Book Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Aeronauts WindlassI’ll admit it up front: I’m a Jim Butcher fan. I’ve read all of the Dresden Files novels (15 so far), and various and sundry related stories, novellas, and graphic novels. Heck, I own the DVD of the (sadly short-lived) Dresden Files TV series. I binge-read the six volumes of the Codex Alera series a few years back. So, I guess you could say there was a decent chance that I’d love The Aeronaut’s Windlass too.

Yup. I did. Loved it a bunch.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the first book in a new series (The Cinder Spires), and it’s a remarkable feat of world-building. The book is set in a world in which mankind lives in huge, multi-storied towers (which are miles high and about two miles in diameter) that function as independent countries. The surface of Earth is dangerous and uninhabitable, covered by mists that conceal all sorts of dangers. Commerce is conducted in the air by fleets of airships that use etheric currents and power crystals to swoop, soar, dive, and attack.

Our loyalty is to Spire Albion (which I assume is more or less England, between the name and all the tea-drinking), and we meet a sprawling cast of characters right from the start. The main hero is Captain Grimm, commander of the AMS Predator, a non-military ship that makes its money from privateering. Grimm has a shadowy past that includes a dishonorable discharge from the Fleet, but from the first instant, it’s clear that he’s brave, noble, and a kick-ass air captain.

In addition to Captain Grimm and the crew of the Predator, we meet Gwen, a military recruit who stems from the very upper crust Lancaster family, which basically holds the monopoly on crystal production; Gwen’s cousin Benedict, who is a genetically-mixed warriorborn human; and Bridget, a large, self-conscious girl who finds an inner core of strength and courage.

And let’s not forget my very favorite character (and I suspect he’d resent anyone but himself being considered the hero of the piece): Rowl of the Silent Paws tribe, kit to Maul, chief of the Silent Paws. Rowl is a cat, and the cats in this book absolutely rock. They’re fierce warriors with an elegant and intricate system of power dynamics, clan politics, and etiquette. They mostly look down on clumsy humans, apart from the few (like Bridget, whom Rowl refers to as Littlemouse) who can speak Cat fluently.

Littlemouse was in danger, doubtless a prisoner, and the humans could not be trusted to handle her rescue with appropriate violence. They might be willing to leave someone alive, and Rowl was not prepared to tolerate incompetence where his personal human was concerned. He had just gotten her properly trained.

The action kicks into high gear when Spire Albion is attacked by a Marine contingent from Spire Aurora (Spain, as far as I can figure). The attack is sudden and devastating, and seems to have a sinister mastermind behind it whose motives are unclear. The good guys seems to be constantly outnumbered and outgunned, and the danger is vivid and terrifying — especially when highly venomous icky things called silkweavers seem to be serving the Aurorans, killing and maiming everything in their path.

Our little band of heroes is aided by a master etherealist, who has strange and inexplicable powers that allow him to see the unseen currents all around him, and his apprentice Folly, who’s another amazing and wonderful character. Folly is odd and off-kilter, but is possessed of incredible skill and instinct and comes to the rescue more than once (or twice, or thrice).

It’s all quite thrilling and absorbing. Jim Butcher does many things well, and he truly excels at writing action sequences. The extended airship battles are breathtaking, with booming cannons and swooping maneuvers, and a brave captain who never waivers in the face of enemy attack. (Okay, maybe I have just a teensy crush on Grimm at this point, but can you blame me?)

As always, Butcher knows just how to mix tense drama and high danger with sparkling, witty dialogue. The scenes narrated by Rowl are, of course, my favorites, but you don’t have to turn many pages in a Butcher book to find some clever wordplay or smart-ass retorts to lighten the mood.

Gwen sighed, and fetched another pair of mugs for the etherealist.

“Lovely,” Ferus said, and gulped some more. “Perceptions of etheric energy change from mind to mind, just as you and Sir Benedict demonstrate with your weapons crystals. And if one changes one’s mind, that also changes the nature of those perceptions. This will allow me to perceive those energies in ways in which I would not normally be able to do so.”

“You’re getting drunk,” Gwen said slowly, “so that you can experience etheric energy differently?”

Ferus held up his mug and said solemnly, “Think of it as goggles for one’s mind, instead of one’s eyes.”

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a BIG book, over 600 pages. That would be huge, in and of itself, but considering this is just the first in a series, reading it feels like a pretty major undertaking. If I didn’t already know and love Jim Butcher’s books, I might be scared off, I suppose. There’s obviously much more yet to come in this series. While the book’s conclusion wraps up the first wave of battle, it’s clear that the war is just getting underway, and there are major questions left unanswered.

I struggled a bit at the beginning to understand the structure of the Spires and some of the fundamentals of the world of this book, but the action and the characters drew me in immediately, and it didn’t really take all that long for the more obscure elements to start to make sense and feel natural. By about the midpoint, I really hated to put the book down. And now that I’ve finished, I can say with certainty that I’m all in. I can’t wait for more of this excellent series, and just wish I could move straight on to the next book, instead of having to wait the year or two it’ll probably take for #2 to be released.

You really can’t go wrong with a Jim Butcher series. Fans will absolutely want to dive into the world of The Cinder Spires, and I think The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a great introduction for people who haven’t read his books too. (Although, if you haven’t read any Butcher, I’d urge you to run right out and find a copy of Storm Front, the first Dresden book).

So there you have it — a lengthy review which all boils down to: I loved this book. Go read it.

I’ll let Rowl have the final word, because he deserves it:

Each creature had something it excelled at, he supposed. Humans could manage knots easily, and cats could do everything else.


The details:

Title: The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires, #1)
Author: Jim Butcher
Publisher: Roc
Publication date: September 29, 2015
Length: 630 pages
Genre: Fantasy/steampunk
Source: Purchased