I am a Butcher fan. However, even though I am a fan, I am often terrified of how huge his following is and how rabid some of his readers are when it comes to defending him. I know multiple people who basically exclusively read Dresden and pretty much nothing else. So I tend to take all Butcher reviews with a massive grain of salt as Butcher could print a blank book and some people would claim it to be a writing innovation. That said, I like to think of myself as an impartial judge of his work. I really like some of The Dresden Files, but also think some of its entries are fairly weak. In addition, while I thought Butcher’s Furies series started out well, I feel that it spiraled downward in quality as it progressed. As such I approached Butcher’s new book/series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, expecting it to be alright as I thought Butcher didn’t know how to write anything other than Dresden. I am happy to say, while the book was not perfect, I was wrong and The Aeronaut’s Windlass definitely exceeded expectations.
Windlass tells the story of Spire Albion, a giant stone tower rising out of the ground in a steampunk world. The surface of the earth seems to have been taken over by bloodthirsty creatures that want to murder all humans, so humanity has relocated to a number of these giant stone towers in the sky to survive. The spires have limited resources in the sky so they often end up going to war with one another. The spires go to war in what are essentially flying pirate ships made of wood with tons of cannons. It’s a really fun concept that Butcher builds out really well. He breathes tons of details into his world that makes it feel vivid, complex, and well thought out. Our protagonists are two young recruits in the Albion guard, one a noble and one a commoner, a lovable airship captain with a sordid past and a grizzled jaw, and a cat (I will come back to this). The cast gives a nice diverse set of perspectives that serve to flesh out the world and add layers of context to events as they happen. The plot of the book follows these characters as a war breaks out between Spire Albion and a neighboring Spire.
The strengths of the book come from three key pillars: world building, mystery, and swashbuckling action. As I mentioned before, the world building is excellent. Butcher spent a lot of time thinking about how his spires work, and small details such as how the ships dock, how the economy works, what foods are available, and what various interesting jobs exist on giant stone towers are nice touches. All these pieces lend the book the feeling that you are reading something original and different. Butcher also manages to create a strong air of mystery throughout the narrative. You will constantly be curious as to what is going on, and almost every character has a mysterious past for you to ferret out. The book is overstuffed with secrets and big reveals, which help to make the book exciting. Speaking of excitement, the book’s final strength, and maybe its largest, is the fact that it is packed full of fun, awesome action. There are several thrilling airship battles that kept me on the edge of my seat, tons of witty dialogue, and kick-ass combat that just make the book fun.
On the other hand, while the book is a lot of fun, the characters are not particularly deep. The protagonists are fairly one dimensional, and while I loved many of the side characters, I only felt tepid affection for the protagonists. In addition, one of the concerns I had for the book is that Butcher specializes in writing shorter episodic books and might stretch a concept too thin in this longer epic. This rears its ugly head for me with Butcher’s decision to make cats talk and include them as major characters. In The Aeronaut’s Windlass, house cats are “people” and can talk. While I initially loved the idea, I found that over the course of the 700 page book it started to wear on me noticeably until I got pretty tired of it. In addition, while I was ok with the amount of mystery in the story, I wish we learned a little more about the secret pasts of our protagonists in the first novel (it is intimated that it will be revealed in the sequels).
The Aeronaut’s Windlass is fast paced, has some climactic scenes, has excellent world building, and is an overall fun time. It is not the best book I have ever read, but it is certainly good enough to get me excited for the sequel and feel cautiously optimistic that this series will be better than Butcher’s Furies. I have a strong suspicion that the sequel, The Olympian Affair, will either elevate the series or tank it and I am excited to find out which it will be. The Quill to Live recommends The Aeronaut’s Windlass to anyone looking for a fun sky pirate adventure.
Rating: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – 8.5/10