The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
Synopsis from GoodReads:
Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace.
Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely 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 severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion—to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.
And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn 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…
This was my sci-fi themed book club’s book this month and I’m really glad it was because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. Part of this is because I have a huge TBR list already, part of it is that I’m not generally a fan of steampunk, and part of it is that while I don’t dislike Jim Butcher’s work, I’m not in a rush to go out and pick up everything he’s ever written. But The Aeronaut’s Windlass takes some of my preferred aspects of his writing while leaving out some of what I’ve had issues with in the past.
First up, I love how he does rotating POVs, like in the Codex Alera series. I love rotating POVs because it gives more insight into more characters (when done well) and Butcher does a very good job here. I was never confused about whose POV we were supposed to be in and I felt Butcher did a very good job of giving us different insights into the characters and situations through the rotations.
Secondly, I felt the sense of danger was real. That was my main complaint about Codex Alera – I never felt that the main six characters were in any danger. Here, though, I definitely worried several times about people’s safety. On the other hand, the pacing starts kind of slow and didn’t really pick up until about half to two-thirds of the way through the novel. But when it did, it flew!
Finally, the characters. I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Butcher’s characters in his previous works, but I really liked a lot of the ones we meet in Windlass. I didn’t love any of them, and a lot of them felt like they were held together by stereotype glue in places, but most of them grew up at least a little by the end of the novel, which is really all you can ask. Gwen was probably the most grating while Grimm was probably the most stereotypical, but they still had moments when I felt for them.
Now, the not so good. Which is, mainly, the world, unfortunately enough.
What we learn of the world is fascinating. It’s clearly developed – at least in Butcher’s mind. The problem was that there were a lot of terms thrown at the reader with very few explanations. The good news is that this helped the book not be an info-dump. The bad news is that it provides a steep learning curve and leaves a lot of mystery, especially for the parts that didn’t make sense in context. I wish there had been better explanations or descriptions – either one would have helped a lot. Also, earlier explanations of some terms might help, too.
Now, I’m not actually super upset about the terms, but that’s because I’m used to reading Malazan, where none of the reader’s questions are answered right away. So I didn’t mind, but others might, hence my mentioning it. My bigger problem was that we didn’t see enough of the world and how it’s pieced together. We’re told about tensions between Aurora and Albion from Albion’s perspective, but our only hint about Aurora’s viewpoint comes from Espira’s POV chapters and he doesn’t give us anything other than calling the people of Albion “greedy rats”. On top of that, we’re not told a lot about the surface or why people live in the spires or any of the history, really, beyond the mentions of mysterious Builders who made the spires. The lack of that background is what hampered my enjoyment of the world.
Now, this last thing is a personal issue, but it does effect the rating. I’ve now read eight or nine novels by Jim Butcher and not one of them has really made me love it. The aeronaut’s Windlass came the closest, but it’s still not a book I feel the need to go out and buy so I can reread over and over again. In short, something about Butcher’s writing just doesn’t ‘do it’ for me. And that’s okay, but it does mean that it pulls my rating down from what someone who does like Butcher’s writing would give this novel. So bear that in mind.
3.5 out of 5 stars. I’m really looking forward to reading what comes next, even though there’s not even a release date yet.