Of Great Houses, Power Crystals and the ability to speak ‘cat’

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Jim Butcher is an American best-selling author, best known for his long-running Dresden Files series of contemporary fantasy/ mystery novels. He’s written one book a year for the past 15 years and they keep popping up whenever I browse Amazon for best-selling books in scifi/ fantasy. I haven’t read a single one as I have no interest in the sub-genre, but I’ve always wished to read one of his books, as surely someone with so much success must be a good writer.

Well, my wish has now been fulfilled because Mr. Butcher has started on a steampunk series and the first entry The Aeronaut’s Windlass was published a few months ago.

Steampunk is one of my favourite scifi sub-genres – a type of alternate history set in Victorian or pre-Victorian times, but with advanced mechanical automation and technology.

There are also steampunk novels that are not set in our world, like Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World which is set on a Mars of the far future where some societies are operating at steampunk tech level. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is similarly set in an unnamed world where instead of nations, we have spires that tower for miles over a misty surface.

The story centres on two warring spires, Spire Albion and Spire Aurora. Albion, as the name suggests is an analog of Great Britain and Aurora stands in for Spain. Spire Albion’s society is identical to that of feudal Britain. Members of high society belong to any number of Great Houses with their own pecking order, Houses Lancaster and Astor being among the richest and most powerful. The Spire is ruled by a Spirearch, the current ruler being His Majesty Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion.

So far, so normal. Now come the interesting bits.

While gunpowder was the source of power in our world, it’s crystals in this world. Giant crystals tethered inside airships help them levitate and create a protective force field called a shroud. Smaller crystals are used to power ‘light cannons’ on the ships and even smaller ones placed in hand gauntlets allow the wearer to fire blasts of energy in battle. The crystals are grown over several years and are very precious. A destroyed or damaged crystal means a tangible reduction in the Spire’s firepower until a new one of similar size is ready for use.

Another interesting element is that meat is grown in vats and there are ‘vatteries’ all over the spire to provide food for the populace.

Now it gets weirder. Cats occupy a very special place in Spire society. They are very few in number, are as intelligent as the humans and have organized themselves into Clans, some of which are aligned with the Great Houses. Since the cats are generally aloof and arrogant, they are not particularly liked by the general public. A very select group of humans have the ability to speak Cat and are therefore held in very high regard by the Cat Clans but are treated with some degree of hostility and distrust by other people.

While this sort of plot element could easily push a story into the realm of farce, Mr. Butcher keeps it all very straight-faced. When fantasy and scifi authors build imaginary worlds, they run the risk of going into excruciating detail and boring the reader to death, or keeping it too superficial and therefore straining credibility. I’ve only read a quarter of the book so far, but I like the way the layers of this world are being peeled away in every chapter; it’s the sort of journey of discovery I enjoy when reading a book.

The characters are a mixed bag. The humans are rather stereotypical – feisty noblewomen, spoilt rich noblemen, heroic rich noblemen, brave and dedicated ship captains.

Fortunately, the cats make things interesting. Well actually, there’s only one that’s appeared so far. I became an immediate fan of Rowl, the heir apparent of House Silent Paws. He suffers no fools and fiercely protects his ward, the human Bridget, who comes from one of the poorer Houses, Tagwynn (Rowl lovingly calls her ‘Littlemouse’). Bridget and the impetuous Gwendolyn from House Lancaster are both in training at the Spirearch’s Guard, the elite force that defends Spire Albion from Auroran attack. The two ladies become good friends and have to deal with the usual mix of friendships and rivalries that emerge in these situations (think of Top Gun or The Officer and a Gentleman).

The two most boring characters are the captain and the XO of an Albion merchant ship called the Predator – Messrs. Grimm and Creedy. I literally cannot sit through any part of the book when the two of them are together on the ship. Grimm is serious, Creedy is earnest and it’s just impossible to describe how boring it is when two such men speak to each other, even in the heat of battle. I hope to God the heroic guy on the cover of the book doesn’t turn out to be Grimm. That would crush me.

Keeping the cats company on the interesting end of the scale are the etherealists (sort of like wizards). One of them, Efferus Effrenus Ferus is hilarious; think Dumbledore on weed…lots of weed.

At the quarter-way point in the book, things are just warming up. There are some mysterious and dangerous creatures living in the hidden depths of the spires. There are a few people who are called warriorborn, who Rowl refers to as ‘half souls’. I am looking forward to the reveals on these as the story progresses, provided I can get past the boring Grimm-Creedy bits!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass was a 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee in the Fantasy category. The second book The Olympian Affair is likely to be released in early 2017.

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