The Aeronaut’s Windlass
by Jim Butcher
Rating: 5+ Stars
‘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…’
I’ve been a fan of Butcher’s work for years, he’s such a fun writer. This is not ‘literary fiction’ by any means, but over time I’ve worked my way through most of his back catalogue. I’ve read and enjoyed all his Codex Alera books, but I’m still a couple behind on my favourite series of his – the Dresden Files – so no spoilers please! Anyway, I’ve read enough of his work to know that his books are always a good read for some fast paced storytelling, interesting world-building and bucket-loads of good humour. So that’s what I was expecting going in.
In many ways that is just what I got, but there were a few surprises along the way. This book showcases some of the best of Butcher’s writing in a completely new form. The narration tends more towards the multiple POV close 3rd person of Alera rather than the first person of Dresden where we only really follow Harry. Windlass is also far chunkier than I’ve come to expect from him (640 pages) but he still manages to keep up his signature pace, sending the reader racing from one event to the next despite the action being spread out over several POV characters and quite a large secondary cast. There’s a definite feeling of the beginning of an epic series here (without my own pet peeve of deathly slow development) and I’m really looking forward to it. Here’s why:
For this first book, the world building is largely limited to the characters’ home Spire – Spire Albion. There are some necessary mentions of the wider world, but the mystery of what has happened to the surface is only hinted at in the vaguest of manners. The only real information we’ve been given so far about the other Spires is given in passing and through the ‘villains’ of the pieces POV. This technique isn’t going to be for everyone, but I quite liked this. It feels like a very organic way of exploring the world of the Spires; giving us information as and when we need it without any unnecessary exposition. It seems that this is going to be a very large and interesting universe and I’m glad that we didn’t have too much information shoved at us at once.
I’m intrigued by what we do see: the aeronaut’s world up in the sky, Mistmaws, the Cats, the Warrior-born, the politics that are hovering in the background. There’s enough here that I’m looking forward to find out more in the upcoming novels and Butcher has left some intriguing hollows to be filled out as the series progresses.
I really like the characters – I know some of the reviews complain that he is picking out the tropes of the genre, throwing them in the air and trying to capitalise on them for monetary gain, but when writing in genre it’s very hard to avoid archetypes. Out of the characters we meet here I don’t think any of them feel clunky or 2 dimensional and I enjoyed following them.
From the synopsis I was expecting this to be a bit Harry Dresden, with the course of the series closely following the adventures of Captain Grimm and the crew of the Predator. But what we actually get is various POV chapters following a wide cast of interesting characters. Ferus and Folly (two off-the -wall etherealists) were a particular pleasure to read – Folly is a great character, only able to interact to the world by talking to her jar of crystals and Ferus has an interesting background that we only get glimpses of here. The concept that the magic users need something, some physical objects to anchor themselves was really interesting especially Ferus’ ‘collection’.
The Cats are just spot on, Rowl is a pleasure to read and it is unusual and highly enjoyable to see POV chapters from him. They were a great way to experience the action from a very different mind-set with very, very different priorities (Bridget’s safety and happiness, his father’s plans, everything else). Rowl is just spot on for my experience of Cats. There’s one point where two cats just sit starting at each other for an hour in some sort of contest, then both walk away seemingly deciding on a draw.
Bridget was probably my favourite character. It was refreshing to have the ‘swineherd’ of the piece – poor, sheltered, naïve, strong and honourable – be a woman. Her outsider POV is a pleasure to read and really complements the more establishment figures of Gwen and her cousin Benedict. Gwen’s not as easy to get along with – she’s privileged and pushy and she knows it. But she seems to have the most character development, by the end of the book I found her very interesting.
Outside of the main characters, there are an intriguing wider cast of secondary characters. I like the ragged figure of the Spirearch’s scholarly son, wandering around amongst the commoners. His supposedly powerless father – the Spirearch – pulling strings behind the scenes, seemingly more aware of the stakes than our main cast. There were definitely Pratchett elements here, the guilds and the class structure across the levels reminds me a little of Ankh Morpork, there’s a very strong sense of place for Spire Albion.
The main villain was appropriately bloomin’ evil and the hints about her background and motivations should prove interesting in the next instalments of the series. There was also a good sense of moral ambiguity about the motivations of the ground troupes. What they’re doing is horrible, but Butcher has managed to balance that with a sense that all is not well outside of Spire Albion; hinting that their impetus seems to be more towards self preservation than merely a wish to conquer.
As I’ve already mentioned, this novel has a heck of a lot of pace, with the plot racing along in all directions at the beginning, before focusing down as the characters coalesce into groups. There’s a wonderful mash up of establishment figures, rogue quantities and independent agents. From the synopsis of this book I was expecting a much more streamlined approach – something more along the line of the ‘Age of Sail’ novels: the maverick Captain who’s been drummed out of the navy, coming back into conflict with his former masters. We do get that to some extent but there’s a lot more going on as well in different strands. There’s species conflict between the human occupants of the spire and the unacknowledged complex society of the Cats. Class prejudice amongst factions of the nobility. Some interesting undercurrents about language and history and a lurking darkness that I’m looking forward to learning more of.
The air battles were very well written – to be expected of Butcher who is a consummate professional when it comes to writing action. Although there was a bit of a dip in ‘air-time’ in the middle of the novel as a lot of the scion takes place on the spire itself.
References and context
Butcher has always been something of a magpie. One of the best things about his books is being able to reference spot as you read and, despite Windlass being set in a world very different to our own, he somehow still manages to do that. He conjures up images from – to name but a few – Horatio Hornblower, Master and Commander, Star Wars, Firefly, Jack Sparrow and – for me specifically – a heavy dose of my firm favourite The Edge Chronicles. (One’s got crystal powered ships, the other has ships powered by magical floating rocks. One’s got Sky Pirates, the other’s got Aeronauts – they both need goggles whatever you call them).
I know there’s been some debate over whether this series is just Butcher cashing in on the trend of the moment – steampunk – but that’s not what it feels like to me. Butcher loves playing around in other people’s sandboxes, rearranging things to his own satisfaction and poking a bit of fun as he does so. It seems like he’s seen a genre he enjoys, picked out all the things that interested him about it and waded in happily with his own take on it all.
Perhaps it’s not revolutionary, but I don’t see any need to rewrite the rule book with every novel. It’s often a pleasure just to read something that’s cannily aware of its place in the existing cannon and clearly having fun with turning some of it on its head. Another thing to keep in mind is that this is only the first book in a series – there’s a lot more space for him to play around with new aspects.