The Aeronaut's Windlass
by: Jim Butcher
Series: The Cinder Spires #1
Jim Butcher is a giant in modern fantasy, with nearly everything he publishes now hitting the New York Times’ Bestseller lists. He’s best known for his urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files, which has also become the genre defining series that every UF aficionado must read. In between Dresden Files publications, Butcher likes to branch out into other genres. With the completion of his epic fantasy series The Codex Alera, it was time for something new. Enter The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book in a steampunk series The Cinder Spires.
Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace. Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion—to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory. And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake…
Before I get started, I’d like to offer a bit of clarification on the genre I’ve assigned this book. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is typically listed as Steampunk, and I’ve continued with that classification. However, The Aeronaut’s Windlass is missing a key piece of the Steampunk genre: steam. Technology runs on a form of electricity based on manipulation of crystals, and the world appears to be in a sort of post-apocalyptic state, so the reader is unsure where some of this advanced tech came from, why certain pieces are advanced while others are so basic. In addition, there is a magic system at work for a few characters. The key for labelling this Steampunk and not anything else is that there is a decidedly overarching Neo-Victorianism about the whole book, with key genre tropes of flying ships, a British-esque society, and, of course, goggles. It also has more elements in the Steampunk category than in any other of the subgenres we use on the site. So if you’re looking for a classic battle-of-the-boilers and zeppelins, this likely isn’t going to be your cup of tea. I will say that I personally greatly enjoyed the expansion of the genre out of the rather narrow focus Steampunk can have, and that Butcher wrote it in a way that still made this feel like Steampunk, and not a mislabeled Dieselpunk or something that rightly falls between the two.
Moving on, the other weakness of this book, which cannot be glossed over, lies in its characterizations. Butcher is clearly going for an epic tale here, though it hasn’t been announced how long of a series The Cinder Spires will be. As such, he’s using multiple point of view characters, and a relatively large group of main characters I expect to see in future installments. Captain Grimm from the publisher blurb is a point of view character, but he’s not usually the main one. Instead, Gwendolyn Lancaster and Bridget Tagwynn split most of the ‘ground’ action, with Rowl the cat making occasional interjections. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is 630 pages, so this sort of shuffling around shouldn’t affect anything and is fairly standard in longer fantasy works. However, we don’t get a lot of personal information flowing out of the point of view characters, with the occasional exception of Bridget. So we get some information about Grimm, like he got drummed out of the Fleet (aka, armed forces) for yet unrevealed political reasons, he loves his merchant class ship, he’s got a crack crew for privateering… but what does he do with that crew? Does he only earn money privateering? Who was he when he joined the Fleet? What is it about Bridget and Gwen, both members of the aristocracy but at opposite ends of it, that makes them friends with things in common? When the point of view characters are this two dimensional, and in the case of Grimm highly stereotypical, we can’t have much hope for the large host of secondary characters in our adventure party. Even worse is the characterization of the antagonist. I still have no idea what her motives are, or the motives of the person she’s working for. You can see that this book did get a 4 star rating on characterization… but it was by the skin of its teeth (1 point).
This reliance on trope, on formula, and on reader supplied assumptions reaches into the setting to a certain extent, as well. We get minute hints of the history of Spire Albion, and why the Spires were made, but no real clue as to how the Spire’s really affect human society. We have mutant humans running around. How? Why? What is their place in society? The magic users get a little more depth added to them in worldbuilding, but that mostly functions as a way to explain what they can do and what the cost of using magic is; in other words, Butcher gives us just enough information to fully build his magic system. If you’re a reader who likes knowing all the hows and the whys and the history of a world, you’ll have to outright ignore large chunks of gaping holes and hope Butcher gets back to them in a later book. On the up side, I liked his original world of Spire Albion, how he used flying ships (but not zeppelins!), his original technology, and even just some of his descriptions of the physical appearances of these things. Most importantly, the physical pieces influenced the plot in a major way, so that even if there were pieces of worldbuilding missing, action didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Where this book does succeed is in the faced paced action-based adventure nature of its plot. We’ve got fight scenes that rely on several different weapons, settings, and fighting styles from unarmed hand to hand, creepy monsters, to ship to ship air battles. Windlass is far from Butcher’s best work, or even some of the best Steampunk out there, but it is fun on so many levels that it's not terribly hard to overlook some of its downfalls. At least long enough to read the second book when it comes out sometime later this year.