Book Review: Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass came out last October, along with a couple of other new releases that I wanted to check out … but didn’t, seeing as of how I was busy reading horror novels of dubious quality as part of a theme month. Go fig. Anyway, I stumbled across a copy at the local library, so I figured I’d finally give it a go. About time I get back to nerdy sci-fi books, right?

To be honest, I still haven’t really gotten over the fact that the ending to Skin Game, the last Dresden Files novel, was straight up bullshit. (Seriously, Butters is an awful character now). So, with this in mind, I went into The Aeronaut’s Windlass somewhat warily. I was pleasantly surprised by the read– if not exactly blown away, either. More on that in a bit.

The Aereonaut’s Windlass is the first in Butcher’s “Cinder Spires” series– though it seems a bit premature to call it a series when there’s only the one book out so far. According to Butcher’s website, he’s gonna start working on the next one after the next Dresden novel, however, so there ya go.

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Funnily enough, while the covers to the Dresden Files books consistently give him a hat (which he doesn’t wear in the novels), the cover to this book deprives the captain of his proper captain’s hat (which he does wear). I guess artists just can’t get anything right.

You can tell The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a steampunk book ’cause that dude on the cover is wearing goggles. Also, if you look closely at the bottom, there’s even extraneous gears for no apparent reason, just in case the goggles weren’t enough for you. Though honestly, while the book was marketed and written as steampunk, The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a jumbled grab-bag of various sci-fi and fantasy tropes, all mixed together and then given a brass (well, copper, honestly) coating as needed.

In contrast to the first-person perspective of the Dresden Files, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has an ensemble cast. They’re all out of fantasy-trope central casting: a naïve and somewhat sheltered farmgirl, the dashing half-human warrior she falls in love with, a huffy and rebellious young noblewoman, the mysterious and arrogant prince of a hidden people, an order of not-Shaolin kung-fu monks, a mad wizard, and his slightly-less-mad apprentice (who naturally has prophetic visions of doooooom). Thankfully, Butcher manages to put a unique enough spin on most of the cast that they remain pretty interesting.

For example, Rowl, the mysterious prince guy? He’s a cat. Not ‘a guy who turns into a cat’ but rather ‘a talking cat.’ Butcher’s own cat-ownership (or cat-owned-ness) definitely comes through whenever Rowl shows up. Bridget, the farmgirl (who also happens to be Rowl’s human) turned out to be my favorite character, even though I kind of wish she had more opportunity to do cool stuff.

The weakest link in the cast of characters is Captain Grimm. He’s the guy on the cover. He’s your standard dashing airship pirate. And that’s it. Which … honestly makes him kind of boring. He just comes off as terribly generic– though I suppose that says something about the steampunk genre that it’s established enough that ‘airship pirate’ can be its own character archetype. While Butcher puts an interesting spin on most of the other central characters, Grimm just is sort of … exactly what he looks like. Meh.

Where the cast of the book is very much out of the Standard Fantasy Novel, the setting is a bit more sci-fi. Not quite in the ‘rayguns’ sense, even though the primary ranged weapon of most characters is a crystal-powered, Iron Man-like laser gauntlet.

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PEW! PEW! PEW!

See, for … various reasons that aren’t really explained, pretty much all of humanity lives in the Spires: miles-high megastructures that were built for humanity ages ago, due to the inexplicably inhospitable nature of the surface world. (On a side note, I keep noticing this ‘mysterious gods made the setting this weird!’ to be a trope that’s popping up more and more these days. See: The Dinosaur Lords, Attack on Titan, etc).

Each Spire is essentially a country in and to itself, and so they trade and fight with each other through the use of the obligatory steampunk airships. Honestly, you could substitute ‘spires’ for ‘space stations,’ and ‘airships’ for ‘rockets,’ and you’ve got yourself a space opera. Heck, the airships even have crystalline power cores, and use shields (er, ‘shrouds,’ as they’re called) to protect themselves from getting blasted by other ships’ crystal-lasers. Various kinds of magic crystal seem to power pretty much everything in the Cinder Spires books. Butcher doesn’t go too deeply into the exact mechanics of how these magic crystals work, unlike some other authors I could name (looking at you, Sanderson), but you get the gist of it quickly enough so that things make internal sense.

However, once you get past the crystal part, the rest of the setting doesn’t hold up quite as well. Butcher mentions ‘vatteries’ that can produce everything from the obligatory magic crystals to out and out clone-grown meat, explaining how these enormous megastructure-cities can function. This said, I still found myself wondering where they got resources like, say, metal. Especially since one of the features of the setting is that any steel that isn’t copper-clad (Butcher loves the term copper-clad. You could make a drinking game out of it in this book) magically rusts away in a matter of days. But that’s me just being nitpicky, honestly.

In any case, the plot itself of The Aeronaut’s Windlass is almost incidental. It basically boils down to: “The King sends his ragtag bunch of agents off to foil an evil plot. Also there’s an evil sorceress and some bug monsters and vague foreshadowing of some dark gods who will try to kill the world in a couple of books.” This isn’t to say it’s BAD, mind you, but it never really floored me, either.

To sum it all up, The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a fun novel. You can tell that Butcher had a great time writing it, pulling in pretty much anything he could think of and wedging it in. There are a couple of passages in particular that serve as little hints into Butcher’s worldview: anything with cats, for example, or one little exchange in which two characters talk about a library having a unique soul of its own.

So yeah. If you’re in the mood for a bit of fluffy, swashbuckling adventure, you could do worse than The Aeronaut’s Windlass. Butcher’s strengths at snappy dialogue and rollicking action certainly shine through. Then again, so does Butcher’s weakness for sidelining female characters at times, but nothing so book-throwingly frustrating as the end of Skin Game.

Oh, and it looks like The Aeronaut’s Windlass got nominated for a Hugo, but I honestly wouldn’t say it’s on that level, especially compared to the work of writers like Ann Leckie or Neil Stephenson. But that’s another matter entirely, and I don’t feel like delving into puppy nonsense again.

(Even if I’m pulling, just a little bit, for the esteemed Dr. Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion. But that’s another blog post entirely).

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