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Tuesday, October 13, 2015


Author:  Jim Butcher  
Plot Type:  Steampunk Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—3   
Publisher and Titles:  ROC
          The Aeronaut's Windlass (9/2015


     In a terrific video interview introducing the first book, Butcher describes the series as a mash-up of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Horatio Hornblower with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as his steampunk influence. Butcher calls the series a nautical-hero steam opera.
This photo gives a
general idea of what
a spire looks like.

     The series is set in a world in which an unexplained event made the world's surface uninhabitable. The enormous black spires that now house all of the Earth's population were constructed from Spirestone (obsidian) two thousand years ago by the mysterious Builders, who "had taken the secret of its working with them when they vanished from the world." The nearly indestructible stone spires provide safety and security from the mist-shrouded surface, which is a hellish land that is overrun with monstrous predators. 
Each spire is a separate kingdom, and within each kingdom are groups of habbles (city-like divisions). All communication among the spires is conducted by airships. Each spire is ruled by a SpirearchThe Spirearch of Albion is His Majesty Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion (aka Addy), who is considered by many to be irrelevant because the Council pretty much runs things. 

Map of 
Habble Morning
The spires are enormous. Spire Albion, where much of the first novel takes place, is "Ten thousand feet high, two miles across. There are two hundred and fifty habbles, of which two hundred and thirty-six are occupied." 

     "While the Builders had created Spire Albion in the shape of a perfect circle, each habble was laid out as a square fitting within that circle. The extra spaces, at the cardinal points of the compass, were filled with a variety of supporting structurescisterns, ventilation tunnels, waste tunnels, and the like." 

     In contrast to Butcher's DRESDEN FILES, these books are written in the third person voice from multiple viewpoints. Like DRESDEN FILES, the events take place within a compressed time space. 

     Here is a list of the main characters who are introduced in the first book:

   Captain Francis Madison Grimm: Captain of the privateer AMS Predator. He was thrown out of the Fleet for cowardice (a trumped-up charge) and refuses to discuss the matter with anyone. He is the Harry Dresden of this seriesthe hero: intelligent, honorable, and pragmatic (but more serious and not at all magical).

   Gwendolyn (Gwen) Lancaster: the 16-year-old daughter of an important noble house that is responsible for creating the etheric crystals that provide all of the power in Albion. Gwen is used to getting her way and tends to speak and act without much thought as to the consequences. When she fails to recognize the Spirearch and berates him for being impolite, Benedict tells her, "You really must learn to shut your mouth from time to time. You'll taste less shoe leather." Later, Benedict enumerates Gwen's "diplomatic efforts": "instigating a duel, threatening a detachment of Fleet Marines with charges of treason, throwing away a tidy little fortune in bribes, and abruptly discharging a gauntlet into an otherwise nonviolent situation."

   Benedict Sorellin-Lancaster: Gwen's warriorborn cousin, a heroic Spire Guard. The warriorborn are human, but have super-strength, speed, and reflexes and some feline physical characteristics (e.g., "golden, vertically slit eyes...with the blood of lions in his limbs"). They appear to have been hybridized with felines. The cats refer to the warriorborn as "half-souled." 

   Bridget Tagwynn: the only daughter of a meat vatterist (a butcher) whose legendary noble house has nearly dwindled away. Bridget and Gwen function, in Butcher's words, as the "idiots"clueless characters who ask the world-building questions that readers want answered. Gwen's description of Bridget reminds me of Brienne from Game of Thrones: "one of the largest young women Gwen had ever met…Her blond hair was long and thick. She had shoulders as wide as some men, thick wrists, and strong-looking hands and forearms."

   Rowl: Bridget's arrogant, egotistical, and adorably furry feline companion, who taught her how to speak cat and who tolerates her presence much more than he does any other human.

   Efferus Effrenus Ferus: a powerful, eccentric, mad etherealist (a wizard or sorcerer). "For most of us, etheric currents flow around us, like a stream of water flowing around stone. But for some folk, etheric energy doesn't go aroundit courses right through them. They draw it to them." Ferus does his best to cope with the world, but he sometimes forgets to put on his clothes and has trouble with doorknobs: "I say, dear boy, could you get the doorknob for me? I never could learn the trick of the blasted things."

   Folly: Ferus' apprentice, also an etherealist, who can speak only to her jar of crystals. She has prophetic dreams. 

   Captain Calliope Ransom: a mysterious womana frenemyfrom Grimm's past.

   Sycorax Cavendish: an etherealist and the primary villain. Butcher describes her as an evil Mary Poppins who probably won't kill you while you're being polite, but if you slip up on your manners, she'll most definitely claw your eyes out. 

    And now we come to the most controversial element of the series: the sapient cats. Butcher describes them as "fuzzy, egotistical Libertarians." Reviewers are either totally pro or totally con on the cats. Personally, I enjoyed their antics. These are intelligent cats who live not with, but next to, the human population. They live in the vents and keep the spires free of the smaller vermin. "It wasn't unheard of for the creatures of the surface to gain access to a Spire. In fact, the smaller beasts did so regularly. A Spire contained literally hundreds of miles of ventilation tunnels and ducts, water channels, cisterns, sewage channels, and compost chambers. Metal grates were regularly installed where they could be, but constant contact with the outer atmosphere degraded their cladding and eventually left them vulnerable to iron rot." The cats also gather intelligence because of their access to the tunnels that run through and around the habbles. 

