Pirates! Airships! Talking Cats!
When I pitched this (audio)book to my brother as a way to ease our 31 hour road trip, his reply was “Airship piracy? Yes please.” Though we both felt the book could use a few more airships and pirates, the addition of fun characters, snappy dialogue, and sentient cats made the miles fly by.
The book starts with a gripping airship battle, setting an appropriate tone for the book: fast-paced, funny, memorable characters and just the right blend of fantasy and steampunk awesome to pull you through the few moments that aren’t top-notch. Chief among these are some frustratingly air-headed magicians and a plodding plot—but before we complain! Let us sing Butcher’s praises like his airships sing, diving into battle.
The Cinder Spires world (this book is the first of the series) is awesome—humanity living in ten-mile high towers, believable (for once) reasons why airships work, inter-tower warfare and a nuanced environment make wandering the world and discovering its secrets a constant pleasure. Almost all Butcher’s characters are fun and likeable—from the laconic-humored Captain Grimm to the always-does-what-she-shouldn’t young Gwendolyn and the colorful cast of the airship crew, big personalities drive his story and punctuate the action with clever humor. Butcher has a talent for snappy dialogue, and it’s part of what pulls us through what may be one-too-many fight scenes and coincidental encounters between main characters.
But enough of that—the book has talking cats. Raul, sidekick (or, in his eyes, casual overseer) to main point-of-view character Bridget, is everything cat lovers (and haters) know cats to be: lazy, violent, arrogant, disdainful, food-obsessed—and explains it all in believable (if humorous) cat terms. Raul’s chapters are the highlight of the book, and the extra awesome that pushes The Aeronaut’s Windlass from a good to a great read.
Not all of his characters are ringers, though: the magician’s apprentice in particular, central to the story and infecting most of it, can talk only in third person, and both she and her master (though suitably excused for it bc of the toll their magic takes on them) are frustratingly eccentric and air-headed. For all Butcher’s sense of humor and character, their chapters (and even their appearances in other chapters) fell flat for both my brother and I. The story itself meanders some too: from an epic duel that never happen to fights that feel like filler and one too many just-barely-in-time moments, the plot isn’t always surprising or satisfying. Worldwise, the magic feels kind of slapdash, and the two religions, The Way and that of God In Heaven, feel shallow and inserted basically because people need religion. Perhaps Butcher is just leaving room for development in sequels.
Quibbles aside, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has enough gripping action, memorable characters, and laconic humor to make it well worth your time. If the characters don’t change much, nor many deep human truths come to light (well, there might be one or two), it’s still better than 90% of the fantasy out there. If you like pirates, adventure, high magic, steampunk and the lighter side of fantasy (did I mention talking cats?), this book is your next read.
A fantasy lover since Tolkien in third grade, Levi has been published in several magazines, including Lakeside Circus, Perihelion SF, and Spark: A Creative Anthology. He is currently at work on a novel--fantasy, of course.