Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Aeronaut's Windlass, by Jim Butcher

This week I'm reviewing a newer book by Jim Butcher, whom some of you might remember from when I looked at the first book in his Dresden Files series. The Aeronaut's Windlass, however, is the first in a new series called The Cinder Spires set in a vaguely steampunk world of airships and aetheric crystals. I'm going to say from the beginning, though, that although this book starts off promising I found that its greatest sin was it ended up being boring and I was finally glad when it was over so I could move on to something else. That's of course just my own personal reaction to the book, but it's certainly dampened my interest in the series overall.

I think the biggest problem I had with this book is that it's the first in a series, but it doesn't do a very good job of world-building and setting the stage for the series, which I think is fairly vital if you plan to create an intricate series. The series is set in a world where the majority of humanity lives in enormous spires, roughly two miles wide and two miles tall. The surface can be visited, but it's considered to be extremely dangerous and done so only at great risk. A segment of the population make their living as aeronauts, working on and piloting the fleets of airship  powered by crystals that can harness the energy of the aether, carrying out trade between the spires and, more importantly, manning the armed forces of the spires. However aeronauts are considered more than a little odd and the majority of the population spends most if not all of their lives inside the spires.

The main characters of this story are residents of Albion Spire, one of the larger, wealthier, and more powerful of the spires with an excellent navy and an excellent source of the crystals necessary to keep airships aloft and power them. They have been unofficially at war with Aurora Spire for some time and tensions appear to be heating up even more. As for why these two spires are going to war, it's eerily similar to the set up for the Honor Harrington series. Aurora Spire's economy is basically centered around plundering the wealth of other spires, and Albion has become Aurora's next target. This is confirmed when Aurora makes a surprise attack on Albion Spire, inflicting little damage, but it seems the Aurorans had help from inside the spire and the main characters, being individuals the leader of Albion Spire can trust, are sent to investigate.

One of the things that bothered me about this book was there were a lot of things that didn't seem to make sense, even within the universe. I didn't question the aether or the crystals that harness it to make airships fly, but there were other issues that bothered me. For example, as I mentioned, most of humanity live in giant spires two miles tall and almost two miles high, built centuries ago to the point their origins are myth. The source of some basic commodities, such as food or crystals, are explained, with them being grown in numerous vatteries throughout the spire. But other resources are explicitly scarce. Wood is described as an extreme luxury that has to be harvested from the surface, and a house built entirely of wood within the spire is an ostentatious display of wealth. And yet, the majority of airships are made largely of wood and extensive shipyards on the outside of the spire are made from wood as well. So I suppose airships are ridiculously expensive, but it seems a little odd to me. Especially considering how prevalent other materials are. Copper, steel, and ceramics are treated as ordinary, every-day items that can be easily obtained in enormous quantities. Some airships are heavily armored with copper-clad steel plates. (More on that in a minute.) Except all three of those require raw materials which have to be harvested somewhere, presumably outside the spires since they're all artificial structures filled with living spaces and thus don't contain enormous quantities of raw materials. Yet these materials are all apparently more common than wood and therefore less expensive. It just doesn't make sense.

Another thing that bugged the heck out of me, and I'm aware I'm being really nit-picky, is that almost every metal object is described as steel clad in copper. If this was an aesthetic choice, I'd be fine with it. If there had been some sort of nonsense reason tied to aetheric energies, I'd have been fine with it. But the reason given for cladding every piece of steel in copper from battleship armor to personal swords? Rust prevention. Personally this annoyed the hell out of me because it went against everything I knew about metallurgy. (Granted, it's fairly limited and I'm by no means an expert, but I was cursed in this case with knowing too much.) First of all, there are easier ways to prevent rust on steel. Painting steel, utilizing alloys, or just oiling items like swords and firearms, all help to prevent rusting. Granted, galvanizing steel is a method utilized as well, but copper is just a susceptible to corrosion as well. I did do a tiny bit of research and found that in the case of copper oxidation the outer level helps protect lower levels from further oxidation, unlike in steel, but none of these items were described as being green so everything's apparently being polished excessively. Finally, especially in the case of using it to protect swords, copper is slightly softer than steel, being about a 3 on Moh's scale while steel's a 4 or 4.5. So I'd assume after every fight in which swords are used you'd end up recoating your sword in copper to repair all the dings and scrapes in it. It probably wasn't that big of a deal in hindsight, but it just annoyed the hell out of me because it didn't make sense.

The greatest offense this book made, though, was being boring, which I think is the greatest offense a book can make. It's fairly long, being about six hundred pages, which I think was probably about three hundred pages too long for what it covered. I noticed a couple of points where characters were repeating things already said earlier in the book or explaining what was currently happening in the most tedious and time consuming manner possible. There are even points where a challenge one character or group of characters encountered is repeated, only slightly differently, for a separate character or group of characters. And on top of that, almost every character spends some time unconscious for one reason or another. The first time it's a little dramatic. After the third it just gets repetitive. By the end of the book I just found myself wishing the whole thing would be over because it had taken so long and had done so very little with the time it used.

Overall, aside from my incessant complaining about the world not making sense, the book's just boring. The story feels vaguely familiar to other stories I had, without the rich world-building or interesting plotlines and characters. Butcher spends too much time repeating himself which seems to only add padding to the book and slow what should be an exciting adventure into a laborious crawl. Personally I don't think it's worth the effort.

- Kalpar

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