J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, aka Jim Butcher does steampunk.

Whew. I finally have some time to talk about this book.

When I read a while back that Jim Butcher was doing a steampunk novel, I was torn. On one hand, I enjoy The Dresden Files enough that I bothered to rank all of them from worst to best. But on the other hand, he was taking on what I consider to be easily the most overrated genre under the sun when it comes to fiction.

I’ve gone into this rant a few times, but I can boil it down simply:  sci-fi can easily slant from good to bad to excellent depending on how often it decides to completely ignore the actual characters and story, and linger on the intricacies of the made-up technology. I understand that the machinery, starships, cyborgs, aliens, and whatnot are what make it intrinsically sci-fi, but at its essence, such things are the frosting on a cake. You don’t put more effort into the frosting than the cake itself (though some baking experts might take me to task on that). The problem is, as easily as sci-fi can fall into that trap, it is even easier for steampunk to do the exact same thing: while it’s appreciably hard to go into the present or future and think up wild technology that changes the world, it’s that much more complicated to go into the past and do the same without getting a little carried away.

To that end, I posit that I’ve read three authors that have actually pulled the genre off well:

  1. Jules Verne (Well, of course. He invented it, even if he didn’t know it at the time.).
  2. Cherie Priest. I really enjoyed her Clockwork Century novels, though in my experience, all of her work is good.
  3. Andrew Mayer. He did a really fun trilogy that mashed up superheroes and steampunk. I reviewed his work on my blog here. Check the reviews if you’re interested.

So, after The Aeronaut’s Windlass, does Jim Butcher join this very small, very arbitrary, personal list? Read on…

Pretty cool that it’s still the same artist doing the covers for this new series.


The blurb reads like this:

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…

What I liked:

The characters. First of all, there is no centralized Harry Dresden that the narration revolves around. It’s much more of an ensemble cast. Although I knew Butcher could do different POVs, judging from his Codex Alera series and Dresden short stories that don’t have Harry as the POV, it was fun to see just how many different characters got parts in this book. As is usually the author’s way, the characters are pretty standard archetypes, with a few twists thrown in for flavor:

Captain Grimm, a Horatio Hornblower type. A disgraced naval officer, but now a commander of a crew that would follow him anywhere.

Gwendolyn Lancaster, an heiress of the richest family in Albion, but headstrong and opinionated. She started off kind of cliche, but I enjoyed her more once she came to grips with the realities of being a hero.

Bridgette, an heiress of a lesser house. Probably my favorite character, just by how unconventional and unwittingly witty she is. She’s just so frank and pragmatic without actually trying to be smarter than the rest of the characters, to the point that it’s adorable. Also, I’m a sucker for how she’s ridiculously strong.

Rowl, prince of the Silent Paws. He’s a cat. And written exactly how you would imagine cats actually think. More on that later.

Folly, an apprentice etherealist. She’s basically a mage type, but with a lot of interesting little eccentricities thrown in for fun. I especially enjoyed her style of speaking.

The closest thing to a main character is Captain Grimm, but even he is only the POV for maybe 20% of the time. The ensemble cast was used to great effect, and Butcher did a great job at focusing on the right POV at the right time to tell the story effectively. You can’t really ask for much more than that.

The dialogue. The dialogue really captured what most readers come to expect out of a steampunk novel. Lots of propriety, emphasis on manners and social standing, and very dry humor. I really enjoyed it.

One of my favorite exchanges, for example:

“Very well, Miss Tagwyn,” he said, pocketing the book. “Can you walk?”

“Oh, of course,” Bridget said. “I’ve been practicing daily for a good while.”

The world. Most of the novel’s real creativity just sat patiently in the background, for the most part, in this first entry to the series. There are a lot of questions that get suggested to us, with no real clear answer.

  • Why is the world below a terrifying wasteland that’s basically a death sentence to visit? We get a hint during one of Folly’s chapters, but that’s about it.
  • How and why were the Spires built? Why do the denizens of each war with each other? (I get it, resource wars. But still)
  • Why does Master Ferrus struggle with doorknobs?
  • What’s so important about books? (Besides wood being rare, of course)

The cats. If you ever wondered what a fantasy novel would feel like if cats could talk, and were treated with a level of respect similar to humans, look no further. It felt a bit silly to read at times, but if you like cats at all, you’ll probably love this particular facet of the book.

From Rowl discussing why he has little use for “round metal circles” when he has Bridget, aka “Littlemouse” to do all of his bidding for him, from two cats bathing in front of each other, ignoring the other for hours in a battle for dominance, it ranges from cute to downright hilarious.

What I didn’t like:

The technical minutiae. Yes, even this book kind of falls into the steampunk trap. You’ll feel like you deserve a bachelor of science in lift crystals by the time this book is over. Despite that, the aerial battles between airships is spectacular and fun to read, so it’s not all that bad. And it’s easy to get the feeling that everything needed to be explained before we got to the meat of the story, aka the sequel. And on that note…

The plot progression. There’s not a lot of it in this book. It’s basically like this:

Meet the characters > bad guys show up and cause mayhem > our heroes get their mission > our heroes discover the bad guys > bad guys cause chaos and try to get away > heroes chase them down and fight.

It’s incredibly basic for 620 pages. But then, a lot of Jim Butcher’s early novels felt like they were designed to set up worldbuilding and the plot, to pay off in big ways later. I’m just going to assume for now that that is the intent here as well.

The verdict:

This is a great steampunk novel. I think I’ve already explained how rare that is. Despite this, however, I can only say that it’s a very good book, and not an amazing one. It works too hard to set up things to be truly great by itself. Maybe once this series is over, it might get bumped up. But for now, I think “very good” is it’s ceiling… no goggles required.




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