Self-important fantasy is not for me. I shy away from grandiose worlds of shimmering elves, awe-inspiring dragons, and evil rulers with inevitably predictable connections to a pesky farm-boy Chosen One. I like my fantasy quirky, irreverent, and constantly working to surprise me. Which is why I loved The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first volume in Jim Butcher’s new series, The Cinder Spires.
Taking a well-earned break from the 15-volume Dresden Files, Butcher dives into a completely new world that can be summed up with an equation along the lines of “Horatio Hornblower, plus sarcasm, multiplied by steampunk (raised to the power of sentient talking cat creatures).”
All of humanity lives miles above the surface of a misty, toxic world, perched upon ancient black spires capable of supporting entire cities. Tensions are rising between Spire Aurora and Spire Albion. Navy washout Captain Grimm owns one of the fastest merchant airships among the spires, and finds himself swept up in a spy mission to uncover a shady conspiracy in Spire Albion. Along for the ride are Lady Gwendolyn, a proud young aristocrat with quick trigger finger on her gauntlet, a crystal-powered laser gun made out of copper; Bridget Tagwynn, a commoner who has learned the language of the cats and earned from them the name “Littlemouse”; and Ferus, a wizard who can never quite grasp how to use a doorknob.
Each has a wry appreciation for their own shortcoming, and is quick with a sarcastic comment about whatever life-threatening peril is approaching. No stodgy seriousness here; just rollicking steampunk adventure.
But that alone didn’t blow me away: it’s the layered storylines, which constantly bump up against one another, pairing characters in new ways and never stopping for a moment. The 630-page tome takes place over a contained period, and the action is furious enough that the book doesn’t even stop to breathe until chapter 17. At one point, a duel is interrupted by an invasion.
The world-building is as frantic as the action: Butcher isn’t content to stop with cities of massive spires filled with airships powered by anti-gravity crystals. He also invents career paths like the Verminocitors’ Guild, an ever-vigilant team designed to contain the dangerous surface-world vermin from infiltrating the spires; or the etherealists, wizards driven mad by the power of crystals that let them peek into all possible futures (the crazy ones can be helpful, but it’s the ones that seem sane that you need to watch out for). And then there are the talking cats. Windlass goes far beyond the tropes of any one sub-genre, creating a stew that tastes quite unlike anything you’ve had before.
The best books give us characters who live on in our minds long after the covers have closed. In Windlass, every cast member is fun, funny, and uniquely courageous. You’ll meet aeronauts, soldiers, aristocrats, the half-human “warrior-born,” wizard, and an entire civilization of talking cats, each more epic than the last. At least, according to the cats, whose entire culture appears to hinge on being as arrogant as felinely possible. By the end, an entire family of oddball roustabouts has come together under the steady eye of Captain Grimm, and I can’t wait to follow them on more adventures. This isn’t just a great fantasy novel, but a great introduction to an ongoing series.