I ended up being quite fond of this book, to the point where I stayed up an extra two hours past my bedtime to finish it. It’s a solid steampunk fantasy book–nothing revolutionary, just *fun*, and I can see great potential in future books of the series.
Basically, The Aeronaut’s Windlass takes place in a world where humanity lives in outrageously tall structures called Spires, which were built thousands and thousands of years before, and whose origins are shrouded. The surface of the planet (Earth?) is covered in dense mists, and the surface and the planet and the animals that live there are the stuff of nightmares for the characters in this book. Most people grow up never even seeing the sky. Each spire is basically its own country, and when they do travel between spires, they do it on airships that are powered by organically grown crystals. It’s through these crystals (and steampower, of course) that they have electricity and all the rest of their technology, although the culture seems to be very close to Edwardian. Oh, and in this world, cats are intelligent and have their own language, which few humans speak.
But all that’s just background. The book actually cycles though several POVs. We’ve got the grim airship captain (whose name is actually Grimm) who used to be in the Fleet, but is now a disgraced Privateer; the wealthy young noblewoman who longs to prove herself; the young ingénue who is very tall and whose best friend is a cat; and of course, the cat himself. His name is Rowl, and he is a prince*. We get POV chapters for him, and I loved every second of it. Butcher absolutely nails the cat attitude without making it ridiculous for him to be an actual character.
*There’s one scene in here where two cats have “diplomatic relations,” and it involves them trying to see who can ignore the other one and care the least about everything for the most amount of time.
Oh, and then of course we’ve got this books version of a magician, an etherealist master named Ferus, who is a cross between a mad scientist and a wizard, and his young apprentice Folly. The “magic” system in this book was intriguing solely for what it does to these two characters, who have some of the best lines and moments in the book. They both could easily have fallen into the trap of the mad character, but they don’t, and I ended up loving both of them (especially Folly) by the end.
All of these people are brought together when a neighboring Spire declares war on Spire Albion, and they are sent on a covert mission to gather intelligence for the coming battles.
Mostly I think my theory holds about Jim Butcher, that he’s just not great at beginnings of stories. I’m not talking about beginnings of individual books–Skin Game, for instance, was an A+ book from page one. I’m talking beginnings of series, beginnings of worldbuilding, beginnings of characters. This book was pleasant enough to read, once I got past the initial confusion of a new fantasy world, but it took me until almost halfway through before I started really warming up to the characters. I feel like this is because Butcher does his best character work when he’s putting them through hell. His books tend to take place over short periods of time, during which they are put through the ringer. They tend to be types at the beginning, and we get to know them as things get moving. This makes later events have more weight, but it does tend to make his beginnings hard going.
The characters in this book aren’t nearly as underdeveloped as his characters were in the first few Dresden Files books, but the second half of the book is most definitely stronger than the first. Also, it has TOP NOTCH action sequences, particularly the aerial battles.
Anyway, I quite enjoyed this, and I look forward to further books in the series. If you’re in the mood for a solid but unspectacular fantasy, this might do, and if it goes anything like the trajectory for the Dresden Files, later books could be AMAZING.