The Aeronaut’s Windlass
by Jim Butcher
I’m tired, now.
I’m not tired because it’s Monday (Okay, no, I am tired because it’s Monday – but that’s not the main reason.), but because I just got finished being dragged along, like a dinghy tied to the back of a battleship, in the wake of probably the best action writer working right now.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the first book in a new series, The Cinder Spires; it is science-fiction, and it is steampunk. It is set in a world where the people live in impossibly tall structures, called Spires, that stand miles into the atmosphere; people travel between Spires on airships that fly using electrical currents in the atmosphere which they catch with great webs of silken ropes, like solar sails. The main characters include the captain of the fastest air ship on the planet – which is not Earth; it seems to be a planet with a much denser atmosphere, as the ships are described as sinking down into the permanent mist, or sailing up out of it in order to navigate or to fight – as well as a pair of what might as well be called wizards, master and apprentice Etherealists with strange powers and the strange penalties that so often accompany power. There are also a selection of nobles of the main Spire in the story, Spire Albion; nobles both wealthy and poor, honorable and deceitful, beautiful and deadly. They duel, they backstab, they fight for position and prominence and power. There are several soldier characters, as well, as this is the story of a war between Spires, or at least the beginning of the war: and the first strike is not only the deadliest, but it carries deeper meaning, as well. There are wheels within wheels, here, and fires within fires. There are also some of the nastiest villains I’ve read in quite a while: an evil Etherealist and her bodyguard, and they are extraordinarily vicious and disturbing. All I’ll say is: their allies of choice are enormous alien arachnids that skitter up walls before they leap down and tear limbs off with their giant insectoid jaws, wrapping up their human opponents in strands of sticky web-silk. And those are the less-frightening ones.
But hold on: because all is not lost. As confused and desperate as these humans become – and the heroes really do sink pretty low, though I’ll spoil this: they don’t lose every fight – they still hold onto hope.
Because some of the characters in this book are cats.
That’s right: steampunk, airships, war, magic, battle, alien spider-monsters – and talking cats.
And because it’s Jim Butcher, the battle scene starts about a third of the way into the book: and then it. Does. Not. Stop. Even on the last page, we are finding out about new betrayals, new dangers, new challenges that face our heroes. It is enormous fun to read, because Butcher does it the right way: he has his characters face setbacks and surprises and even awful defeats; but then the right person with the right ability is in the right place at the right time, and out of that good fortune or good planning comes– victory. At least a small one. Sometimes a large one. And you’re cheering for them the whole way, because Butcher also writes wonderful characters, complex and intriguing and genuine, and of course, Butcher has that wonderful sense of humor, which sparkles through the whole book – particularly the scenes with the cat interacting with his human companions (and inferiors, as he sees them; he is, after all, a cat.).
It’s not flawless; the way the airships function was hard for me to follow at times, and the world is larger and more complex than could ever be covered in one book unless that book was nothing but history and atlas. This one isn’t, so there are things I want to know more about and things I don’t yet understand. But this was tremendous fun to read. And for the rest?
You’re durn tootin’ I’m going to read the next book to find out. And the one after that.