Jim Butcher is most famous for chronicling the adventures of that other wizard named Harry in the long running Dresden Files series, but he has been known to branch out into other Fantasy realms from time to time. What was nominated for this year’s Hugo Award is one of those departures, a steampunk adventure called The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass. I’ve read four of Butcher’s Dresden novels with mixed reactions, and that feeling generally holds here. Steampunk fans may enjoy this heartily, but I found myself struggling through it for some reason that I’m having trouble pinning down. I should really enjoy this novel, but something elusive is holding me back.
Humanity has retreated from a hostile, mist-covered earth into large floating spires ruled by aristocracy. They fly ships harnessing ethereal currents and use magic crystals to power everything. Spire Albion is currently embroiled in a cold war with Spire Aurora, a war that’s about to escalate, even as an even greater threat to humanity begins to stir…
Captain Grimm commands a merchant ship (ne privateer) for Spire Albion, but when the ship is hobbled in combat, he must embark on a secret mission at the behest of his Spirearch, Lord Albion himself, in order to secure the necessary repairs. Along for the ride are Gwendolyn Lancaster, hailing from a prominent aristocratic house that is famous for growing those magic crystals in vats. Her cousin Benedict is a warriorborn, human beings hybridized with some feline features to make them more efficient warriors. Bridget Tagwynn is another aristocrat, but her house is not nearly as prominent as the Lancasters. Her talking cat Rowl follows her, acting all haughty and superior (as cats do). Then there are the etherialists, people who can harness ethereal powers for their own purposes, driving them partially mad in the process. Ferus is renowned and powerful, but comes off as an absent-minded, bumbling professor. He mentors Folly, a manic-pixie dream girl whose goofiness manifests as a tendency to address all communication to her crystals (rather than who she is trying to communicate with).
All of these characters are actually pretty well established and likeable, and their relationships work well. There are some mentor-mentee things going on, some romantic inclinations, unlikely friendships, and so on, and it’s all effective and entertaining stuff. Grimm is a well-drawn leader and the glue that keeps the group together and focused. As you might tell from my description of Folly above, she initially comes off as a bit cliched, but as time goes on and we spend more time with her, she really comes into her own. There’s a villain named Cavendish who is a worthy foe. There are big ship battles that are effective and maybe even realistic. Butcher takes full advantage of the three dimensions, and seems to leverage some of the principles of aerial combat (i.e. higher altitudes have a higher energy potential, a la John Boyd’s E-M Theory, or maybe I’m giving too much credit here).
This should work for me, but for some reason, it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just the steampunk tropes that are giving me the hives. Every once in a while, Butcher will drop a term that is so very steampunk and my reaction was almost always a roll of the eyes. Verminociter? Telescoptic? Oy. But that’s just superficial surface stuff, right? The deeper dislike is more difficult to pin down. One of the things I’ve never particularly enjoyed about Butcher’s storytelling is his sense of pacing. He gets repetitive and overly-reliant on exposition, especially in the middle sections of this book. There’s great action sequences at the beginning and end of the novel, but the middle section features entirely too much silkweaver (a sorta cross between giant spiders and centipedes). Butcher’s brand of fantasy also seems to fall into the whole “escalating magical powers” trap that usually doesn’t work for me. A corollary to this is the hero who can take on obscene amounts of punishment in battle and still come through alive and well in the end. This book isn’t as bad as some of Butcher’s others, but it’s still there, and it is one of those things that just makes the book seem longer…
It often feels like we’re just spinning our wheels. Eventually everything’s set up for the climax, so he kinda gets there… only that isn’t really the climax. The conflict between Spires Albion and Aurora has only just begun. There are hints at an even larger threat, an ancient enemy, but they’re only hints. We don’t really get far into either of these, and yet this book is over 750 pages long. Sometimes you can get away with that, but the airship battles, characters, and their relationships just weren’t enough to overcome the bloated exposition and steampunk cliches. I’m not particularly opposed to finding out what happens next, but I can’t see myself picking up the next book in the series either (without some sort of outside prompting).
In the larger context of the Hugo novel category, it’s perhaps telling that my two favorites are standalone novels (Seveneves and Uprooted), while the two series-starters (this book and The Fifth Season) are clearly my least favorite. Ancillary Mercy kinda squeaks by because it’s the end of it’s particular story, even if I didn’t particularly love it. I’ve finished off the novelettes and am working through the novellas now, so look for updates on those in the near future.