The Aeronaut’s Windlass (2015)
Written by: Jim Butcher
Pages: 768 (Kindle)
Series: Book One of The Cinder Spires
Why I Chose It: As part of a Speculative Chic dare to review this year’s Hugo Nominees. And because my editor told me there were talking cats in this book. TALKING CATS!
Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity. Within their halls, the ruling aristocratic houses develop scientific marvels, foster trade alliances, and maintain fleets of airships to keep the peace.
Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship Predator. Loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is damaged in combat, Grimm joins a team of Albion agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring his ship.
And as Grimm undertakes this task, he learns that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake. . . .
Spoiler Alert Level: None.
Discussion: Confession time: I’ve never been drawn to Steampunk as a genre. In fact, I might have laughed at it (a little). I’d seen the costumes crop up at cons over the years. The tophats and goggles. The clockwork appendages. The odd Victorian mashup of petticoats and waistcoats, ray guns and steam engines. It never made me want to pick up a book. The other punk, Cyberpunk, now that made sense to me. It was all forward thinking, and utterly captivating before the things writers dreamed of became actual tech. But old tech set in future worlds? Why would you do that? And in what kind of fictional world do all these disparate elements make sense?
In Jim Butcher’s world, that’s where. In a slightly dystopian future where humans live high atop stone spires made by long-dead Builders, where the earth is a place no one wants to fall to, where wars break out between the spires, and airships are the only way to fight them.
I knew of Butcher, of his much-loved Dresden series which I’d never quite gotten around to reading. But as much as I’ve avoided Steampunk, I’ve avoided magic in equal measure. It always seems too easy to me, too cheap a way to solve problems in fantastic fiction.
So why did I pick up this book, itself a mixture of both steampunk and magic? Two words: talking cat.
Yep, I said it. Talking cat. A friend told me there were talking cats in this book, and I couldn’t download it fast enough. It’s that simple. Not that I’m a sucker for anything cat. Silly, un-cat-like cats in fantastic fiction? No, just no. But Butcher doesn’t disappoint. If you’re going to put a cat POV character into a novel, this is how you do it. And for the record, they don’t walk around speaking human. They speak cat, of course. They just happen to be blessed with some very talented interpreters.
Central to the story is the title’s aeronaut, the brave but recently brought-low Captain Grimm of the airship Predator. He has much to prove and he’s totally capable of doing so. His battle scenes in the etheric currents around the spires are the best of the book, capable of going head to head with any Patrick O’Brian novel for shipboard detail and excitement. Captain Grimm himself has the best lines of the story, the kind of spot-on, wizened life observations that make me suspect that Butcher himself is excellent company.
Much of the rest of the story is told through the eyes of two freshly-minted female foot soldiers from disparate social classes who find themselves at the center of an invasion from a warring spire. Butcher gets high marks for fully realized female characters, although I do wish he’d avoided a bit of crying and mansplaining at the very end. But given how beautifully written they were for 99.98% of the story, I give Butcher an A- in the feminist sensibilities category. High praise for those who know how quickly I’ll put down a book if I get the faintest whiff of caricature or male-pandering.
Also on the journey, a magician and his surprisingly gifted apprentice. These magicians are etherealists, a tiny group of people capable of sensing and controlling the currents running through this world and the crystals that seem to aggregate those currents. Butcher also gets high marks on my magic-should-never-be-easy scale. Both master and apprentice pay such a high price for their craft that they can barely function outside their rooms, much less in the midst of a battle.
And then there’s the cat. Oh, the cat. I won’t spoil the cat’s story for you. I’ll only say that it’s clear to me that at some point in Butcher’s life, he had the grudging companionship of a spoiling-for-a-fight Tom or twelve. And he was paying attention to their behavior. I will say this: you will often worry more about the survival of the cat than the survival of the humans. And that’s pretty awesome.
Butcher’s pacing is good, although I did get a little weary of our characters running from battle to battle in the claustrophobic rooms of the spire itself. Luckily, the writer bounces deftly from character to character for many of these scenes, which broke up my battle-weariness nicely. Lower marks for a bit of initial confusion about the difference between cats and this world’s cat-like humans, the Warrior Born. We still don’t have an explanation for them by the end of the book but I can be patient on that score.
But here’s why I really kept reading and couldn’t stop until the last page. Because despite the magic, despite the flying ships and goggles and my overall lack of enthusiasm for steampunk as a genre — Butcher’s story is post-apocalyptic at its core, and post-apocalyptic fiction is just about my favorite thing. Although we’re never told why the builders made the spires, we do know that the earth’s surface is so horrible that a whole guild of monster-catchers can barely beat back the beasties crawling up from the ground, and that our aeronauts live in dread fear of crash-landing on the surface. Butcher gives us just enough about that surface to be absolutely terrified and no more. And he makes it clear that we’re going down there in book two, like it or not.
And that, I like.
In Conclusion: I can’t help but think The Aeronaut’s Windlass has a strong chance to win this year. It has everything readers love — a thrilling world, beautifully-realized characters, breathless plotting, tight dialogue, and a push-off for the series so compelling that I suspect I will start writing Mr. Butcher annoying fannish emails asking how things are coming along. That said, at its core Windlass is a ripping yarn. Sadly, sometimes ripping yarns don’t win. I’ve got my fingers crossed for him.