     The "steampunk" part of this world shows up in the usual gadgets, goggles, and weapons. For example, the most common weapon is the gauntlet, a blasting weapon that's like (in Butcher's words) "a Tony Stark Iron Man gauntlet, only way steam-punkier." It consists of a weaponized crystal held in the palm of the hand and connected to copper wires that form a cage on the forearm. The user fires blasts of energy at the enemy through the crystal. In this series, the goggles actually have a purpose: to protect human eyes from the sun and from the etheric currents. Most of the gadgets involve crystals and etheric currents in some manner.

     To date, Butcher is committed to a three-book series, but he hopes to write six or nine. To take a closer look at maps of the CINDER SPIRES world, click HERE to go to Priscilla Spencer's Map Store. Click HERE to go to the Cinder Spires Wikea where you can find information about this world and renditions of the spires. Click HERE to read the TVTropes description of the series.

                          NOVEL  1:  The Aeronaut's Windlass                              
     Jim Butcher conjures up a new series set in a fantastic world of noble families, steam-powered technology, magic-wielding warriors, and intelligent cats.

     Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace.

     Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion—to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.

     And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake.

  Click HERE and scroll down slightly to read substantial excerpts from The Aeronaut's Windlass.

     In the video interview referenced at the beginning of the World-Building section above, Butcher describes this first novel as being a chance to meet these people, see the world they live in, and "throw them into hideous danger against horrible monsters…against evil opponents and not-so-evil opponents." Because this is the first novel, Butcher devotes a great deal of ink to world-building and characterization. That slows down the pace of the first few chapters, but don't give up. As soon as the Aurorans attack Albion, the action kicks off and the pace speeds up.

    Spire Aurora's attack is quick and dirtya Pearl Harbor-type strike that does minor structural damage and causes the deaths of many innocent civilians.  Obviously, Aurora had some inside knowledge, so the Spirearch needs to put together a special team to ferret out the traitor within Albion who is leaking vital information to the enemy. Addy has to select trustworthy people, so he chooses three young Spire Guards (Gwen, Benedict, and Bridget) who haven't been in their positions long enough to become enemy spies. Including Bridget gives him the added bonus of Rowl's access to the cats' information network within Albion. Addy chooses Grimm to lead the team because Grimm is an outsider who has proven his loyalty to Albion. The final two team members are Ferus and Folly, who bring their magical powers. Most of the team members (including Rowl, but not Ferus or Benedict) and one Auroran marine officer take turns at being among the six points of view from which Butcher tells his story.

     There are only three major settings: Habble Morning (largest of the Albion habbles and home to the Spirearch and the Council); Habble Landing (an entrepreneurial working-class habble that also houses the Temple of the Way, home of some zenned-out, Kung Fu monks); and the open skies aboard Predator (mostly battle scenes). 

     The team immediately sails from Morning to Landing, where they encounter all sorts of danger, including spider-like monsters from the surface, an evil etherealist who kills without mercy, hundreds of Auroran marines who have infiltrated Landing, and a mercenary from Grimm's past who causes some major problems for the team and for Predator. The final battle is beautifully written and goes on for several chapters of page-turning, breakneck action. Some of the story threads are resolved, but most of them are not, which means that the next book can't come too soon! 

     And now, for some of my favorite quotations: 

   >> Here, one of the warriorborn explains to Bridget why he believes that democracies are violent: "The heart of democracy is violence…In order to decide what to do, we take a count of everyone for and against it, and then do whatever the larger side wishes to do. We're having a symbolic battle, its outcome decided by simple numbers. It saves us time and no end of trouble counting actual bodies—but don't mistake it for nothing but ritualized violence." That description really hits home as I'm writing this in the midst of the vocally vicious 2016 presidential campaign—a perfect example of ritualized violence. 

   >> At the end of the democracy conversation, Growl adds his opinion: "It is one of the only things we respect about your people…Though, of course, cats do it better." 

   >> In a fascinating conversation that Ferus has with Gwen and Benedict, he discusses the possibility that each person experiences the universe in a slightly different way: The dialogue begins with a discussion of colors: Ferus poses a possibility to Gwen: "Suppose that what you see as the color blue is the same shade that Sir Benedict sees when he looks at something you would call green." Gwen responds: "So you're saying that it's possible that when I see blue, he sees green?" Ferus disagrees: "Not at all. He sees the color blue…But his color blue. Not yours." Their conversation continues: "That's something perfectly simple and relatively minorcolors. What if fundamental aspects of life seem quite different to others? What if their experience of heat and cold is different? What if they sense pleasure or pain differently? What if, to their eyes, gravity draws objects sideways instead of down? How would we know the difference…? We've all learned to call the same phenomena by certain names from the time we are quite small, after all. We could see things in utterly unique and amazing ways, and be quite ignorant of the fact." That conversation (pp. 282-285) reminded me of Dressgate (#thedress)—the viral photograph phenomenon (in February 2015) of gold/white dress vs. black/blue dress. It's all in the eye of the beholder.

   >> And there are plenty of catty comments that provoke a smile. Rowl himself adds to the humor with lots of odd and arrogant comments, but he also insinuates his presence into conversations between humans. Here, Benedict explains to Gwen why Rowl will be Bridget's second in a duel: 
          Benedict smiled very slightly. "Rowl seemed insistent."
          "Rowl," Gwendolyn said, "is a cat, Benedict."
          "Have you ever tried to stop a cat from doing what it wants to do? Benedict asked her.

     I highly recommend this book, but I warn you that if you are looking for something similar to DRESDEN FILES or CODEX ALERA, you won't find it here. This is an inventive, all-new world for Butcher, and in The Aeronaut's Windlass, he makes a solid start for his series.

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