Jim Butcher‘s long-running supernatural hard-boiled detective series The Dresden Files has had fans clamoring for more, while his more traditional fantasy books of Codex Alera have been well-received over the past decade. Now the best-selling author is launching a new series called The Cinder Spires, which combines fantasy and steampunk for a high-flying adventure, starting with the first book, The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
In The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the world is engulfed in a dangerous mist that caused humanity to move up above the clouds to Spires, divided into multi-tiered Habbles, where noble houses vie for power and airships are the main mode of transportation, shipping, and military. When the children of noble houses come of age, they enlist for a year’s service in the Spirearch’s Guard. On Spire Albion, Gwendolyn Lancaster — who’s House is the most prestigious — is a new Guard trainee, joining cousin Benedict Sorellin-Lancaster, one of the warriorborn, humans who possess feline-like characteristics. At the Academy, the cousins meet Bridget Tagwynn, who’s of a lower, dying house (it’s just her and her father left in their line), and Bridget’s protector, Rowl, a cat who is the first of his kind to be accepted into the service.
In the skies, Captain Grimm, a former air fleet officer drummed out of the navy on a dishonorable discharge, commands the private merchant ship Predator, and unexpectedly finds himself in battle with a more powerful cruiser from the rival Spire, Aurora. The melee leaves Predator disabled, bringing the captain and his crew down to the Habbles, where the enemy has infiltrated the ground troops, prompting the aforementioned trainees to report for duty much sooner than anticipated. Grimm and his crew, along with the trainees, are given the delicate task of transporting and protecting the eccentric Ferus — a wizard-like etherialist — and his quirky apprentice Folly on a integral mission in Albion’s quest to win the war.
While Butcher’s new tale fits into the steampunk subgenre, where archaic means are used for futuristic technology (such as a flying sail boat) and characters act and dress in a Victorian manor, the author puts a twist on it by swapping steam for crystals. Everything in the Spires is powered by these magic-like crystals, from the lights to the ships to the weapons. Also, there are etheric currents that flow around everything and everyone, except for the etherialists — the energy flows through them and they are able to manipulate it, though it can have side effects, like causing madness and the inability to do mundane tasks like use a doorknob.
Unlike the first-person narrative of The Dresden Files, The Aeronaut’s Windlass is told in the third-person, with each chapter shifting to a different character’s perspective. The chapters fly by and the book is hard to put down, as Butcher knows how to be descriptive without slowing down the pace. But, I found the battle sequences to be much less interesting than I did the simple dialogue between characters, as well as the parts where the novice Spirearch’s Guard members had to really step it up. Also, the introduction of Ferus and his apprentice were a nice touch to a story that at first seemed like it was going to be a lot of naval battles.
With this being the first installment of a new series, there is a lot of world-building involved, some of which can get complicated. I was somewhat confused about the geography of this new realm, and admittedly, there were parts that I had to reread because I didn’t realize their importance until the author circled back to them later on. And then there’s the part about the cats. I loved that there was this underground network of feisty, proud felines, but I kept picturing Rowl as Puss in Boots from Shrek — not necessarily a bad thing.
There is a lot to absorb for this Cinder Spires debut, but it’s well worth taking the dive into.
Jim Butcher, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Dresden Files and the Codex Alera novels, conjures up a new series set in a fantastic world of noble families, steam-powered technology, and magic-wielding warriors”¦
Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace.
Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion””to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.
And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake”¦