A bit of summary
On an Earth that has become the inhospitable home of monsters and beasts, humanity clusters in the Cinder Spires -- enclosed stone cities that tower miles into the sky.
After an attack on Spire Albion by an enemy force, the Spire-Arch assembles an unlikely team for a espionage mission. Three young members of the Guard provide physical protection for an unhinged magician and his odd apprentice, who suspect a more ethereal threat. Captain Grimm, disgraced fleet officer turned privateer, plays reluctant host to the party in exchange for the restoration of his damaged ship.
This attack is far more than just the beginning of a mundane war. If they fail, they condemn Spire Albion -- and the remnants of humanity -- to destruction by forces beyond their understanding.
Review: I liked it a lot and I think I'm going to go with 4 stars but it would have been 5 stars except for one or two things :) YAY FOUR STARS!!!!
Things I Didn't Like, Or, What Lost it That One Star
I'm going to get the negative bits out of the way so I can talk about the rest of the book in glowing, positive terms!
I found one of the main characters annoying. Gwen really grew on me -- by the end, I was barely annoyed by her at all. But in the opening chapter, she fights with her mother to be allowed to leave to join the Spire-Arch's Guard. Both of them come across as petty, petulant, annoying, mean-spirited women. Gwen's mother threatens to beat her if she won't obey, and has her household guards assault and attempt to detain her. Gwen is a giant brat. She threatens to murder her mother and/or her mother's guard if she doesn't get her way.
I got invested in the scene regardless -- unlikable characters don't prevent me from liking the story; in fact, they often make it more interesting.
However, when Gwen finally makes her dramatic exit, we learn that Mom staged this whole scene to manipulate Gwen into joining the Guard. So...that intense confrontation we just sat through had no stakes at all. BETRAYAL.
A lot of authors think "HAHA PLOT TWIST GOTCHA SUCKER" is clever. My reaction tends to be, "Hahaha fuck you."
Mom's reasoning was that Gwen always does things her mother doesn't want her to do, because her mother doesn't want her to do them. This makes Gwen seem like a petulant, easily manipulated, entitled child. Who should definitely not be taking any kind of office where she's given power over others. And military-style training. And deadly weapons. She is just sixteen, but even for sixteen her behavior seems a bit...much. Did I say brat?
Perhaps if her mother was in fact abusive, I could understand their fraught relationship. Gwen's violence, her desperation to leave home, and her desire for martial training seem more appropriate if she's trying to free herself from a domineering, abusive matriarch. However, the beating was also revealed to be an empty threat.
Basically, I misread the scene, interpreted their unlikable characters in that light, and was seriously let down by the "twist" which revealed Gwen's mom as the good guy -- and Gwen as yet another "rich kid runs away" trope. She's not quite a runaway princess, but her story does bear some resemblance to that trope. Which I despise. And which fantasy uses and abuses far too often.
|For real, even Disney has made a movie based entirely on deconstructing this trope.|
Also, if her mother is manipulating her into running away, then Gwen's struggle and her choice to leave -- which obviously means a lot to her -- isn't really her choice, is it? She only has pretend agency. I feel that the "twist" ending cheapened that scene unforgivably.
Gwen flings her entitlement around a lot in the first few chapters, which didn't exactly endear her to me. BUT, she does grow! And change! And become more self-aware and mature! Even if she's still something of an "I'm trying really hard to write a 'strong female character' type" and "definitely a bit of a Mary Sue who is good at everything" and "a feisty redhead." And even if the author does play the "We can be friends because YOU'RE NOT LIKE THE OTHER GIRLS AND I'M NOT LIKE THE OTHER GIRLS WOMEN ARE SO PETTY AND BORING WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT GIRLFRIENDS ALL FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS ARE POISONOUS BECAUSE WOMEN ARE SHALLOW" trope which I absolutely fucking loathe.
Even then, she grew on me. But a lot of it is lazily done. The girl's a walking cliche, for Pete's sake.
Again, I don't mind unlikable characters. But I don't like characters who are obviously the author's darlings -- characters who I'm clearly "supposed" to like but don't.
She's cool. She's a lot of fun to read. The tiny girl who is the bruiser/bully of the team is one of my guilty pleasures. So, yay.
|Shakespeare knows what's up.|
The one other thing I didn't like is how frequently the book uses the words "cripple" and "crippled." From describing a "crippled" ship to one of the main characters deciding that he would rather die than live as a "cripple," the casual ableism had me cringing. What struck me was not its existence in the book but the disturbing frequency with which Butcher uses it. It would be one thing if he used it solely in the voices of his characters, making it clear that it is part of their prejudices. But it shows up in his omniscient author-voice as well -- even more often, actually.
