Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files are some of the fastest-paced books I’ve read. Set in modern-day Chicago, the intensity of these fantasy-noir novels ramps up almost immediately and barely leaves you time to catch your breath as the story hurtles forward. Sometimes they’re a little too fast; I often feel a bit exhausted after finishing one. So when I picked up The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book in his new Cinder Spires series, I wondered if that frenetic speed would carry over.
It doesn’t immediately. The first few chapters—while not dull—focus on establishing the main characters and fleshing out the alt-Earth setting. Some of it’s familiar: the main religions seem to be Christianity and Taoism (called the Way), and the inhabitants speak with a variety of Britishisms. But this world’s surface is prowled by bloodthirsty monsters, and humanity has retreated to massive, multi-leveled Spires erected by long-gone Builders. Iron and steel rot if they aren’t coated in copper, and the atmosphere is pervaded by an etheric energy that can be harnessed to fire crystal-based weapons and send nautical ships airborne. (Captain Grimm, an honor-bound privateer, feels like a steampunk-fantasy version of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. Needless to say, I enjoyed him.)
The story takes off soon enough, though, when a rival Spire carries out a sneak attack on Spire Albion and lands a small force of marines. The main characters then band together to stop the invaders from completing their mission. From there, the pacing quickly begins to resemble a Dresden novel, with crisis after crisis and setback after setback.
It’s a lot of fun.
The prologue is over-the-top, and I’m not sure I needed the chapters from the talking cat’s perspective (yes, cats talk in this world). I also wish we’d learned more about the villains’ schemes, so that the heroes could do less reacting and initiate their own plans. But this is clearly meant to be a long series, and the mysteries that go unresolved—like why Grimm was kicked out of Albion’s fleet in his youth—are forgivable inducements to read the next book.
There’s only one problem: the sequel isn’t out yet! I hope it comes soon. I’m ready for another tale of aeronautical warfare to leave me breathless again.
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