This week on Down the Stacks, we return to a favorite author of mine: Jim Butcher. This masterful and entertaining writer of the Dresden Files and the Codex Alera has recently launched a new series called the Cinder Spires. The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first entry, and it has all the hallmarks of Butcher’s style: smart and snarky characters, a solid and fascinating world, and the promise of deep and complex plots.
Read on for more details.
The world of The Aeronaut’s Windlass would be a fascinating study by itself. Humanity lives in a number of impossibly tall spires, each containing hundreds of small cities essentially stacked up on one another, sheltered from a mist-shrouded surface full of deadly, untamable creatures. Most food, including meat, is grown in vats, as are the quasi-magical crystals that provide power and lift to the airships that conduct trade between spires and serve military purposes. In Spire Albion, where our story takes place, each floor or “Habble” is fairly autonomous but still answerable to the aristocratic council and Spirearch who rule from Habble Morning.
Spire Albion is currently caught in a cold war with another Spire, Aurora, and privateers from both Spires are in the business of messing with merchant airships from the rival Spire. One such privateer is Captain Grimm of the Predator, a man who has a sour history with Spire Albion’s naval Fleet but unshakable loyalty to the Spire itself. One day, an attempt to capture an Auroran merchant ship turns out to be a trap laid by a legendary Auroran battlecruiser , and the Predator barely manages to escape and limp back to Spire Albion.
Meanwhile, two young woman of noble houses - Gwendolyn Lancaster and Bridget Tagwynn - meet each other as trainees in the Spirearch’s Guard. Gwen is a headstrong girl who doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “tact” and an almost compulsive desire to right wrongs, which has a hand in getting the meeker but still outspoken Bridget caught up in a duel with a boorish fellow guardsman. On the day of the duel, however, Spire Aurora launches a surprise attack on Albion, destroying several military airships and slipping hundreds of Marines into the Spire. Suspecting an inside agent, the Spirearch sends Gwen, Bridget, and Captain Grimm (hired with the payment of top-of-the-line crystals to make Predator properly airborne again) along with Gwen’s cousin Benedict, Bridget’s cat Rowl, and two extremely quirky Etherealists down to Habble Landing to find and put a stop to the Aurorans’ plans.
Jim Butcher has always been good at creating interesting and intelligent characters, but I think he’s outdone himself with the central cast of The Aeronaut’s Windlass. Captain Grimm is of a kind with Harry Dresden - heavy with experience and beaten down by those in power but strong enough to take it and bite back - but he’s not quite as outclassed by his enemies as Dresden can be. Grimm has a sharp eye and quick intuition that protects him from situations that could otherwise be deadly, and his airship crew gives no second thoughts to following him into danger.
As I said earlier, Gwen Lancaster has… issues with being diplomatic. She is the kind of person to bully her way through obstacles and ask the hard-hitting questions without considering how the other party may react. She gets away with a lot of it due to having the Spirearch’s authority to “smooth over” any roadblocks the mission comes across, but her dear cousin keeps having to reel her in and tease her to keep her grounded. That said, Gwen is as sharp as they come, knows her own faults quite well, and has learned to apply what she is productively.
Bridget Tagwynn has her sharp edges, but her more humble upbringing as the daughter of a declining house keeping itself afloat by running a meat vattery and having to put up with Rowl makes Bridget a better diplomat than Gwen. She’s easy to get along with and observant enough to learn and adapt to the particular quirks of the younger of the two Etherealists, Folly. Bridget is lacking in experience compared to the other characters, but she has the will to keep fighting for her friends.
Rowl is a cat. Take everything you’ve heard about cats being proud, acting superior, and considering themselves akin to gods dwelling among clumsy servants, boil that all down, and you’ve got the Spire Albion cats in general and Rowl in particular. Cats occupy an uncertain position in the Spire, being considered above vermin but just barely, and for the most part Cats and Humans live separate lives. Rowl and his clan are somewhat different, maintaining a close relationship with the Tagwynn family, who have the rare gift of knowing how to speak Cat. Rowl would never phrase it as such, but he’s deeply loyal to Bridget, who he calls Littlemouse, and would do anything to protect her. His insistence on downplaying his feelings for Bridget and overstating his own importance is amusing at first, but after awhile it becomes clear that he really is too self-absorbed to even consider learning the thought processes behind human behaviour.
Then, we have the Etherealists: old master Ferus and his apprentice Folly. Influenced by the Ether that flows through the world and powers the crystals that give airships flight, Ferus and Folly have abilities that border on magic, including seeing the future and altering how crystals work, but those powers come at costs that make them, and others like them, appear quite insane. Ferus, for instance, occasionally confuses his future visions for memories, makes comments that seem nonsensical until you work your way around to the context, and has a massive collection of random junk he takes everywhere. Folly dresses herself according to random whims rather than any style or much coherency, carries around a jar and several bag of tiny, almost-dead illumination crystals, and is incapable of directly addressing anyone except Master Ferus or her jar of crystals. Under the quirks, the Etherealists are good people, and the Spirearch trusts Ferus and his abilities enough to make him the central figure of the team. Folly’s a particularly endearing character to me and I like how cleverly she works around her speaking handicap and how well she and Bridget work together as a team.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass is only the first book in a series, but it stands quite well by itself while still doing a good deal of set-up for the ongoing plot. The plot hooks are more than balanced by the characters, the depth of detail we learn about the world (evidently, iron and steel rust ridiculously fast, so it all has to be coated in copper for protection), the importance and urgency given to the current conflict, and the questions that are raised about the world’s history as well as its future. The world of the Cinder Spires is one I look forward to exploring more in the future.