Currently on its sixth book, entitled From the Deep of the Dark, the Jackelian series by Stephen Hunt has become my standard of comparison for so-called “steampunk” fantasy. The series takes place in an alternate universe, or possibly very distant future, in which mankind is in a stage of advanced steam-powered technology. In this world, the Kingdom of Jackals, the main setting, very closely resembles Victorian England. In addition to Jackals there is also a rich society of steam-powered robots called the steammen knights with their very own robot gods, a race of bird-like men called Lashlites, fish creatures called Gillnecks, and many others who inhabit the world of magic and steam-powered science. A number of recurring characters work their way into your heart, such as Jethro Black, an old submarine captain with an adventurous past, and Boxiron, a steamman knight whose head has been transplanted onto a common man-made machine. Each book, however, starts its own adventure and introduces many new players to the intrigue of Jackelian politics and foreign adventures.
The most recent book deals with the theft of an ancient scepter that belonged to the Kingdom of Jackals’ nobility. In the midst of unrest and possible war, a detective, steamman knight, old submarine captain, hypnotist, and elderly nightwatchman go deep into the ocean in an attempt to discover the magical powers that drive the scepter. The series mimics the writing style of the Victorian “penny dreadfuls” that circulated in our own past. They are classic adventures of outlandish proportion, taking the reader through forbidden jungles and into the depths of the deep blue sea. The characters each have an incredible degree of emotional and psychological depth and personal history due to the masterful world-creation on the part of Hunt. All of this enables the reader to be transported into an engrossing world of clockwork mechanisms and Victorian mystery.
Each time I dive into one of Hunt’s novels I become immersed in the unique language that he has created for the series. Often when I read a work of science fiction or fantasy, I am bogged down by specialized terminology the author has created for his world. Hunt’s novels have plenty of jargon, and yet I feel like the terms are easily intelligible without requiring much explanation. I am also in awe of the fascinating and imaginative cultures Hunt has developed for the books. The Circlist religion that is practiced in much of the Kingdom of Jackals is an atheistic order that believes in reason and the circular nature of life. The religion of the steammen is centered around the god Loa, who rules over the souls of steam-powered beings. There appears a poignant line about belief in From the Deep of the Dark. The aged sea captain Jethro Black is talking to the steamman Boxiron, who considers himself cast out of the steammen religion, and tells him, “We don’t believe in nothing, old steamer. We believe in each other, and we believe in rationality and our own power to make things better. It is always a hard thing to ask a person, to climb the mountain alone with empty hands.” This struck me as a profound statement for the old salt to tell the forsaken, blasphemer of a steamman.
When I compare other steampunk fiction, such as The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger, to Hunt’s Jackelian series I find myself greatly disappointed. Many of the other books in the steampunk genre rely too heavily on the novelty of the concept rather than the exploration of the possibilities within this kind of world. Stephen Hunt has created not only an innovative and engaging world, but a good series, with characters that you will find yourself rooting for and crying over.