Review: The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher *SPOILERS*

May 7, 2016
I'm quite fussy about the fiction I read, and so I don't read as much as I should. I've never read any of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and very little steampunk, even though as an idea it really floats my airship. Mainly because what I have read hasn't had the delight and adventure I've always associated with the idea of Victoriana with AIRSHIPS! (I also loathe the idea of anthropomorphised cats (the importance of this point will become clear).

So for me, it's quite something to have finally picked up 'The Aeronaut's Windlass', and then to have finished it in 3 days.

Mr Butcher's writing style is perfect for the world he has created - a quite formal, slightly long-winded but engaging tone throughout, matching character speech and mannerisms very well. To me, it's the way all steampunk should be written - effective, but old school without being too let-me-read-that-half-page-sentence-with-sixteen-commas-again-to-understand-it.

He develops his world effectively without smacking you over the head. Information about the world important to a scene is knitted in while the plot of the scene is unfolding. Towards the end of the book, before the heroes ship has actually flown properly for the first time, a description of key parts of a ship's lift engine and how ships fly is woven into a scene where a central character is developed in important ways, their relationship with a minor character is critically altered, and crucial repairs are made in the nick of time. That description is then harked back to a few pages later in a discussion about sabotage to another ship. But, critically, you're also left with a lot of unanswered questions about the world, such as who built the Spires, how and why? These and many others are raised but not answered - because they are not important to the story being told.

And then there's the cats. One of my favourite characters is a cat. I never thought I'd write that sentence - but Mr Butcher has cat cats, not cats as surrogate humans. They and their feline behaviour are totally integrated into the world and the story. For a long time I thought Terry Pratchett's 'The Unadulterated Cats' was the guide to cat behaviour, but Mr Butcher has presented a fuller understanding with almost as much humour. They have full feline roles to play in the world, and a complete society with human interactions to go with those roles, all of which are affected by events in the story. As characters, their interactions and associated thought processes are exactly as you would imagine cats would be. At one point, the main cat character goes ballistic because his favourite human (who can rub his ears just right) runs into a burning building!!! to save her man; unless he wants to spend years retraining another human, he has to follow her because, of course, she'll never get out without him. He finds her in the flames, shouts at her because his fur is all disarrayed and he's got smoke in his nose, then leads her out. Once they escape the flames, both with serious injuries, she carries him half-way across the platform for treatment. If you like sarcastic, full of themselves characters with a caring edge, then Mr Butcher's cats are the characters for you.

Speaking of which, the characters as a whole are fun and engaging - you care about them, and you keep turning the pages to find out - even the bad guys. But they're all stock. The haughty princess, the brave warrior, the heroic gruff captain with a past, the evil queen, the mad professor, the bad guy with a conscience, the naïf (twice), the crew ever ready to follow their captain wherever he leads, etc. We've seen them all before. But, as it was with the Belgariad, it's the interaction between the characters that counts. Key characters are given depth that allows them to joke, be sarcastic, care about / respect each other and develop through the story.

But they also seem to be unstoppable. Oh, they do take a lot of damage, and they suffer, but most of the action seems to takes place over a couple of days and they just Never. Stop. Fighting. And being injured. And crashing out asleep. Only to be woken quickly. On and on and on. One suffers a serious concussion, but is up and fixing an engine within hours. It doesn't feel believable that humans could keep going in those conditions, but it's never a point that grates heavily.

And the fighting. The action is mostly fights. Or leading up to a fight. Or running to get into another fight. Or, for a change, a fire. To be fair, the plot does revolve around an invasion, but it could involve other activities than a series of fights - there's only so many times you can read about a sword being drawn or a gauntlet primed or over-heating.

At the end of the day this is a straight forward rollicking adventure, almost exactly what steampunk should be - although a little more reality (in steampunk!), and some variety to show us some more of the world, wouldn't go amiss.

I won't be reading any of the Dresden Files. But the fact that it looks like I'll need to wait at least another year for the follow up 'The Olympian Affair' because Mr Butcher is writing another one of them is...frustrating. Why can't authors be cloned? I'm sure there's a mad professor with a steaming vat of cogs and goo around here somewhere...