The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher (The Cinder Spires #1)

Hidden away inside ancient whorled walls and safe from a perilous world, masked by mist and filled with ravenous, horrifying creatures, humanity survives and thrives in the enduring and rooted Spires of Albion and Aurora.

When the merchant airship Predator takes heavy damage from an Aurora warship, Captain Grimm, once Naval Commander, dishonourably discharged and his privateer crew must limp home as the inevitable tension between the Spires reaches the point of no return and open War throws a long held truce to the mists, reigning chaos on the peoples of the Spires.

Left with few options if he wishes the Predator to fly once more, Grimm and his crew are recruited by the Ruler of Spire Albion, the Spirearch for a covert mission, but not all is as it seems as supernatural forces reach out to terrorise and plague all the peoples of the spires.

It’s a double-edged sword for fans when one of your favourite authors releases a new series. You know you want to like it, but really there is every possibility you could hate it, tarnishing your perspective on that author. There is also the question, can I remove my own notions of correctness and sensitivities of what I enjoyed for their previous series and books, and take the new offering for what it is?  A virgin landscape with which to get lost in.
Thankfully, Jim has provided us with a story which is both compelling and captivating, and while I may have initially picked the book up based on my previously enjoyment of his other works, I was soon lost in his new world, with no thoughts of Dresden or the Codex Alera.

The first in the Cinder Spires series is a joyously colourful mix between non-standard steampunk and epic fantasy. Swords, magic, guns and soaring sky ships dominate a world cocooned away from an unforgiving environment. Whether you like steampunk or straight fantasy, it can’t be denied good writing is good writing and Jim gives it to you in the Aeronaut's Windlass by the shipload.

The characters and world that have been created, with its monsters, magic and personalities, is spot on. For myself, it covers all the bases, breathing colour and texture at each point. You could be forgiven for feeling the story has a slow ramp up as the history and individuals are laid out, plus its size can be a little daunting at 640 pages, enough for two smaller books, but it is definitely worth the effort and it never feels a chore to read.

The characters are varied and their individual backstories are engaging. Captain Grimm is written as a highly intelligent, stern personality who at times leads with a mix of hard won experience and instinct.

Gwen, the young aristocrat, is determined and unerringly stubborn at times and a good compliment to Grimm. There is a parallel to these two characters, she being similar to Grimm in personality, the difference being that he is a little further down the line and can temper his traits with experience. The opening scene of the novel begins with Gwen and it’s a great introduction to the series and the character. Wilful, proud and stubborn, she wishes to join the city guards, even if she has to blow a hole in her family walls to do it.

Bridget is the gentle duty bound giant who after years of physical labour can lift a small horse with ease. I feel there is a lot more of this character to come, as at the moment she is written as a little naive, but you can see the character and story progression being laid out.

Benedict, Gwen's cousin, is a soldier, a genetically enhanced feline human warrior whose only real purpose I can see so far is he is destined to die at some later point to spur the others on to greatness.

Ferus and Folly are Etherealist, the purveyors of magic in this new world. They come across as recent escapees from the madhouse, where up is down and the moon is made of cheese. But pity the person who gets in their way. The magic system they use is subtle, with an organic feel. Think more beams of elemental energy, rather than tornadoes of flames from the devilled or blessed hands of enchanters. There is a feeling of a connect to the planet around them, the power drawn from the Ether that holds and blinds everyone to the planet.

The planet itself is described as a hostile, sour world where human life can’t exist for fear of the plants and creatures that inhabit it. This vivid description offered by Jim in the beginning stages of the book, and confirmed later, portrays a world of deadly mist, with expanses of green and life where bizarre creatures roam and thrive.  Humans are living locked away in their spires for their protection, but there is so much more, questions are left unanswered and it may be a few books in before these truths are revealed.

Technology in the world of Cinder, such as the indestructible spires, has become myth and the daily experience of magic and crystals could belie a greater scientific knowledge.Take the concept of gene splicing, as man and animal are blended, such as the case with Benedict. So many questions, I just can’t wait to find out what the answers are.

And then this is Rowl, a prince of the Cat Empire. Rowl is the most vibrant, irascible cavalier and a wonderfully infectious character in the book. Recruited alongside Bridget, who he considers his human, friend and personal attendant (so pretty much how every cat treats people) Rowl speaks (in Cat, which Bridget translates) and acts much like us two leggers. The personality is unmistakably cat, but due to their evolution they now have a social structure much like our own. Rowl provides the humour in the book, simply by being himself and how he treats the world and people around him, and it’s fantastic.

One small criticism, I did find it a stretch to classify this as steampunk as the flying ships are powered by crystals. The ships themselves could fall into the category of steampunk - all wood, brass and levers - but it depends on your perspective. You could say it’s a twist on the genre by swapping steam for crystals while keeping the feel of wood and metal, military and dress and fashion. You judge for yourself.

Up, up, the winds and mists call the Grimm and wildcats. Duty, freedom and protection of family, new and old calls, as War blazes and the few and dedicated will be required to preserve the many. Another great series for a master of the genre.

9/10 Another great series for a master of the genre.

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