Book Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires #1)

I have several friends who are very much into the more well-known and longer running of Jim Butcher’s series, The Dresden Files, which is noir mystery urban fantasy with wizards. Two entries of that series have graced my bookshelf for quite some time. So, naturally, the first Butcher title I’ve read is something completely different.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is everything I imagine early pulp sci-fi was, from John Carter to Flash Gordon, updated for a modern audience. It is fast-paced, energetic, and character-driven. Let’s talk about it.

The Basics:

Title: The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires #1)
Author: Jim Butcher
Genre: Science Fiction, Action-Adventure, Steampunk, Thriller
Published: Penguin-Random House, 2015

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Although this book is not post-apocalyptic fiction, the setting hints at some catastrophe in the long-forgotten past. The surface of what I am 95.2% sure is intended to be our Earth is uninhabitable, covered by a toxic fog hiding ravenous mutated monsters. Humans fled to the clouds, raising black stone spires miles into the sky. Spire citizens power their lives with magic crystals which function as everything from common lightbulbs to the engines of powerful flying ships to the foci for magic spells. A feudal system emerged over the centuries as these spires competed for influence and resources, waging terrible naval battles in the sky with laser-spewing cannons and spellcraft.

Enter our heroes, from Spire Albion: Captain Grimm (yep, that’s his name), a daring privateer with a profound sense of duty; Gwendolyn, the headstrong heiress of a crystal-producing empire; her cousin Benedict, a mutant warrior with a gentle soul; Folly, a half-mad apprentice wizard (“aetherialist”); Bridgett, a shy trainee who doesn’t know her own strength; and Rowl, Bridgett’s unflappable cat. By the way, cats talk. They always have, humans just didn’t understand their language.

Most of our protagonists are barely out of their first month of Albion military training when friction with a rival spire sparks a full-blown war. After surviving the initial assault and repelling the enemy from key tactical targets, our heroes are charged with a secret mission to root out spies and saboteurs in the spire’s main port of trade. From here, spycraft, chases, combat, and narrow escapes abound until they collide with crushing forces they have little hope of defeating… but they must try, or their spire will fall.

The aesthetic is steampunk meets age-of-sail. (Photo by Alessandro Manzoli on

Why You Will Love This Book:

It took me a while to figure out what The Aeronaut’s Windlass was. At first, it presents like a young-adult coming-of-age hero’s journey. With several youthful protagonists in a military school, what else could be in store? But, fortunately (for my preferences), that plot literally blows up. It could have been military fiction, with its emphasis on fantasy flying naval warfare. This too, is not the thrust of the story. I almost thought it was a mystery, with the heroes sent to unroot a conspiracy which appeared to touch their own ranks. However, if you had three guesses to the enemy’s plan at the port city, I am sure you would guess it, savvy reader. No, once it catches the wind, …Windlass is a pure, adrenaline-soaked thriller, through and through.

While the overall shape of the narrative is familiar, the little details make it shine. The characters are extremely well-written, with unique voices, strengths, and foibles. The world is filled with quirky surprises which add a healthy dash of whimsy to this otherwise serious story. With tight prose, distinct, engaging characters, and action every other chapter, Butcher has written an exciting page-turner worth the price of admission.

Where Can You Learn More?

I know you know how to find books for sale, reader. As I wrote this, I hopped over to Jim Butcher’s website and saw that the second book in this series, The Olympian Affair, is written and ready to revise!

Happy reading, folks.

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