A New Steampunk Setting: Jim Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass

Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series became a fast favorite for me once I was out of college and had the free time to read whatever I wanted. Modern/urban fantasy through the eyes of a wizard fighting fairies, werewolves, vampires, demons, and city bureaucracy?

While the series has had it’s ups and downs (and a large dose of shark jumping), it’s been a pretty solid series overall and makes for a great RPG.

That said, hearing the Butcher was writing a new novel that was not part of his Codex Alera series (one I haven’t read yet but heard amazing things about) or Dresden Files, I was intrigued. It really caught my attention once I heard it was more of a steampunk setting.

It took a while, but I did get my hands on a copy of The Aeronaut’s Windlass through the library, and thought it would be a fitting item to review.


==The Pitch==

A brand new Steampunk setting from Jim Butcher tells the tale of a world of flying cities, airships powered by psuedo-magical crystals, noble houses, talking cats, and war on the horizon.

==What You Get==

This book is weighing in at 630 pages, almost unheard of for a first book in a series (and longer than any of the previous novels Butcher has written if I remember correctly). The book is a fast-paced romp through a brand new setting, focusing on the “spire” called Albion and it’s noble houses.

(Fun fact: Albion is the oldest name for Great Britian, and the noble houses of Albion have names reminiscent of England, as well as the nobility seeming to be structured in a similar fashion.)

This book promises action as you follow a somewhat random collection of characters (a noble girl and her “warriorborn” cousin, a privateer captain, a girl from a fallen noble house, an intelligent cat, and two “etherealists”) as they try to work together to save their home during the initial opening act of war.

It is hard to really talk about the book without giving spoilers, but for those of you who are interested:

–Cats have their own language and society, and some humans can speak to them, and vice versa.
–Crystals provide power, light, and are the basis of an entire weapon system.
–Crystals can take generations to form, making the larger ones priceless.
–The spires were built by ancient Builders, and their ways of using spirestone are lost.
–Few people ever touch the ground due to all of the dangerous creatures there.
–Etherealists are those that look at energy and can grasp how it moves, including how it is utilized within crystals. This does drive them crazy.

If you like any of the above concepts, then you’ll want to check it out.

==The Good==

As previously mentioned, this is a pretty fast read. Even with the sheer size of the book, the chapters are short and the writing style allows for an easy read. Granted, the size is still going to mean this takes a while (took about a week and a half for me to read this during breaks and waiting for Fallout 4 to install), but it moves along nicely.

The setting is interesting. Not entirely original, but interesting. Imagine if Final Fantasy had a love child with a Victorian-inspired steampunk setting, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on with the setting of The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

There are also a few nods to England here. The Fleet feels like it’s right from Victorian-era England’s navy, Albion is the oldest name of England, House Lancaster is a nod to the castle and city Lancaster (Lancashire, England), and the mannerisms are almost textbook Victoriana.

As a tabletop gamer, the setting is just begging to be used for a tabletop game: intelligent creatures, psuedo-magic, psuedo-science, an evil sleeping for ten thousand years, flying ships, etc. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Evil Hat were to be tapped to make a FATE Core setting for it over the next few years (especially as we see more books released).

==The Bad==

For some people, the sheer SIZE of this book may be an issue. At 630 pages, it’s no small volume, and can be a bit unweildy when trying to read it. It was a bit too big for my book stand, and I eventually had to curl into a nook of my couch to read it comfortably without dealing with a sinus headache or tiring my arms.

This book is relying on the steampunk gimmick, but is lacking in most of what makes a steampunk novel steampunk. It’s more like Victorian-inspired fantasy, honestly. There’s not much steam going around, it’s not a dystopia, most of the “science” involve the use of crystals, etc. If anything, I think it should be classified as a “Crystalpunk Victorian Fantasy,” but that’s not a genre yet and I doubt it’d sell as well. The steampunk elements we get are Victorian-esque society, advanced technology with an older world’s mindset, steam engines for some ships, and plenty of brass (with an in-setting explanation for it). Otherwise, it barely can be classified in the genre, which may be a deal breaker for some.

While the setting is interesting, it leaves a lot to be desired. We are introduced to a few of the surface creatures, the concept of the “warriorborn,” some of the science behind crystals and their usage, and the “etherialists” and their eccentricities, but nothing is really explained. There are gaping holes in my understand of the setting. Why are warriorborn almost considered second class? What makes living on the ground impossible? Why do people go crazy if they go above the clouds and see the sun without goggles? How can an etherealist know about and heal wounds that a doctor cannot?

All of these and more have been raking my mind as I read, and they were not answered by the end, leaving me itching for more information when the second book finally comes out.

==The Verdict==

I really can’t suggest the book enough. It’s a good step away from typical steampunk (as mentioned before), but has enough elements to be familiar to fans. It is a beefy book, and being the first of a series, this should mean we’ll get some good-sized novels in the future and, if Butcher continues on with his usual quality of writing, this will also mean we’ll have some decent books. . .at least, I can hope.

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