Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass
I’m kind of a late-comer to the whole Jim Butcher Bandwagon. I tried his first book of the Codex Alera series and wasn’t all that impressed. A few years later I read STORM FRONT and thought it was decent, but nothing to crow about. Perhaps preemptive, yes, but I think I’ve mentioned my tolerance level for good story somewhere. Then fairly recently, I knocked out books two and three of the Dresden series because people would just not shut up about them… and I haven’t been able to get enough of that series ever since; cramming another book in whenever I can. I’m about halfway to caught up with it right now. I’ve been telling myself for more than a few months now that I needed to pick up this new series, because seriously how could it not be awesome? So,when I found it on audio book laying around at my local library, I checked to be sure we hadn’t already reviewed it and then snatched it up. Really glad that I did.
THE AERONAUT’S WINDLASS (Amazon) is the first of a planned nine-book series of fantasy novels by renowned author Jim Butcher that has been promoted as steampunk, which is somewhat interesting given the fact that that I don’t remember a single reference to steam in the whole book. I may have missed it. I’d probably peg it as electro-punk, as the technology of the world runs on electricity, but steampunk is more the well-known buzzword. So.
Worldbuilding was pretty simplistic in this first novel. It reads like a post-apocalyptic Earth-type world. Something has gone wrong across the entire surface of the planet, and it’s completely covered in a thick, heavy mist that is very deep and hides lots of nasties that live on the surface. Rising up through the mist stand the Spires. They are the locations of the major populations of the planet so far. Each of them is self-contained, much like a country, with a ruling class and several different levels wherein various portions of the economy and population reside. Air ships fly through the skies like their oceanic counterparts might in a non-fantastical version of this world.
A large majority of this story revolves around Spire Albion and the opening gambit of Spire Aurora’s declaration of war against them. The character list is pretty big for a first book: six. Of those, five belong to Spire Albion and one to Spire Aurora.
Captain Grimm is the captain of his own airship, and acts somewhat like a pirate against other unfriendly airships. Gwendolyn is the daughter of a high house that makes the power crystals which power the mighty airships. She has joined what comprises the military, and meets up with Bridgette, who is a daughter of a fallen house that now makes vat-meat. Yummy. She has a cat though that she can talk to, named Rowl, who is also a main character. It’s okay though, because the cat doesn’t talk. Phew! No talking cats. (As an aside, if you get the chance to listen to this audio book, the voice of Rowl is brilliantly done.) Along the way, they meet Folly and her master, Ferus, who are Etherealists and can control the Ether, which is responsible for lots of the world’s technology and the movement of the airships through the skies. Through Folly, we get a look into both the magic system of the world and the psychological and mental damage that its use imposes on its users. Pretty cool stuff.
On the whole, the characters are handled pretty well. I really enjoyed Captain Grimm and Folly. The newness of the airships, how they’re handled, and the camaraderie of the crew and their captain was very well-done. Also the fragile mental state and blossoming power that Folly handles is loads of fun. The back-and-forth between Bridgette and Rowl is great. Bridgette grows and learns quite a bit, and Rowl plays a prominent role in defending against the attacks of Spire Aurora. I liked Gwendolyn a lot more later-on in the book when her expertise, and its application to the story, becomes much more apparent. The player from Spire Aurora, Major Reynaldo Espira, was easily the weakest character. He was more of a viewport for the “bad guys”, and never really struck me as very interesting at all. Though, the things he sees are. So. Perhaps that’ll play out more in future books. I really don’t have much difficulty in giving Butcher the benefit of the doubt when in comes to characters and telling a great story. The simple fact that he could have five different POV characters in the same general vicinity and make the story consistently entertaining, interesting, and distinctive was very impressive, and that says loads about his skills as a storyteller, in my book.
Aside from the great characters and detailed setup, the pacing of this book just grabs you and doesn’t let go, racing from one situation to the next. Airship battles and fight scenes were really great; detailed and clear, moving and impactful. The magic system, once we get to see it and its use is pretty cool. We don’t get any kind of layout, but the pieces that we do see make a lot of sense when viewed in the larger perspective of the world and how it works.
The counterpoint of this pacing and detail on character and action is that little time was spent in surrounding detail. There’s on-ship and off-ship that was pretty distinctive, but aside from that it was mostly spirestone tunnels or streets, and wooden ships in the skies. I also didn’t fully understand the apparent disregard of cats by the population at large, when, number one, they can carry on intelligent conversations, and number two, there are strong aspects of feline structure in some of the powerful warriors of Spire Albion. Still, the lack of surrounding detail and obvious lack of historical information was easily the weakest portion of this book; however, I fully expect that Butcher will weave these elements into future books with his typical aplomb.
A great start to another great fantasy series, and it sounds like it’s been planned out well with eight more books to go. Can’t wait to read the future of this one.
- Recommended Age: 15+
- Language: Quite mild -- pretty traditional fantasy fare
- Violence: Gets pretty monster-gory and violent in parts
- Sex: No time for it