I love the Dresden Files, but I have been less a fan of Jim Butcher’s extracurricular activities. I finally had pity on his pleas for folks to read his sword-and-horses fantasy series and read the Codex Alera series. It was pretty good, but (aside from being the worst-edited mass-market series I’ve ever read in my entire life) it just didn’t have the magic of the Dresden Files.1
So, when his new series was announced, I wanted to give Butcher the benefit of the doubt. And, frankly, I thought that maybe he needed a break from Harry Dresden to keep from falling into a rut. But the big question on every fan’s mind was: is this new series going to be worth the extra time it will cost all of us waiting for the next installation of the Dresden Files?
And the answer to this all-important question is: yes. Yes, it will be. I might even go so far as to say that this series could, could end up better than the Dresden Files. It’s heresy to say it, but it’s possible.
Now, let’s get something out of the way: the title is terrible. It was terrible the first time I heard it, it was terrible as I read through the book with that in the back of my mind (is this title ever going to make sense?) and it is still terrible now that I have finished the book. A windlass is a real thing; it’s a winch. In the context of this book, it actually refers to the ship that’s at the center of the plot. Early on, the ship (a fantasy / steam-punk airship) loses its central power core and therefore can no longer move… except up and down. So the ship itself is good for nothing but transporting freight vertically. It is a windlass.
But that’s never really the point of the story (at all), and so it just doesn’t work. Even when you figure it out. (In fact, I kept waiting for the title to mean something else because it was such a weak explanation for the title.)
Enough of that bad. How about the good?
Well, Butcher has never been shy about revealing his influences. The initial setup of the Dresden Files is just noir private eye + magic is real. We’ve come a long way since that simplistic premise, but that’s really all there was to it at the outset. Codex Alera, for it’s part, was just a mashup of the bending (from Avatar: the Last Airbender) and a world teeming with magical creatures waiting to be tamed (from Pokemon). If I recall correctly, Butcher said as much, publicly.2
Butcher is doing the same thing in this book: picking a formula that works and retrofitting it for a new purpose. But the borrowing is subtler and—while he was at it—he went right for the best possible source material: Firefly. You won’t see it right away, but it’s there, and towards the end it will become increasingly apparent. Luckily, by that time you’re so engrossed with the characters that you don’t care, even when you realize how directly some of the elements are transplanted from Whedon’s masterful sci-fi / Western mashup into this steampunkesque world.
And that’s really the best part of this story: the characters. Butcher has always been great at assembling a team, but in the Dresden Files his flair for strong, diverse casts is constrained by the strict first-person perspective. In this new series, Butcher switches to the more conventional close third-person, alternating among the distinctive perspectives of each of the narrative’s main protagonists. We get a lot more internal monologues and a much wider range of inter-character dynamics.
When your characters are formulaic,3 this is really just an exercise in conveying information to the reader: authors send one interchangeable character after another to this or that random location strictly to have an excuse to relate whatever the characters see / think to the reader. This is very annoying.
But when your characters actually have very different personalities, backgrounds, and motivations this style really shines. Butcher’s characters are distinct and well-drawn enough to pull that off. So not only does Butcher have the technical elements down (cleverly switching from one viewpoint to another in mid-action), but there’s actually a good reason for it: we see the world (and the characters) through different eyes. It’s great.
Also–quick aside–a talking cat really shouldn’t work in this story. It should be too silly, but somehow he pulls that off, too.
And the setting! Butcher has clearly done a lot of work on backstory. Very, very little of it is revealed directly in the narrative, but that’s fine. For someone like me, it’s even better. There are enough hints there to make it really intriguing, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the big “How did the Earth get this way?” question slowly unraveled over the next 2 books. Or 5 books. I don’t know how many there will be, but I hope it’s not like… 20.4
Conclusion: The Aeronaut’s Windlass was worth the wait. It was worth a delay in the Dresden Files. And I’m super-psyched for the next one.