The Aeronaut’s Windlass: A Review

My To Be Read list is enormous, not helped by commuting four hours a day to a job that, in the words of my old superior there, “demanded loyalty from its employees but gave none in return.” No love lost there when I left a couple weeks ago. The last time I went looking for work (years ago) I had a lot of difficulty finding something where my skills were of use. Apparently I’m worth a lot more than I thought, because it took exactly one week of applying before I got an official offer of employment. My commute is reduced to 20 minutes, HR has a comprehensive on-boarding despite it being the director’s first week, and I have clear goals and job descriptions. I actually expect a useful answer when I ask a question! Anyway, I digress.

The upshot of which is I have a lot more time to be getting back to the aforementioned TBR list, coinciding with a useful trip to the library. It also means I no longer have an excuse not to be reading Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.” This is a book that ignited the unknown writer’s fury in me in 2015, because it occupied the top slot of the bestseller’s list on Amazon’s #steampunk category…

…two months before it was out.

Look at that handsome mother

Butcher is an established author with plenty of sales numbers to back up that sort of marketing investment. But the fact that it had a gorgeous cover and immediate genre domination despite this being Butcher’s first foray into steampunk was galling. Steampunk is heavily reliant on aesthetic. If you try to read The Difference Engine on a first pass it sounds more like Blade Runner than Boneshaker. If you see a beautiful cover it usually means the lack of the sorts of historical references that Cherie Priest does so well; generally, authors fill in that knowledge gap with the kind of anachronisms usually more common to fantasy world-building. “It’s a different universe, none of the races are 100% human, it’s thousands of years in the future.” I know. I’ve used them before.

I thought to pass on “Windlass” for a long time. But when I saw it in the library, I picked it up just to leaf through and see what the big deal was. I’m glad I did, because “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” is a solid effort rooted in a lot of the themes that make steampunk such a great genre to work with. It’s not perfect. But solid, and addictive.

Butcher’s steampunk universe is a world where the surface of the earth is a ruined, murderous, misty jungle. People live in ancient spires and use a crystal-based techno-magic for most of their needs. Meat is grown in vats, like a lot of the other goods. The inhabitants of the spires use airships to travel, trade, and make war. Wealthy inhabitants live higher in the Spire, and some goods like wood are costly because it is harder to acquire them. The piratey steampunk combo of sword and gun are buttressed by weapons crystals worn on gauntlets.

A windlass is a pulley-like device that allows a load to move up or down. The premise of “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” is that Captain Grimm’s airship was ambushed, and can now only go up or down. In order to mend his ship he has to accept a mission that may decide the fate of his home, Spire Albion. Okay, charming, sure. But the title is a little misleading, because the story actually follows a few separate points of view. There’s the aristocratic youth of Spire Albion: Gwen Lancaster, Benedict Sorrelin, and Bridget Tagwynn, who get caught up in a dastardly plot by rival Spire Aurora a little while after joining their Spire’s honor Guard. We also follow the Aurorans as they wreak havoc in Spire Albion. There are shadowed plots, talking cats, and nightmarish horrors, which makes for a great blend of steampunk and goth elements. It’s easy to read, with natural chapter progressions and a well-planned plot with plenty of blood and gore to throw around. Readers can look forward to an exciting romp with political intrigue, characters to care about, and a climax that is suitably gratuitous.

So that’s the pros out of the way. Now the cons.

About a third of the way into the book I began to begrudge Butcher for using the kind of writing that makes George R.R. Martin so successful. There are catchy names that trigger the jealous part of my brain, like Gwendolyn Lancaster, Madame Cavendish, or Calliope Ransom. There are names that are just one word, like Folly, which is authors’ shorthand for one-dimensional characters. The book is action-packed in a way that flatters the ego of the reader, crammed with dramatic irony, limited vocabulary, and god’s eye views of events that defy third person limited. It’s almost third person omni, but not quite. Plotting is linear, with the habit of filling in progressions with the characters’ brilliant deductions or straight-up calamities. There are lots of portmanteaus like ‘flatbake’ or ‘Spirearch’ which is writer shorthand that fills in gaps where you might have more of a mot juste, but they would alienate people who didn’t know the word or would feel like it’s a foreign imposition on their safe domestic universe. Like mot juste. 

I know that sort of writing sells, keeps people reading, and makes for a book you can pick up and put down as you like. But I can’t get over the superficial tropes that creates. And I certainly don’t enjoy the way those tropes chew at the steampunk aspects of the book. Explain away the technology with crystals, for instance, and you can avoid confusing the reader. But Butcher also avoided the quintessentially Victorian conflict of resolving burgeoning industry, the culturally exposing effects of imperialism, and frightening new technology with traditions, superstition, and the existing social order. That was part of why the occult experienced a revival, and why devices bore so many decorations in Victorian times. Embellishments made the trains and the automobiles a little more comforting and less terrifying to people used to horses and carts. Tropes like crystals put Butcher’s book more firmly in fantasy territory, and not steampunk.

