The Cinder Spires: the Aeronaut's Windlass
by Jim Butcher
Cover Artist: Chris McGrath
Review by Sam Lubell
Roc Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451466808
Date: 29 September 2015 List Price $27.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Readers who enjoy big fantasy adventures, steampunk, and adventure on the high seas will love Jim Butcher's The Aeronaut's Windlass, the first book in The Cinder Spires series. This is a very ambitious novel (630 pages) with multiple main characters, all receiving excellent characterization and development. The book has lots of action, everything from ship to ship combat using airships (with 3-D tactics) to fighting monsters to a literal catfight. Even readers who are not already fans of Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files series should give this one a read.
In the world of The Aeronaut's Windlass humans do not live on the land but in giant towers called spires. Most of this book takes place on Spire Albion ruled by the Spirearch (although he insists he is obsolete as the Council does all the work.) Spire Albion is ten thousand feet high, two miles across, and has 250 levels (called habbles). The world is powered by steam and magic. The military is armed with crystal-powered gauntlets that blast etheric energy, although the Guardsmen also use swords. The airships are powered by steam and sails, but also use crystals for lift and steering.
The book opens with Gwendolyn, heir of House Lancaster, defying her mother by joining the Spirearch's Guard. Gwen is a wonderful character, she admits that she is "willful and blunt and arrogant" and not good with people. She is always confident she is right and has a tendency to use her blaster gauntlet as the simplest solution to a problem. But she has a good heart and wants to help; she just does not understand subtlety and tends to speak and act before thinking. Gwen's cousin Benedict, a more experienced Guardsman, is part warrior-born, with feline eyes, and greater strength and speed than normal humans, although he tries to pass as normal and conceals his capabilities. Captain Grimm of the Albion Merchant [Air]Ship Predator, what we would call a privateer, was dismissed from the Albion Fleet for cowardice after a mysterious incident left him in charge of a ship. He is determined to do his duty to his men and always leads from the front.
Bridget Tagwynn, the sole daughter of a somewhat impoverished House, is reluctant to fulfill her family obligation and join the Guard. While unusually large and strong for a female, she is completely untrained in weapons, does not believe herself to be brave, and knows little of the world outside the family vats, although she does speak the language of cats. In fact, her cat Rowl, who calls her Littlemouse, is a major character in the book.
Rowl is a prince of the local cats and is convinced that cats are superior to humans. Butcher has done an excellent job creating a believable character who thinks like a cat, not a person, and the scenes involving cat culture are some of the best in the book. Still, Rowl is not at all comic relief, he makes major contributions to the plot and saves the other characters at least as often as they save him.
Two other characters, Master Ferus and Apprentice Folly, are etherealists (essentially wizards) with magical abilities to manipulate etheric energy. Like all etherealists, they are mad; Ferus is unable to master doorknobs while Folly only talks to Ferus or a bag of crystal she carries everywhere.
The Aeronaut's Windlass does a superb job introducing the world and its characters. Although the first book in a series, it does not end in a cliffhanger. Instead, after a satisfying climax that resolves the initial situation, the book drops hints of more to come.
Of course, the book is not perfect. One flaw is the romance between two characters that comes from nowhere and consists largely of one person rescuing the other and then worrying about that person's recovery. The book also is unclear on just what the etherealists can and cannot do. However, these are minor flaws in an overall success. The Aeronaut's Windlass combines great characters, great action, and a background with the best features of steampunk and traditional fantasy. Butcher skillfully uses humor without undercutting the drama.
This new series has the potential to be an even bigger hitter than Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Anyone who enjoys fantasy will love this book. Highly recommended.