Jim Butcher’s new steampunkish fantasy series, “The Cinder Spires” is fresh, complex, exciting and very very easy to get into. I was barely three chapters in to the seventy chapter long “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” when I knew I was hooked. I found myself stealing time during the day to listen to just one more chapter, or maybe two, or maybe just until I found out how they… you’re a book lover, you’ll recognise the kind of thrall I was in.
“The Aeronaut’s Windlass” is packed with ideas, action and fascinating characters. I loved the strong feeling that I got from the book that there is a HUGE back-story/world history out there for me to discover and I was impressed by the fact that Jim Butcher never once tried to shove that story down my throat through some huge info-dump.
The novel takes place on an earth where the surface is too dangerous to spend time on, people live in huge, centuries-old Spires, created by the now absent Builders, each of which is its own mini-state. Travel is by airship (think sailing ships that fly, not dirigibles) powered by crystals that focus etheric energy. I loved how Jim Butcher made etheric engineering seem so real that, by the end of the book, I was starting to have clear expectations of what it could and couldn’t do and yet it never became a hard-science lecture (even though the concept of etheric energy is starting to be rehabilitated in the form of Scalar Wave Fields and Zero Point Energy).
As in Jim Butcher’s “Codex Alera” series, “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” has multiple parallel story-lines and a huge list of characters, yet there is no confusion over who is doing what and no dull times where you’d rather be finding out what’s happening in another story-line rather than the one you’re in. The pace of the story-telling is perfect, with multiple cliff-hanging chapters.
Although the story is action-packed, there is still time for reflection on the realities of the conflict the characters find themselves in and the things they choose to do to survive. The battle scenes are brilliant, partly because they go beyond the cunning of military tactics and the raw energy of combat, to experience the horrific reality of large-scale death and destruction. Jim Butcher takes the time to explore the idea that the same action – winning a battle – feels different depending on whether the winner is friend or foe but that the behaviour of the men is the same. It reminded me of that World War I slogan: “A bayonet is a weapon with a worker on each end”.
What really kept my attention was the rich cast of characters. The story is dominated by strong and or scary female characters who are all quite different from one another. The “Grim Captain” of the airship “Predator” is the epitome of what a Captain should be and yet he remains human and believable. The “mad” Etheralists, who can see the energy that powers the world, are people that we come to understand as being mad only because they see things too clearly to stay sane. The Warrior-born, who are part human, part cat who are strong and graceful but sometimes trapped between their two natures. Perhaps the most memorable character in the book is the wonderfully-named Rawl, a warrior prince among cats, whose view on the world and on the humans who live in it is absolutely unique.
This is a satisfyingly long book yet it was still too quickly over, leaving me wanting much more and very soon.
If you like a great adventure, buy this book. If you’ve already bought it, do yourself a favour and bring it the top of your TBR pile.
I recommend the audiobook version of the novel, wonderfully performed by Euan Morton. Click on the SoundCloud link below to get a taste of what he delivers.