There was a concerted effort to bear steampunk ideas. The flag of Spire Albion is clearly the Union Jack, for example. There are also names that hark deeply to steampunk, like Byron Creedy, or names loaded with character, like Francis Madison Grimm. You just know his childhood was terrible, and his peers never stop giving him shit for his name. The women are fabulously resilient and plucky, or straight-up dangerous. It’s striding close to the saint or slut dichotomy, but somehow ends up not being too monochrome. Still, tellingly, the society is led by a man, not the traditional matriarch common to steampunk set in Victorian England. The heroism-driven plot is still as comforting as an action-adventure movie from the ’90s. The airship battles are written with the sort of clinical military precision common to Scott Westerfield or Orson Scott Card, if you like that sort of thing.

It must be said there is also a disturbing whiff of elitist flavor to Butcher’s work. When Butcher uses a character as a mouthpiece for political opinions or judgments of the moneyed class, it feels like natural griping or impartial c’est la vie. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that, insightful as they are, everybody seems to be in on the politics of their world. Even the cats are obsessed with protocol and diplomacy. It’s a presence in their lives more than, say, Bridget’s burgeoning romance with Benedict, which could have been much better developed. You’d think that in a stratified society like the Spire, people would be more preoccupied with making a quid, but the inhabitants seem to have a lot of time for intellectual pursuits. Even the rogues. Most damnably, the book has our plucky young aristocrats joining the Guard as an honor service just when the war breaks out. These kids have spent their lives with the best of everything at their fingertips. Yet, in a crisis, they’re absolutely capable and dependable, with every single skill they need.

Butcher plants these tender society blossoms right in the military. The arrogance of these silver spooners is rewarded when after a couple weeks training they actually become useful to the people trying to save the whole community. Gwen is the child of the richest family in Spire Albion. She has a disturbing habit of blasting people in the face, literally or verbally, without first thinking about the consequences. How and when would she have the chance to work with the engineers in her family’s employ? Owners have better things to do, like dealing with transactions, building business relationships, and letting their children meet the children of said business relationships. They don’t know the nuts and bolts, and to say the Lancasters do is arrogance and hypocrisy when juxtaposed with the words coming out of the political mouthpieces. Bridget is sometimes worse. She actually wonders why people are starting a war because they’re in poverty. It’s not simply in-character; we’re supposed to feel like that’s somehow pithy, and not totally removed from the common plight of 90% of the world. Elitist stuff like this sneaks in, but once you see it it’s the like whole book was dipped in rat droppings. I have a feeling that maybe this is how Butcher sees the cultural flavor of Victorian times.

And at that age, you would expect our plucky young Gwen, with her smooth talking and her social standing, to be at least interested in things like boys, clothes, and station. She would be a blast of fresh air if everybody else wasn’t so populist and tolerant. Butcher is obviously drawing from a tradition of science fiction that was dominated by white men from the 60’s to the 90’s. There’s an implicit feeling that there is no subclass of people supporting the marvels so close to hand, despite the fact that his world contains literal towers where the wealthy live on top and desperate people eek out a living on the dangerous surface. Even the bloody privateers conform to formal airship protocol, like they all went to West Point.

And Folly. Whoa, Folly. She and every other etherealist are a well-intentioned attempt at advocating the disabled and neuro-diverse. But here’s the problem: it’s told from the perspective of the able-bodied, even when it’s third-person limited in Folly’s perspective. So the compensations the etherealists make are just that: compensations that are easily exploited, rendering the person totally helpless. Real disability is offset by adaptation; if Folly’s baby crystals were taken away, she shouldn’t be “falling” into incapacity and eventual starvation, she should be slowly adapting to her new circumstance. And real neurodiversity is often about exchanging one ability for another, that’s true, but the relationship between them is not simply a cost paid. It’s about utilizing a unique identity that has both benefits and drawbacks. Think about Cumberbatch’s Sherlock: he’s brilliantly mad because he shuts down input like social niceties. He doesn’t apologize for it, he simply regards other people as time-wasters and stupid. But Butcher’s Master Ferus is brilliantly mad because he can see things other people can’t. It’s an ability that he was born with, and in some respects plays victim to, not an ability that he is proud of and regards as a natural part of him. He actually apologizes for not being able to use doorknobs. I’m sorry, but that’s not only kitchy, it’s a waste of time and stupid. It infantilizes the neuro-diverse.

Butcher’s is potato chip writing. But let’s face it, potato chips in moderation scratches the itch. If Butcher is making potato chips they’re organic, free-trade chips rooted in an 19th century recipe. I definitely recommend “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” wholeheartedly. Just keep in mind that if you have too much of Butcher’s writing, the metaphorical trans-fats are going to start becoming a problem.


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