I have a List of Trusted Authors.
By trusted, I mean I will read pretty much anything they publish without reading research or reviews. It’s a short list. In fact, right now only Steven Erikson and Jim Butcher occupy it. George RR Martin was once on it, but he fell off for various reasons. Brandon Sanderson is working his way onto it, but other than that it’s short.
But, like I said, Jim Butcher is on it. Mainly because of my ubiqutous love of The Dresden Files, despite that awful TV adaptation some years back. Jim earned his way there through numerous entries in that sublime series that left me laughing, frowning, cheering, and throwing my kindle against the wall (very lightly... Kindles are not as durable as books, it turns out). The Dresden Files led me to the Codex Alera, which took a while to get going but wound up to be a solid read. A few more Dresden books later and I was stalking the forums at his website, craving my next fix.
Turns out, it came in the form of Steampunk. I sighed in dismay when that nugget of knowledge settled in my mind.
Oh, Steampunk. I never really liked it. To me it simply consisted of weirdness aplenty, settings askew, and wardrobes of randomness. The only presentations I ever witnessed were a cross between the strangest anime ever and a fever dream of The Last Unicorn. It just always seemed weird, and not in the fun way.
I tiptoed around The Aeronaught’s Windlass. I tried to pretend it was a codename for another project, or maybe just a one-off experiment by a beloved author that would hopefully not keep him from writing about Harry Dresden for too much longer. When I took some time off before Christmas last year, I finally decided that, as a Trusted Author, this thing deserved my attention. So I bought the book, as well as the audiobook (I was driving a lot) so that I could just power through this thing and get back to waiting on the next entry in my favored series.
Oh boy. I could not have been more happily surprised.
If you, like me, fear Steampunk as being just a *bit* too weird, then rejoice! This book is for you.
If I had to sum up this book in 3 sentences, here’s what I’d say:
In this new setting, Butcher is forced to grow as an author and in many ways he meets that challenge. However, his typical formula of setting up years/decades/centuries of backstory for a brief 1-2 days worth of action remains the biggest flaw in his story structure. Regardless, this is a book full of heart, bravery, defiance, joy, and love and I will read every single entry in this series.
Can I be done with the 3 sentences thing now? Thank you.
Things I loved:
There are talking, sentient cats and I don’t understand why I loved them so much but I did. I grinned reading or listening to every single Rowl chapter. He was so.... competent. His last scene with Bridget made me tear up a bit, even as I smiled at his contemplation of suicide over his leg cast.
The crystal technology is surprisingly well explained. My girlfriend asked what the book was about and I launched into an explanation about the difference between trim/lift crystals, power crystals, and weapon crystals.
Bridget Tagwynn. Oh, Bridget. Marry me. Throw me over your shoulder like a slab of vat meat and carry me to your Habble. Her defiance and pride were noble, especially as a “fish out of water” character. I half expected the book to end with her trouncing that noble in the duel she was supposed to fight before the attack, but I guess that got lost in the shuffle.
Captain Grimm: badass, exiled-yet-loyal mercenary/pirate captain with a heart of gold, you could not be a more lovely amalgamation of fantastic masculine stereotypes. I’m not the cosplaying type, but if I was, he would be my first non-Jedi, non-Starfleet, non-Lord of the Rings pick.
The Etherealists... essentially the wizards of this universe. These beautifully broken people perform feats that amaze all those around them, but no one envies them. The power that they wield brings a very high cost, and I pitied each lovely one, even the bad one.
The Airship-to-Airship Combat. Hot damn. I had the best time imagining the final battle/chase/battle with the newly upgraded AMS Predator. Some of it literally blew my mind... imagining 3 giant airships sailing out of the sun to reinforce Predator... picturing Predator effortlessly out-maneuver Mistshark after that BS Mistshark pulled at the Habble Landing Shipyards... The final maneuver where Predator makes a fatal gut-shot to Itasca... God, it was just freaking awesome.
Commodore Bayard. I liked that guy.
The audiobook was superbly voiced. The voice actor imbued cat, etherealist, and human alike with unique and fitting tones. This was probably the best audiobook performance I’ve ever heard.
Overall, the tone of the writing is very different from Butcher’s prior works. You can tell he’s gotten into the heads of these mannered-yet-fierce, British, quirky folks and he voices them accordingly.
Things I didn’t love:
As I previously mentioned, Butcher has a hard time writing a book that takes place over more than 2-3 days. There is a LOT going on in Spire Albion... so much so that a book could have easily covered a week, a month, or even half a year without being bloated. The fact that Gwen and Bridget are recruits in the Spireguard for, like, a day before becoming central figures in an inter-spire conflict stretched credibility. There could’ve at least been a training montage. Or a “Six months later...”
The various mechanical parts of the of the airships were a bit confusing. I get that it’s like a sea ship, with a mast and sails. But once he starts talking about webs and shrouds it got a little murky. Plus I had a hard time figuring out the scale of these things. Just how big was the Predator? It’s described as small and sleek, but it also holds a pretty sizeable crew for some pretty long voyages. How many decks? How long? How much cargo does it hold? This is nitpicky, but when the sizes and components of the ships became critical in the final chapters, the ambiguity of how these things actually looked made it hard to picture them.
Little worldbuilding issues: The cuisine? Where do clothes come from? Paper? Religion? (Other than cursing with “God In Heaven!” and generic Buddhism). It’s a bit light on everything but the formal history, the fashion and the conflict, but I suppose there’s plenty of both of those to make up for it. I did find myself craving dumplings....
Gwendolyn Lancaster. I get that she was supposed to be annoying, and boy, did Butcher ever write that character trait well. I honestly couldn’t stand her until she found herself covered in grease in the Predator’s engine room. I liked her interaction with Journeyman and enjoyed seeing her concepts of crystal function challenged by a field-tested veteran.
But the cats were awesome. Every goddamn one of them.
Do not fuck with Rowl if you value your eyes.
All in all, there’s a clear set up for much larger series here. The Enemy on the surface, the War between the Spires, and the journeys of Gwen, Bridget, Grimm, Folly and Rowl are clearly just beginning. Can’t. Wait.
Image credits: The Cinder Spires Wiki.