some underground tunnels, the narration explains how “Molly’s legs ached after the effort of tackling the stairs, her calves tight and cramped.” The two subsequent paragraphs describe the gorgeous place they had just entered. What follows is one line from Molly admiring the beauty of the place, an 8-line scientific explanation from her companion as to why it’s so bright underground, then a simple “Shall we press on now?” from Molly.

Wait, what? Not only does she have nothing to say in response to the explanation, but she wants to continue despite A) knowing this is where they planned to stop, B) her legs being incredibly tired, and C) spending a whole 30 seconds admiring the area. I’m not sure if this is poor writing or Molly’s just being a jerk and wanting her companion to stfu, which would be suiting for a teenager if it was a consistent trait with her. Which it isn’t, for the record.

Hunt also recycles names (Oliver Twist anyone?). There are Communityists in his novel (Communists) who refer to each other a “compatriot” (comrade). There are also Carlists (Marxists/Carl Marx) and forgotten gods such as Wildcaotyl. Personally I think names such as Khemchiuhtlicue and Scorehueteotl should be illegal. ‘Cause really, wth???

That’s not even mentioning my irritation with Hunt for using single quotes instead of double for dialogue. That leads to some seriously confusing parts where an appropriate use of a single quote makes it seem like the dialogue has ended, when it actually hasn’t.

As of my train ride into work this morning, I’m on page 93, chapter seven, and have met a “grasper,” which was far as I can tell is some sort of humanoid lifeform. I’ll keep reading in hopes the characters become real people when the plot kicks in, but I don’t have high expectations so far.


About Squishy

Writer, dancer, gamer, and admirer of all that is beautiful.

Posted on August 10, 2011, in Ishy Writes! and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wow, sounds absolutely painful! You’re a better person than I would be. Not only have you given it a second chance but now you press on despite the shortcomings. I hope the plot and characters eventually pay off.

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