I have started, deleted, and restarted writing this review several times now. I think that ultimately I don’t really want to say what honesty compels me to say.
This is a case where I have something negative to say about a new work by an author I both like and respect. Jim Butcher is the author of the successful Dresden Files series and also wrote the Codex Alera series. I am a fan of both series, but I really enjoyed Codex Alera. What’s more, Jim is a really funny, warm, engaging person and I’ve enjoyed meeting him. His story of becoming an author and the advice he gives to new writers I find compelling. His words have had an enormous impact on me, even causing me to try my own hand at writing.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Jim Butcher is one of my heroes.
I was extremely excited to read the first book in Jim’s new steampunk series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass. Like other people, I thought the title seemed a little contrived, and now that I’ve read the book, I can assure you that it truly does have very little to do with the story.
I feel… honestly… somewhat disappointed.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass has sparse and perplexing world building. I have not read a book in a long time where I yearned so badly for exposition. For instance, most of the story takes place in a “spire”, but we don’t get any description of what a spire actually is until about halfway through the story. One of the main characters is a cat and we don’t discover that these cats have thumbs of sorts until almost the end of the story. Huge chunks of exposition are inserted randomly into the storyline (sometimes in the middle of action scenes) towards the end of the story. By the end of the book, we still don’t know why rust is so much more powerful and corrosive in this world than our world. Everything is copper-clad. We find out about 60% of the way through the story that this is because rust will destroy a sword in a few days. We truly never find out why.
It was really strange.
The pacing was also odd. This book literally put me to sleep. Twice. Every other Jim Butcher book I’ve read I could not put down and read in a day or two with the exception of Changes and Ghost Story (ugh… Ghost Story) in the Dresden Files series. I am a /fan/ of Jim Butcher and for the most part I believe he has continued to grow as a writer for the entire time I’ve been reading him. He’s immensely talented. Yet, The Aeronaut’s Windlass was less engaging than most of the self published, first effort stories I pick up on Amazon.com for $3USD by unknown writers.
And the characters… oh, the characters. Not a single character has anything approaching a character arc in the story other than, “hey I killed some people and it made me sad.” Seriously. Every character is two dimensional and briefly sketched to the point where I had forgotten what most of the main characters even looked like by the mid point of the story. Each character occupied a familiar fantasy stereotype and didn’t deviate at all throughout the story. The only character I cared about at all was our protagonist cat, and even he eventually outwore his welcome. This severely hurt the plot since I didn’t care about any of the characters and there was never any tension.
The plot… oh, the plot. The plot doesn’t really move at all until about the 30% mark and the pacing is uneven throughout. The “twists” are completely unsurprising, and in some ways the story felt almost like a sitcom where the main characters just went from set piece to set piece and delivered various dialogue. The naval battles between air ships weren’t interesting either. In fact, there is an air battle during the climax that was dragging on to such a degree that I was sorely tempted to skip pages.
What really frustrated me while reading The Aeronaut’s Windlass were the glimpses of Jim Butcher’s normal wit as a writer. Some of the dialogue made me chuckle and there were heroics in the story that legitimately made me tear up. The problem was that these portions of the story were just moments, the story itself was deeply flawed and some of the plot holes were big enough to drive a truck through.
I am hoping that Jim is just weak at introducing a new series. Most people consider Storm Front, the first book of the Dresden Files to be one of the weakest in the series. I personally don’t think this is a fair criticism because Jim wrote that novel while he was still in school and it was one of the first two books of his that were ever published. However, I can’t deny that even in the Codex Alera series that I love, I almost dropped the series based on the first book, Furies of Calderon. Luckily, I picked up the second book in that series and could not put it down, and in a re-read, Furies of Calderon was pretty fun.
I am hoping that Jim’s new Cinder Spires series is just off to a slow start too. I really want to like this series; it’s being written by Jim Butcher, it’s got magic, airships, steampunk, what’s not to like? I would worry that I’m being hypercritical, but I’ve checked out Goodreads- while the book does currently have over a 4 star rating, a number of reviews bring up some of the same points I brought up here, even those that awarded 4 or 5 stars.
It pains me to do this and I hope Jim never sees this review, but I have to be true to my opinion and give The Aeronaut’s Windlass 2.1 out of 5 stars. For the first time since Furies of Calderon, it was a struggle for me to finish a Jim Butcher book. The climax was exciting at times, there were some honest to God emotional, heroic moments, and the cat characters were interesting, but the majority of the story just didn’t engage me. I hope that when Jim returns to this world with his next book in the series, he can revitalize me as a reader the same way he did in the Codex Alera series.