The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass
by Jim Butcher
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Some descriptions of this book call it Steampunk, but I'm not sure that's completely accurate. That sub-genre doesn't appeal to me much, but I gather most of it is set in an alternate history, mostly late 19th or early 20th Century, with technology developing more from the steam engine stage rather than the electrical age. It's possible there is more to it than I had assumed. I was thinking a better title for this would have been Everything But..., or alternately, The Aeronaut's Kitchen Sink, because Butcher threw so many variables into the plot. The ubiquitous airship is here, although it's not a dirigible, but rather it's described (and pictured on the cover) more like a wooden sailing vessel, just air-born instead of water-born. The same applies to the battle strategies of the ships, you could just as easily visualize a Horatio Hornblower epic. Also, steam doesn't figure into it much either, with the ships being powered by crystals that channel "etheric" currents. I'm sure he's not talking about the ether that means just the clear upper atmosphere, more like the #5 physics definition: "a hypothetical substance supposed to occupy all space, postulated to account for the propagation of electromagnetic radiation through space." The crystals themselves are manufactured, but it's not clear what their base materials are, either naturally occuring or chemically created.
The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first book in a new series, not sure how many there will be. If his Dresden series is a clue (15 years, 15 novels), expect many more in the coming years. I included the series name and the novel's title above for a reason. First, why "Cinder" Spires? A cinder is the remnant of wood or coal from a fire. Granted there are fires in the story, but the spires themselves are made from a substance referred to simply as spirestone. A mysterious, mythical group called the Builders were responsible for the formation of the spires, humans just adapted to them with added materials. I don't think this is Earth, or if it is, many millennia have passed, and the strange nature of the world is due to an alien incursion. No, probably another planet, thousands of years after man settled it, and after the Builders died off or abandoned it. There are mysterious creatures on the "surface," but very few men ever go there, instead they stay in the spires or travel the air currents in their naval or merchant ships. The other part of the title that doesn't make sense is "Windlass." That would be a small vessel that only traveled up and down the spire, never out in the open air between spires like Captain Grimm's merchant vessel Predator. In fact, Grimm was particularly upset when he felt he was being ordered into a demeaning windlass type of operation.
Add to this certain characters who are "warriorborn," and described in such a way that the natural assumption is they are a product of genetic manipulation. They have feline eyes, or canine teeth, generally hairy bodies, and exhibit exceptional strength and healing abilities, but one of them at least is directly related to another character who is a normal human. Then again, that human can communicate with cats, and they with her, and several cats figure prominently in the story. Then there's the magic, for lack of a better word, of the etherealists Master Ferus and his apprentice Miss Folly. They can sense the etheric currents and glimpse the future, as can their rival, Madame Sycorax Cavendish. So, not just a steampunkish atmosphere, but many other strange elements that vie for attention in the narrative, as well as a bit of a Young Adult slant, with two prominent characters being 16 or 17 year old girls.
I'm not implying Butcher is not a good storyteller, in fact there are multiple well-written scenes, most those of action, involving interesting characters and situations. I enjoyed the three Dresden books I've read. It's just that he has included so many elements here that it hinders the flow of the plot at times, and being just the beginning of a series, a lot of those elements won't be fully developed for several more books at least. This was entertaining enough to finish, but not as much as it would take for me to care about the continuation. It has been nominated for a Hugo, but I don't think it is of a level of sophistication worthy of that award. No matter what some others are saying, I feel a literary award should honor work that does (or at least attempts) more than just entertainment. I nominated five novels for the Hugo myself, only one of which made the final ballot. I read thirteen other eligible books, and I'd rate only a couple of them lower than this one. For those whose preference is entertaining action, who have liked Butcher's other work, I'm sure this will satisfy. That's just not me at this time.
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