The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Man, I wanted to love this one. I was ready to love it. I was prepared for it. Consider the background context: Jim Butcher absolutely dominates my list of “Most Read Authors” at a lofty 26 books. I’ve read almost everything that’s flowed forth from his pen and I use the word “flowed” in the most enthusiastic and positive sense: the summer I was introduced to Dresden was a reading feast as I plowed through eleven books with complete abandon. I still remember where I was when reading “Summer Knight,” for instance (I was camping on a beautiful mountain in southern Arizona, if you’re curious).
I remember picking up the Codex Alera books and being skeptical at first, but Tavi’s story drew me in and to this day, I consider the entire Alera series Butcher’s most underrated masterpiece. Alera showed me that I don’t need urban fantasy and wisecracking wizard detectives to enjoy his work.
I started this book in January. It proved to be slow going for me. I’d read a bit and I’d enjoy myself . . . but there was no hook. I’d put the book down for a few days and a week or two would go by as I read something else. I tried changing things up by going with the audiobook version during my walk to work each day . . . but more often than not, I went with a podcast instead. Eventually, I returned to the physical version of the book, mostly so I could finish.
Where do things go awry? The meeting with the Spirearch felt like a poor version of the First Lord from the Alera series and my feeling was the entire thing about “I can’t trust my guard because maybe traitors” was contrived to explain why these untrained kids were being sent off on an important mission.
For how prominently the aeronauts and the ship Predator featured in the title and the opening chapter, it’s quite surprising how little the airships actually figure into the book. Predator spends most of the story docked, with the action on “land” as it were. This was unfortunate, because the Predator and the airships were the most interesting and exciting aspect of the world. The battle at the end is suitably thrilling, but it’s such a small section of the book that by the time it rolled around, I’d be working slowly through the book for almost two months.
Also, the title bothers me. My understanding is that a windlass (in this universe’s context) is basically a barge or a ship that’s slow and weak. But Grimm (the presumed aeronaut in question) never has his ship turned into a windlass, so . . . where exactly is the windlass referred to in the title?
Other problems with the plot included the sudden and abrupt disappearance of the main antagonist, to the extent that I went back and reread a few chapters to make sure I didn’t miss a brief mention of the antagonist’s demise. Turns out, that wasn’t the case and the last few pages show that the antagonist managed to escape.
It was hard to tell whose story this was. Characters move around and disappear for long enough stretches of time that I can’t comfortably saw that it’s Grimm’s story, or Gwen’s. Maybe it’s really Bridget’s? But even she isn’t there for the finale, so who knows.
I’m almost 100% certain I can figure out the identity of the mysterious Enemy. Possible spoiler warnings, although I’m really just speculating wildly: considering the use of the word “unmake,” who’s willing to bet that the giant robot-thing is actually one of these deific Builders and that the oft-invoked “merciful Builders” aren’t quite so merciful after all?
I’m not a steampunk fan, so I can’t attest to how well (or not) this book will fare with fans of the genre. I’ve long been of the opinion that good writing will work regardless of genre and that good stories don’t need to rely on the genre conventions to be good, that the conventions are just fun embellishments or a form of adornment. Thus, I don’t consider my lack of familiarity with steampunk to indicate that “the book wasn’t for me” or “I just didn’t get it.” Hardcore steampunk fans may find otherwise, but that’s there business.
So, in the end, I’m left with a book that I picked through for two months. There are some good bits here, even some great bits; the airships and the chase at the end immediately made me want to go pick up a book about Victorian Era naval combat. You can see the familiar Butcher magic, you can grasp the pieces and see how they could come together to tell an epic story. But those pieces don’t come together here. It’s hard to see the characters as more than their archetypes: stoic captain, mad wizard, feisty aristocrat girl, etc.
I’m not going to write off the series yet. I recall how it took until the third Dresden book before I felt that the author had really hit his stride and found the magic, and so I’m willing to give the next adventure a look when it comes out. I think there’s potential. I don’t hate it when a beloved author works on other projects or other worlds. But on its own merits, I don’t feel the the aeronauts are taking flight and so we’re left with a book that’s merely okay. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t love it.