The Aeronaut’s Windlass
(The Cinder Spires, book #1)
Published September 29th 2015
Warning: minor spoilers ahead
Okay, the fact that this book only got nominated for the Hugo because it was on the Rabid Puppies slate meant I came in expecting not to like it that much. Which of course, is hardly fair. Jim Butcher is a well-respected author who wrote The Dresden Files. I haven’t read that series, but I hear good things. Besides, just because I dislike the Puppy movement, doesn’t mean that they are incapable of nominating decent books. After all, they nominated Seveneves. I tried to come into this book with an open mind.
Then we get this first page. The book opens with dialog, but the quotation marks at the start of the dialog are missing. Yes, there was an error in the very first sentence. The very first character is wrong. That put me in editor mode rather than reader mode. Now, I noticed this error occurred in another chapter that opened with dialog, so I suppose it is quite possible that this is a formatting error on the kindle edition rather than laziness by the author and editor, but it still did not make a good first impression.
Okay, enough with the first few sentences. There are a number of other poor writing decisions I could point to (At one point a cat has a ‘catlike’ expression. One description of a battle scene is followed by the words ‘That was terrifying.’ You know, stuff like that) but there are a few things the book gets right, and I would like to talk about them.
So um… I like the cats. If you’re not a cat person, you’ll probably hate them, but I love cats. The cats in this story are sentient, have thumbs, and can talk. The main feline’s characterisation was really on point. The right balance between loyalty to his human, and general cat contempt for everything. I found the scenes from the cat’s perspective to be very entertaining and funny. I wish some of the human characters were as entertaining.
The magic system was also interesting, and the characters who wielded this power were my favourite humans. I just wish it was more fleshed out. The war also needs to be more fleshed out, but I appreciate that the characters actually have to act like they’re at war. Gwen fires on an enemy soldier at point blank range, and after every massive airship battle the airship captain talks about how many men he lost. The good guys don’t get to avoid killing people just because they’re the good guys, and they have difficulty coming to terms with what they’ve done.
I should also add that this is the first steampunk novel I’ve ever read. I like the steampunk aesthetic, but just haven’t had any good stories from the genre recommended to me. Due to the lack of description in parts, it never really felt like a steampunk setting until 33% of the way through the book, when all the characters were boarding the airship. That was a pretty cool scene, but I think overall this book has put me off the steampunk genre.
Okay, I can tell what you’re saying. “It put you off the entire genre? But it has talking cats, and quirky magic uses, and a cool airship. Are the small bits of bad writing really that bad?”
Well, it’s not just a few of sentences here and there that put me off this book. The characters were for the most part really boring. The only one I connected with was the cat, and maybe Folly. The big bad was cool, but then the big reveal made her seem less cool. Plus, the plot… well, it’s a bit contrived. Let me make a list of all that needs to happen for us to get to the climax. Skip this if you want to avoid spoilers.
- Main characters get sent off on super special mission, despite two of them only having four weeks’ military training.
- The big bad manages to find half of the hero’s party despite efforts taken to prevent that from happening. She also attacks at the same time the other half of the party is off fighting monsters elsewhere.
- A character with some knowledge of magic crystals is seriously injured during this attack.
- The big bad shows up at the scene of the attack for no reason. Not only that, but the airship captain meets her at the scene of the attack, recognises her as being dangerous (and his instincts tell him that being rude to her would be dangerous… that’s mighty specific) and still tells her his name and the name of his ship.
- The other half of the party get abducted by the big bad’s soldiers on their way back to the ship; despite the fact that the humans of the party have just obliterated a bunch of monsters, and that the cat in the party was previously able to warn them they were being followed on another occasion.
- The cat is able to follow the abductors back to their base, but not get in. Just as he is trying to come up with a plan, a cat friend of his from the other side of the spire shows up to help.
- The big bad turns up to incapacitate the quirky magical man after he has cured Gwen of her poison. Oh yeah, the quirky magical man seems to be the only one with the ability to heal the venom of the monsters they happen to be facing. In fact, the big bad shows up just as they were talking about her. From her two meetings with the airship captain, she is able to discern that he is super-competent and a potential threat, so she goes back and orders her soldiers to start their attack early; without the airship attack they’re waiting on for support.
- The cat is able to single-handedly conquer the local cat tribe and get them to go into battle with him.
- Everyone arrives at the battle to save the girls that were abducted at the most dramatically appropriate time despite minimal co-ordination. Though, I suppose this is nothing too out of the ordinary in fiction.
- Gwen wakes up from being unconscious in time to help the ship’s engineer get everything working. By comparison, I once had a brain injury after a car crash. Unlike Gwen, I was not unconscious or close to death, but I was still out of action for two weeks. For the first few days – especially in the few hours after the attack – I was throwing up a lot. I found it completely unbelievable that after getting such a severe concussion, in addition to the poisoning, that Gwen would be able to do what she was doing as soon as she woke up.
- The enemy forces make their move without the airship support they were counting on; and everything goes perfectly for them regardless. The characters in this book seem competent only because the local authorities are utterly incompetent. You’ll see more of this in a sec.
- When the enemy ship is shooting up the docks, it purposely targets the hero’s ship last.
- Earlier in the book, characters complain that the spire’s navy is taking a defensive position; that all their ships are surrounding the spire. Despite all the ships surrounding the spire and there not being the big air battle the enemy forces were planning on, the enemy ship is still able to fly away after shooting up the docks. The only ship to give chase is the hero’s one, and Fleet ships only show up later because the airship captain set off flares.
Yeah…, as you can see, I was not a fan of this book. At times I really had to force myself to keep reading, especially at the start. The action is good, but given how contrived the plot is, it is hard to enjoy it. This book is also the first in a series, and like The Fifth Season, it leaves a lot of things unanswered. Unlike The Fifth Season though, I have no interest in continuing the series. I don’t care enough about the world or these characters to return. Most annoyingly though, is that whilst this book is somewhat okay, it is certainly not Hugo Award worthy. I could have been reading a book of the same quality as Ancillary Mercy or The Fifth Season, but I was stuck with this instead.
I want to score this 5.5, however I’m bumping it up to 6 to compensate for any bias I may have bought with me from the ebook errors and the Hugo nominations.