So once upon a time, a man wrote a book about a wizard. This wizard was both powerful and irascible, as professional wizards traditionally are. However, this wizard differed from the traditions in a couple notable respects: he was young, for one thing; for another, he lived in modern Chicago. The man wrote a number of books about the young, modern wizard, and they became staggeringly popular. Full disclosure: I like it.
Somewhat later, the man decided to write a new series, set in a pseudo-Roman fantasy world, of a people granted magical elemental powers, and the one boy growing up among them without magical elemental power — what we would call an ordinary person. These books were in a completely different style from the books about the wizard, and really demonstrated the breadth of talent in their writer. They were also not nearly as popular as the wizard. Such is life.
Now that same writer has taken a stab at a new genre: Skypunk.
This is Jim Butcher’s newest novel, The Aeronaut’s Windlass (FIRST IN A NEW SERIES, declares the cover.) Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Well, he admits to liking The Dresden Files, and he seemed quite impressed by The Codex Alera, so he’s probably going to like this one too.” And you’d be correct. This is a good book. Let me explain why, in a spoiler-free sort of way.
Book One of the Cinder Spires takes place, appropriately enough, on one of the eponymous Spires: Spire Albion, to be exact. Everyone in the world lives in one of spires, legacy of the Builders, because the surface is too deadly to live upon. Because of the monsters. They travel between spires on ships that sail through the air, powered by etheric energy, which moves through the sky like a wind. Etheric energy also powers lights, weapons, and other functions in the spires.
Mr. Butcher has made an interesting choice in the world building he does in this book, especially for such an unusual setting: he doesn’t explain anything. Well, I exaggerate a bit, but any explanation is given for immediate relevance to the plot, leaving a lot of the overarching questions hanging. Again, I want to avoid spoilers, but if I am allowed to speculate, there are a lot of subtle hints that the world of Spire Albion is actually a post-apocalyptic Earth (very subtle hints, which is why I am speculating, not spoilering. Semantics!) If so, there are the obvious questions: what happened to the surface, who built the towers, where does the etheric energy come from, etc., etc. These questions are barely addressed in this book, which makes sense (there is no reason for the characters to speculate on these matters, after all) but it is a very confident stance to take from a writing perspective.
Of course, there is very little doubt that Jim Butcher will get to publish further books in the series, even if it fails to catch much of an audience, but still. I choose to remain impressed.
The plot itself is solid: during a surprise attack on Spire Albion, a rival Spire infiltrates in a team of saboteurs, and the Spirearch (read: constitutional monarch), fearing that his normal guards might be compromised by traitors, sends two of his newest recruits, along with a veteran but disgraced privateer captain, down to the economic center of the Spire, Habble Landing, to investigate. It is a story of courage, manners, politics, economics, monsters, madness, treachery, flying ships, and cats. And I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you anything else.
Jim Butcher has always been good at spinning up interesting characters, and I quite like the cast he’s assembled for this outing. Gwendolyn Lancaster in particular steals the show from her first entrance (and Jim must have realized that, since her first entrance is, in fact, the prologue) and her nearly lunatic confidence carries her well to the end of the book. Both heroes and villains come across as complex and believable (and the one exception is a mystery in and of himself), and the supporting cast tend to be quite fun themselves. Speaking of the soldiers of the rival spire, they could have come straight from David Weber’s Honorverse. (That’s a compliment, in case you weren’t sure.) Oh, and then there’s Rowl. Rowl is a big deal, and he’s going to make sure you know.
There is one other thing I’d like to mention, and that would be the etherealists. This world’s version of wizards, they can control etheric forces by passing them through their own bodies. And they are, one and all, legitimately insane. Turns out passing all that power directly through it causes your mind to break. Who knew, huh? I love little details like that.
That’s all I have to say, so I guess I’ll wrap this up…well. There was one other little thing. I hate to mention it, really.
But hey, once a pedant, always a pedant, right?
Ahem. Windlass: a type of winch used esp. on ships to hoist anchors and haul on mooring lines. Are there windlasses (Windlassi? Plain windlass?) on Captain Grimm’s ship? Sure are. Are they in some way central to the plot? Hell no. I can’t make it work, even as a metaphor. So. Why the hell is this called the Aeronaut’s Windlass? Who thought this was a good idea?
Ignoring the oddness of the title, though, this is an excellent book, and a lot of fun. I definitely look forward to any continuation — which, since it is FIRST IN A NEW SERIES, seems quite probable. For the time being, I recommend you read this book.
In fact, I think I’ll go read it again now. Wait, damn, I’ve got something to do first…
Next time (in two weeks):
Actually, rather than just this book, why don’t we do a brief overview of the Sanderson ‘verse? It couldn’t take more than a few months, right?
Well, that’s done. All right, you can let it back in.
Yay! You can go back!
Finally. I don’t see why you kicked me out. I don’t have anything to say about other books.
I don’t want you giving the others any ideas. I have enough random psychoses roaming around, thanks.
I keep telling you, I’m not a figment of your imagination!
Sure, sure. Excuse me, I have to go torture myself now.
…you’re talking about reading the next chapter with Daenerys, aren’t you.
That’s what I said.