Wednesday, December 9, 2015

WW: The Aeronaut's Windlass

(I'm going to experiment with branching out a bit. "WW" stands for "Writing Wednesday". Each Wednesday I'm going to post a book review instead of a movie review.)

As some of you know, I am a huge fan of the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. I also very much enjoyed his epic fantasy series, Codex Alera (even though I haven't read it all yet). So when I heard that he was coming out with a steampunk/swashbuckler type adventure story, I was super excited!

I will sum up this review very simply: I think I now like Cinder Spires more than Dresden Files.

The first order of business, of course, is to give you a bit of background on the setting. This is the part I hate. Because it is so very good. And because just a couple months ago I started toying around with writing my own stories around airships, covert invasions, and magic that now seems like a hollow imitation of what Butcher has done. Damn him.

The world, and especially its history, are left very vague. There are great Spires that reach miles into the sky built by an ancient people. They did so because the surface is a dangerous wasteland full of terrible creatures. Only the crazy and the desperate go down there. Sane people travel between the Spires in airships powered by etheric energy. Each Spire is its own nation, with all that implies.

So far, we have a fairly standard steampunk/airship set-up. But when we get into the details, it gets fascinating. Cats are intelligent, but still very much cats. There is no room for livestock in a Spire, so meat is grown in great vats. Crystals, necessary for channeling the etheric energy, are also grown in vats through a process that takes decades. The Spires have a specific class of people known as verminocitors, whose entire purpose is to act as exterminators against giant intelligent spiders and other horrors that attempt to crawl up from the surface. Etherealists see the world very differently, in a way that functionally drives them insane.

But no story can survive on setting alone. And this book introduces characters that are powerful, varied, deep, and flawed. Captain Grimm, ejected from the Fleet for being an inconvenient hero, is now the master of the airship Predator, the fastest privateer in the skies. Gwendolyn Lancaster is heir to a wealthy and powerful house, but has defied her mother's wishes and joined Fleet instead. By her side is Benedict, a "warriorborn" genetically infused with the senses and grace of a cat, and bearing the wisdom of a veteran. Another Fleet novice is Bridget, a solid and unflappable woman who grew up working the meat vats, and happens to be able to talk to cats. The cat that owns her is Rowl, a prince of his kind, and everything a cat should be. There are a host of supporting characters, including the unconventional Spirearch (aka king), a mad etherealist and his not-quite-as-mad apprentice, Grimm's terrifying scoundrel of an ex-wife, a rival kingdom of cats, and a very suitable range of implacable villains.

Grimm may honestly be my favorite Butcher character. He is grizzled, determined, an excellent captain, and wonderfully charming. His biggest flaw may be a notable lack of flaws. He's not perfect, but it's hard to imagine him losing. Gwen is also fantastic, despite being magnificently flawed. She is every inch one of my wife's RPG characters. And I can't walk away from this review without once again gushing about how perfectly Butcher captured the fierceness and fickleness of cats.

The plot feels similar to a Dresden novel. It is able to be more complex, though, because Butcher uses the 3rd person perspective, and is able to shift between characters as they split off from the group. He even tells the tale from the villain perspective on a few occasions. There is a hint of a big problem, then a simple problem appears, but it turns out to be a smokescreen for the real big problem, which is complicated by the bad guys underestimating the good guys. The day is won through impressive grit and clever quips, but the good guys get really beaten up along the way. Also, there are monsters, and the worst of them wears a human face. The biggest difference is that the good guys have a military background instead of a PI background, which obviously alters how they approach problem solving.

Since I address the feminism angle for movies, I will continue to do so for books. In a manner that will not surprise Butcher fans, this book is very feminist friendly. Four of the main characters (including the main villain) are female. Each is strong and interesting in a different way. And there is no question that they satisfy both the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test. Readers may also be comforted to know that although there is a romantic subplot, none of the women throw themselves into the arms of a man. The one vaguely disappointing note is that the vast majority of the secondary characters are male. It demonstrates a lingering tendency to see "male" as the default status of a person. This is a criticism that you have to really look for, though. (I can also point out that all the characters are white (well, except the cats), cis, probably hetero, and able bodied. So, high points for feminism, low points for diversity.)

As you can probably guess, I do strongly recommend this book. I was swept up in the prose, frequently found myself suppressing laughter, and thrilled to the adventure. There was nothing about this book that I didn't like.

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