Fans of Jim Butcher (including myself) were thrilled to see that he’s started a new series called THE CINDER SPIRES. This one is quite different than his previous works. THE DRESDEN FILES, for which Butcher is best known, is a modern-day urban fantasy with a first-person narrator and a hardboiled feel. THE CODEX ALERA is an epic fantasy with a typical medieval setting and plot.
THE CINDER SPIRES is set in a more imaginative world. With its airships and steam power, it has a steampunk feel. The story takes place on a mist-covered planet (possibly a future Earth?) whose surface is so dangerous that humans have built their habitats in tall spires miles above the planet’s surface. Each spire is about two miles in diameter and is ruled by noble families. Humans live on several floors in each spire while cats live in the maintenance tunnels and ventilation shafts. Some humans can talk to cats, which allows the two species to work together or in opposition to each other. Another race, called the Warriors, seems mostly human but has feline eyes and super strength. There is magic in this world (or a technology advanced enough that it looks like magic). Etheric currents run through the atmosphere and, by using power harnessed from crystals, these currents can be used by airships. They can also be used by certain humans called etherealists who can direct the currents, but who become mad after too much contact with them.
The best thing about the CINDER SPIRES series, so far, is the unusual setting. But in The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book, there isn’t a lot of description of what life is like in the Spires. I don’t usually require (or even prefer) a large amount of physical description in a fantasy novel, but these buildings are so unique and interesting that I wanted to see more. I was left with a lot of questions about how this world works, and a lot of blanks in my mind when I tried to visualize it. That made it hard for me to get lost in the story, but I look forward to learning more about the spires and the dangerous planet in future installments.
In The Aeronaut’s Windlass, we meet several heroes, including a cat, who will need to work together to save Spire Albion from the forces of Spire Aurora:
- Captain Grimm is an ultra-competent airship captain who nonetheless was disgracefully released from the Albion Guard. Currently he’s working as a pirate, but he is so skilled that Albion wants him back.
- Gwen is the daughter of the noble family who produces the crystals that power airships. She has just joined the Albion Guard.
- Benedict is Gwen’s cousin and he’s of the Warrior caste. He’s part of the Albion Guard, too.
- Bridget is a commoner who has also joined the Albion Guard. She can talk to cats.
- Rowl is Bridget’s cat owner. He is a leader of his cat clan and he calls Bridget “Little Mouse.”
- Ferus is a master etherealist. He is absent-minded and has trouble figuring out how to use doorknobs.
- Folly is Master Ferus’ apprentice. Also absent-minded, she wears mismatched clothes and talks only to a jar of crystals that she carries.
Butcher writes using multiple protagonists’ perspectives, including the cat, who was my favorite character. I can’t say that I really loved or cared about any of the human characters, unfortunately. I liked Captain Grimm, but he seemed too much like a “type.” He’s the handsome brooding ultra-competent leader who has been wronged by his superiors and has been unfairly relegated to a station far below his abilities. Gwen and Bridget were nearly interchangeable to me and I had to keep reminding myself which was which. Benedict is similarly dull. Ferus and Folly are so quirky and bizarre that they don’t seem to fit in this book. It’s as if Willy Wonka walked into the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Butcher is trying to add some humor with these characters, and I expect that many readers will find them charming, but mostly I could sense Butcher’s intentions behind the scenes, which didn’t work for me.
Similarly, I could hear Butcher’s voice behind the prose. Sometimes it’s self-consciously clever, sarcastic, or silly (e.g., Ferus and Folly’s dialogue, the cat’s constant amusing observances about stupid humans). I felt like Butcher was trying to entertain me with the prose, a technique that few authors, in my experience, can pull off. Also, Butcher’s sentences are often wordy and I wanted a blue pencil. Here’s just one of many sentences where I wanted to mark out about half the words:
The man moved with an absolute surety of purpose, with unbroken focus, and the men around him deferred to him with an obvious silent respect that could not have been expressed in words.
