"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…" - Publisher's Summary
What do you get when you fuse epic fantasy with space opera and sprinkle liberally with steampunk? You get The Aeronaut's Windlass. We already now Jim Butcher from his urban fantasy series The Dresden Files. But that is only one side of this talented author. In The Aeronaut's Windlass, we get to see another side.
So, let me start this review with a derp - and a bit of a rant. Jim Butcher is a man. I point this out because there is an old axiom in the writing profession that extols writers to, "write what you know." I've heard this from writers, agents and publishers in conference after conference. That is why Anne Leckie writes mostly women protagonists and Jim Butcher, or any other man for that matter, writes mostly male protagonists. It is difficult to successfully write a character that is true to their gender when you do not share that gender. So it is with Anne Leckie; so it is with Jim Butcher.
I say this because I've seen and heard male authors run down by women because their stories are too full of machismo/testosterone/maleness and lacking in good female characters driven by feminism/estrogen/womanhood. Guess what ladies, I can say the same thing about the Ancillary series by Anne Leckie, but in reverse. In fact, all characters in her books are referred to as she regardless of gender. And you don't think that's potentially insulting to half the population? And honestly, there is not a single "male" character in that series as well written as Captain Francis Madison Grimm.
That said, there is not a single female character in The Aeronaut's Windlass as female as all Anne Leckie's characters are. That's not an insult to Anne, more of a negative for Jim there. However, Jim does manage four, possibly five, believable female characters; three of which are not romantically involved with a male character by the end of the book. And they have conversations among themselves without a male being part of the conversation, or even the subject of the conversation. If they are not "female" enough, I feel it's because Jim is male, not because he is a misogynist. No more than Anne Leckie is a misandrist.
But what I like most about all the characters are how capable they are, male and female alike, yet each is flawed in their own particular way. Captain Grimm is brave, stalwart, and loyal. But he is also too trusting. Gwendolyn Margaret Elizabeth Lancaster is smart, rational and has a superb wit. She is also headstrong and arrogant nearly to a fault. These characters would be stereotypes in another author's hands, but Jim Butcher gives them good reason to be as they are. They come across as genuine people who genuinely have these strengths and weaknesses, and I found I cared about every single one of them.
As for the story, what can I say except this is written by Jim Butcher. The book starts with action and ends with action. There are questions answered and questions unanswered. There are plots, sub plots and interesting tangents. Not everybody survives, but we're too early in the series for any major character deaths - even among the enemies, though my feelings would not have been hurt had Sark died horribly.
Now, this is not literary fiction. It is fantasy. As such, it contains more than than an average number of tropes. In fact, it is perhaps not that the characters are well handled stereotypes, but rather they are excellent characters fulfilling well known tropes. And this book is full of tropes. I'd be several more posts to list them all, but fortunately I do not have to. It has already been done at TVTropes.org. Follow the link if you'd like to see what they are. Spoilers have been hidden behind spoiler links, but the tropes themselves are a bit of a spoiler in my view. I only went there after I listened to the whole book.
And lastly, I am utterly intrigued with the world Jim Butcher is building in this series. It is mysterious, deadly, terrifying and familiar at the same time. To me, it has more if a sci-fi feel to it than an epic fantasy feel. The epic fantasy comes in with the overarching plot of the war, and the fact there truly are true creature monsters in the world, and I don't just mean Madame Cavendish. But the airships, and the combat and the spires themselves are more science than magic. There is steam and iron and copper. And what may seem magic, is just a technology we don't understand.
So in conclusion, The Aeronaut's Windlass goes into my must read column, should you be inclined to read epic steam-opera. This book does not disappoint, and I look forward to the next.