Anyone who’s read Jim Butcher’s books knows he loves his mashups. His Dresden Files combines a classic gumshoe-detective tone with elements and tropes from every type of fantasy fiction and mythology you can think of. His Codex Alera novels were inspired when he was challenged to write a mind-bending combination of prompts: the Roman Empire and Pokemon.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the fun first novel in Butcher’s new Cinder Spires series, is yet another mashup: a rollicking nautical(ish) tale in the tradition of C.S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower set in a Steampunk world where steel rots and electricity doesn’t seem to exist but the ability to use a quasi-magical substance/force called aether allows for interesting takes on familiar technology, and in which the planet’s surface is barely habitable, leaving humanity confined to spires — enormous, nation-sized towers built in the distant past.
Is this taking place on Earth in an unknown future? Is this a fantasy world? Butcher’s not telling — at least not yet.
The action of The Aeronaut’s Windlass centers around Albion Spire — a clear stand-in for the England defended by Captain Hornblower or O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey. The era seems to be parallel to those books’ Napoleonic Wars, but instead of ships trading cannon fire over the waves, these wars are fought in the skies. And the great enemy, rather than being Napoleon’s France, is Spire Aurora — a stand-in for Imperial Spain.
The story, which revolves around the opening salvoes of a war between Aurora and Albion, delivers excitement and daring-do in abundance — though not as tightly packed as one might expect in a Jim Butcher novel. The need to build the world and introduce the dozens of characters in this sprawling epic diffuse the narrative somewhat. The characters, however, make up for the slow patches.
Where the Dresden Files are told from the very entertaining but very limited point of view of Harry Dresden (limited in a narrative sense — you’re always seeng things through his eyes, and he doesn’t always tell you everything), The Aeronaut’s Windlass is told from dozens of shifting points of view, each with a different perspective on the action and on the characters. Much of the focus is on the appropriately named Captain Grimm, captain of the privateer AMS Predator. However, what makes this book interesting is the trio of young women who provide much of the action in the book, and through whose eyes we view most of that action. Gwen Lancaster (whose family grows most of the Spires power-giving crystals) is a spoiled but fierce noblewoman who joins the Spirearch’s Guard out of a sense of rebellion and adventure. Bridget Tagwynn joins because it’s the only way to save her family (of which she and her father are the last members); she is humble, practical, and incredibly strong. Folly (another ironically apt name) is an apprentice Aetherialist — part psychic, part psychotic (think Luna Lovegood on a really bad day) — who is recruited to join the other two (along with other members of the Guard and the Navy) in a mission to defend the Spire. They’re three very different characters with three very different perspectives, and Butcher manages to use those differences to keep the story moving, while also building a web of relationships that makes the book addictively engaging.
The book is packed with action, ranging from duels to pitched battles to wild airship broadsides. As always, Butcher keeps the adrenaline pumping; it is occasionally difficult at first to keep things straight, because of the huge cast of characters and the unfamiliar world. However, the book rewards the reader with a highly entertaining romp that promises an exciting sequel. The Olympian Affair, book #2 in the series, is scheduled for release in 2018.