THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS Is a book I've been waiting to read for a long time because I'm both a huge fan of Jim Butcher as well as steampunk but I also have a history with this book. I was actually part of Jim's reader group for it and wanted to read it before it was released. Sadly, my father became very sick during that time and I couldn't participate further. He has since passed but the book remains one of the ones which I really wanted to finish. I'm a huge fan of the Dresden Files and enjoyed the first few Codex Allera but was unsure if I was going to bond with this book.
Yes and no. It's in a weird zone between something I really enjoyed and a book which I think has quite a few flaws that were in the Codex Alera and weighed that series down. It's one of those books which is really excellent and I want to see more of the world but there's frustrations which cause me irritation every time they pop up. I think the best comparison would be the Kingkiller Chronicles or Wheel of Time where I love the prose of the series but sometimes want to strangle the characters.
The premise is in the distant future, at least that's how I read it, mankind has settled a world and degenerated to a vaguely Victorian 19th century society living in cloud cities powered by crystal-based technology. It's honestly a bit more Final Fantasy than Abney Park in terms of fantasy versus steampunk. Some of these communities have ancient rivalries with Spire Aurora being Spire Albion's deadly enemy. In Spire Albion, a number of oddball characters get thrown together by the Spirearch (king) of their land and sent on a secret mission that promises to either save or damn their community.
The characters are very much out of a kind of 19th century themed Star Wars with Grim the disgraced airship captain turned privateer, Gwendolyn Lancaster as the plucky princess, Bridget Tagwynn who is the poorer level headed one, and Rowl the talking cat that serves as the alien presence of the group. There's also the eccentric wizard and his student. It's not a direct fit but it is a group which reminded me of the Original Trilogy. My only real regret is everyone is an aristocrat, even the cat, and I really think we could have used a farmboy or peasant's perspective.
The characters are drawn very broadly but entertainingly so I was always entertained throughout the story but never really got the impression I was going to see much character development either. Gwendolyn is so over the top heroic it's impossible to believe she'll change and everyone else is already a heroic figure. They just need experience. There's not really an arc for anyone and that kind of limits storytelling possibilities. It doesn't help everyone but Rowl (who like all cats is evil) is what we'd define as Lawful or Neutral Good at worst so they all sort of sound and react the same. There are some good moments like Gwendolyn having a brief freak out about having killed someone but it's very much Black and White pulpy heroics.
Which isn't a bad thing.
However, the book seems written a little younger than it perhaps should be. Maybe I'm just comparing it to the Dresden Files but I do think the book seems remarkably sexless. Not even in terms of lacking the femme fatales of that series but there's almost no romance as well. I think that would have been a good thing to have in this series. Another good thing? Get rid of the very-very unfunny humor of the Aetherialists (wizards). They're meant to be "crazy" and come across more like Hollywood Crazy that is not remotely funny or entertaining like the fact one can't use doorknobs while the other can only speak to her jar. It's really not cute and wouldn't fly in a Disney movie from the Sixties.
The cats are a mixed bag for me as Rowl being portrayed as a ruthlessly pragmatic murderer and selfish monster is both accurate to feline psychology as well as one of the few times we see out of the good guy's perspective. However, there's a LOT of cat perspective in this book and it gets tiresome after awhile. Basically, it's nothing but them thinking how inferior and stupid humans are. Which, again, accurate to felines but a bit overstated in the book.
The battle scenes in the sky are excellent and I do love the airship battles we see. Jim Butcher is a master of good battle scenes. Admittedly, even they feel a bit too Star Wars with the fact people use laser guns on their wrist as well as swords. On the other hand, again, I *LIKE* Star Wars so I can't complain either. Honestly, after the Last Jedi, I think Jim Butcher would have been a better guy to write the sequel trilogy as he at least knows how to respect his characters.
In conclusion, I recommend people give this series a try. I certainly want to read more books in the series but I hope he does the same sort of "course correction" he did with Storm Front in the Dresden Files. I'd like to see more serious characters and deeper characterization for what seems to be a pretty fascinating world. If he portrays the world a bit more adult and dials down on the felines as well as "wacky" people then he might have my new favorite series.