First book in the Cinder Spires series
By Jim Butcher
Available now from Roc (Penguin Random House)
Jim Butcher, author of the popular urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, takes on steampunk fantasy in the first book of the Cinder Spires. I find the cover for this one somewhat misleading. It's clearly taking cues from the covers of his most famous series, with one man in a long dark jacket filling the cover. But THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS is truly an ensemble novel. Even some of the antagonists get sympathetic passages through their point of view. More than that, the novel's two most prominent narrators are female. There's also a cat (who speaks Cat, which some humans can understand) who is probably very insulted that he is not the focus of the cover.
The AMS Predator is a small privateer ship that was recently severely damaged. Captain Grimm finds a way to get the repairs he needs, but it involves working for the Spirearch (the ruler of Spire Albion, the novel's setting) on a rather ill-defined mission. With him are two mad etherealists (think wizard) and three soldiers. Two of those soldiers are Gwen and Bridget, and the third is Gwen's cousin Benedict. Gwen is from one of the Spire's greatest families and thus arrogant and somewhat naive, but she's also aces at getting the job done. Bridget is also from a great family, but of the sort that has fallen into genteel poverty. Both girls are brand-new recruits, but still have skills to offer the mission.
It's hard to pick out what my favorite parts of THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS are. I loved everything about Rowl (the cat), even though I'm not a cat person. I found the villains suitably terrifying, but liked that many of the Auroans (that is, the people of the opposing Spire) where essentially honorable people trying to carry out their duty and minimize the impact of the actually evil antagonists. I loved Gwen, and Bridget, and Folly, and admired how much Butcher has grown in the way he writes women since the first Dresden Files books.
THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS presents a rather complicated world, in which the surface is uninhabitable and covered with monsters and thus people live in Spires and sail through the air in ships. But it is delightfully inventive and it is fun to see how it all works together. It is definitely more fantasy with a steampunk aesthetic than an alt history type series, at least for now.
The book is well paced, with plenty of action amid the worldbuilding. There was one long battle that I couldn't believe wasn't the climatic battle until the story kept going and I realized that of course that was the battle Butcher was building up to. It was very neatly done and gave THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS a nice sense of closure despite the many threads left dangling for future books in the series. I'm eager for the second book, to see how those threads get picked up.