This kind of thing begins to irritate me after a while — I’m sure that comes from all the papers I grade — and I was mentally editing as I was reading, another thing that kept me from getting lost in Butcher’s world.
There are some great action sequences and some horribly creepy monsters in The Aeronaut’s Windlass. There are a couple of awesome scenes in an airship yard that I’d love to see on the big screen. And, as I said, I’d love to explore more of the spires. However, when I read fantasy I like to feel like I’ve escaped to another world, and I didn’t get that with The Aeronaut’s Windlass. I’m going to read the second book, though, because my experience with Jim Butcher (and this is so unusual) is that he gets better after he gets going. I was not too impressed with the first few DRESDEN FILES novels, but I adore the later installments and it’s become one of my favorite series. So, though I’m underwhelmed with THE CINDER SPIRES so far, I’m going to give it some more time.
I listened to the audio version of The Aeronaut’s Windlass which was produced by Penguin Audio and read by Euan Morton. Morton’s voices are wonderful, but his pace is slow and, especially with Butcher’s wordy sentences, I had to speed up the narration to avoid nodding off.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass, Jim Butcher’s latest novel, is a fun-filled, action-packed thriller. The pacing is quick and replete with sword- and gun-fighting action. With hints of steampunk and blackpowder elements, the setting and time periods is very reminiscent of Margaret Weis’s and Robert Krammes’s DRAGON BRIGADE series, with cities in the sky and ships battling for aerial dominance. Perhaps the best part about The Aeronaut’s Windlass? Talking cats. Intelligent, adorable, irresistible cats. That said, though I did have a couple of problems with The Aeronaut’s Windlass—both the characters and the worldbuilding felt shallow, and the romantic subplot felt unrealistic and manufactured. It was as if Butcher threw together two characters and forced them into a relationship—though the early details and hints of the affair were there, there wasn’t enough development for the relationship to progress as quickly as it did. This wasn’t a complete deal breaker, though, so I’ll definitely be reading the sequel. But if you like your stories complex and with deep, resonating characters/setting, consider staying away.
Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass gets a mixed verdict from me as well. The naval airships with their 3D battles in the mists were the highlight for me; reminiscent of Disney’s Treasure Planet (an animated film that I consider underrated). If I had read more naval fiction in my life I daresay it wouldn’t have struck me as quite so fresh but, not having yet made the time to read Horatio Hornblower or Master and Commander, I very much enjoyed Captain Grimm and his loyal crew. Grimm, as well as the other main characters, Gwen, Benedict and Bridget, were appealing characters, and I enjoyed spending time with them, even if they’re rather stereotypical. However, having Benedict be a Warrior ― a human with lion DNA mixed into his genetic heritage ― was an imaginative touch, particularly as it became clear that, despite their strength, the Warriors are forced to deal with subtle discrimination in society. The less conventional characters, particularly master etherealist Ferus and his apprentice Folly, veered close to being overly quirky, but I appreciated them more as I became more familiar with them and understood why they act the way they do.
Rowl and the other intelligent cats were an entertaining addition to the story line, particularly for readers who already are fond of cats. It was great fun to see put into words thoughts that I’m fairly certain my cat has thought about me! However, my feelings are much more mixed than Kevin’s about how successfully the cat clans were utilized as a key component in this novel. Their dialogue was humorous but too often went for the easy laugh at the expense of being meaningful, and their scenes often felt oddly shallow, more what I’d expect from a middle grade fantasy novel than an adult one.
In fact, while The Aeronaut’s Windlass isn’t being marketed as a YA book, it felt like one to me: two of the three main characters are teenage girls, there’s no R-rated language or content, and the writing lacked the depth and complexity that I’d normally expect in an adult fantasy.
I agree with Kat that the unusual setting, with life on immense spires, had great potential but was underutilized. I also disliked the cliffhanger scenes at the end; they felt like an unnecessary addition to me, and having the novel end on an unpleasant note was not entirely consistent with the overall tone of the story. But I’ll still be there for the next installment.