Many people don't realize that "cripple" is a slur. I mean, it's not the n-word, but it's still a slur, and its casual usage in the lexicon needs to die. Like, yesterday.
ON TO HAPPY THINGS WOO-HOO HERE'S THE FIVE-STAR PART YAAAAAY!!!!!!!!!
This book is extremely cool.
I mean, there are stone city spires and airships with ethereal shields and webbings and steam engines and etherealists and talking cats and anyway did I say cool?
It's not just steampunk candy, though. The characters are well-rounded (even Gwen grows) and the plot is executed with aplomb. This is the first in a new series, and it definitely left me wanting more. If only Jim Butcher wasn't always busy writing those darn Dresden Files...
The speculation, imagination, and pure spectacle ought to delight and impress speculative fantasy fans. Every little part of this world, from airships to claustrophobic tunnels to clans of cats, is designed and laid before the reader like a lovingly illuminated text. The intricacy is tantalizing: you get the sense that Butcher has revealed a bare corner of this brave new world, and there's so much more to discover.
The romantic subplot was understated. It didn't make the romance the sole tool for the characters' development. Significant time was given to other types of relationships as well. There's the romance; the childhood friendship between a girl and a talking cat; a new (positive and empowering) friendship between two girls; the oftentimes amusingly awkward relationship between the unconventional Captain Grimm and his very proper lieutenant Creedy; a familial relationship between Gwen and her cousin Benedict that makes Gwen 1000x more bearable; and a touching mentor-student relationship between the magician and his apprentice.
There's a large cast, and skillful relationship-building was key in making me care about all of them. In particular, two of the viewpoint characters are enemy soldiers. The two have an interesting relationship: despite the fact that Ren is of a higher rank, his lieutenant is older and actually trained him. Their relationship is that of mentor and pupil, friends who go way back, and colleagues.
Ultimately, neither is comfortable with the methods employed on their mission, but they have to follow orders. Watching them navigate that -- together -- made me care more about the bad guys than I probably should have. The unique relationship was what got me invested in the villains' stories. They seemed like people, rather than faceless bad guys.
...Also, I maybe sort of ship it. Don't judge me.
SPEAKING of Bad Guys...HOLY SHIT.
The villain of the book is FUCKING FANTASTIC. OK? She's amazing. She's horrifying. And she's a perfect antagonist.
Madame Cavendish is an evil etherialist. Etherialists are the mages of the Cinder Spires universe, able to sense and manipulate flows of ethereal energy. Constant exposure to etheric currents erodes their sanity, however. As one etherialist puts it, it creates "holes" in the mind that need to be filled with objects, totems, compulsions, and other fixations or behaviors. When these are removed, etherialists are completely disabled. Most etherialists appear eccentric.
Madame Cavendish seems put-together and not at all eccentric -- because her particular psychosis is subtler and far more malign. Her obsessions are manners and sadism. A fixation on manners -- and release via torture and cruelty -- allow her to maintain her proper, prim facade. This is a character who has no compassion or empathy for others and who kills, maims, and tortures several unfortunate red shirts in The Aeronaut's Windlass -- one for the crime of being rude.
She prefers to use her bare hands. Needless to say, the other villains are terrified of her.
Fight Scenes and Such
Battles on land and sky, mental and physical, are expertly, amazingly done. Butcher never just hands a fight to his protagonists. Some of it is wince-worthy in terms of the level of violence, while other cringes may be caused by the conviction that they're about to succeed but oh wait crap, are those reinforcements?
I sometimes find action scenes, particularly naval and aerial, difficult to read because I'm bogged down in the details. The writing can get mechanical, describing motions and actions rather than character emotions and reactions. The stakes often get lost in the choreography of the scene. Not so in Windlass. Literally every action scene is perfect.
Perhaps that's what bothered me so much about the Gwen/Mother scene. It lacked the meaning and stakes of all the other confrontations, fights, and physical encounters that take place in the rest of the book.
There are talking cats. Which, frankly, is all the incentive you should need to read this book.
|Imagine a 30-pound talking cat named Rowl. He is a main character, and he is lovely.|
This one is 20+ hours in audiobook form, but it's worth it. Euan Morton narrated with clarity and character. Perfection. 5 stars!