The Aeronaut’s Windlass – Jim Butcher

And the final Hugo nominated novel has been read. Huzzah!

This is also, I think, the second most interesting post to write about the Hugo novels. Not the second most interesting book (I’m not moving Uprooted or Ancillary Mercy) but the second most interesting to think about and how it was different from my expectations. Because I had some very clear preconceptions of The Aeronaut’s Windlass, some of them quite uncharitable, and a lot of these were totally unfounded.

It is fairly obviously a steampunk novel, even before you get to the blurb. And I’ve had very mixed responses to those already on here. But it’s also a Jim Butcher novel, and much though I do actually like his stuff, that doesn’t mean I think it’s all good. I enjoy the Dresden books… but Harry Dresden is a misogynistic skeeve (even if totally appropriate for genre) and that bugs me. Likewise, I love the Codex Alera books… but they’re trash. Glorious, hilarious and absolutely readable. But trash. If I combine these with steampunk… well, I was expecting a lot of trope, some Victorian-style misogyny, probably a male lead character, and everything to be OTT and silly.

It wasn’t that.

I’ll get this in first, just in case my positivity ends up being misleading. I don’t think this is a brilliant book, nor that it should win a Hugo. I do have problems with some of the content, and more than that, it just isn’t fantastic fiction. But what it does represent is a marked increase in writing quality from Butcher. And I think that does need to be praised. He’s managed to pick a genre where misogyny is not only easy but potentially able to be argued away as genre-appropriate, and then write good, real, sensible female characters – two of which viewpoint ones – and not have a setting in which this is outside the norm. There are some excellent background women. None of the men are skeevey. I was genuinely surprised, and I apologise for maligning Butcher in my mind beforehand. But, and it’s a fairly reasonably sized but, there are other issues. With setting, with characters, with plotting and pace… there’s a lot about this that isn’t what it could be. Particularly, for me, the chapters told from a cat’s point of view were too much. If he’d done it once, it would have been cute and funny, but he overused it, and it got annoying. This happens more than once – Butcher finds a joke or idea he likes, and then pushes it a bit too far before letting it go. Most of the issues with the book can be put down to this. There’s also just a point… about 70% of the way through… where the plot just sort of dissolves into incoherence. I lost the thread a little, and had to pick up the pieces a little bit later and figure out what I missed. I’m not sure exactly how it happens, but the chapters just don’t really string together, and it feels like he leaves gaps bigger than our ability to jump.

This all being said, I found myself enjoying a lot in parts. There are three viewpoint characters (four if you include the cat), Captain Grimm, Gwen Lancaster and Bridget Tagwynn. Of the three, I think Bridget is the most sympathetic and the most human – both of Grimm and Gwen are a little too… stereotyped to be really easy to get on with. But it is great that Gwen and Bridget are so very different. They’re both competent, female characters with very different personalities, but both useful, both fun and both held as important. Captain Grimm is far more what you’d expect from this type of book – and he does get to do some swashbuckling and being stoic, about which no one is surprised – but he’s not at all the focus of the book and that was really nice… and unexpected. Bridget does get an awkward romance, which bugged me mildly, but otherwise, the characters all interact rather pleasingly.

The setting, rather similarly, is not quite what you’d expect. Yes, there are airships and people drinking tea and an awful lot of propriety… but it’s underpinned by actually quite a lot of originality. It’s almost like he stuck the tropes on and obscured the potentially fascinating novel underneath. I found myself wanting to know more about the vattery meat and the politics of the spire and how high up in the atmosphere they were. He’s left us a lot of hints and not a lot of solid answers – presumably to get us thoroughly hooked on reading the sequels, of course. You get to the end of the book and want to know more about the etherealists (the magic equivalent of the series) because he’s let slip just enough to be maddeningly puzzling and fun, or about the Builders… it feels like it might be a post-apocalyptic book, but we just don’t know… in the best possible way.

As I read the book, I went from liking it, to a plummet into “this is stupid, what the hell” through about a third, then a very sharp rise back to “my goodness, this is actually quite good” at the end. If I’d read it over a longer period, I think my opinion would be lower, because the nadir would have dragged itself out and left more of a mark on my memory. It’s not consistent, and that’s a shame, but it does promise a lot for the future, and I definitely intend to read the sequels to find out.

So that’s me done on Hugo novels. As predicted, the ranking stands thus:

  1. Uprooted – Naomi Novik
  2. Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
  3.  The Aeronaut’s Windlass  – Jim Butcher
  4. The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
  5. Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

However, if I do end up actually voting in the Hugos, I’ll reverse 3 and 4 in my voting order. Much though I didn’t enjoy reading Jemisin, Butcher is a puppy nom, and so would just have to be bumped down a little. It’s sad for him, because it is an enjoyable book, for the most part, but I can’t ignore the association with the puppies.

If either of Uprooted or Ancillary Mercy win, I will be happy. Both of them are excellent reads, and both are things I will almost certainly read again in the future. If Stephenson wins… I’ll be quite disappointed. Not because he’s a bad author – he’s not and I’ve enjoyed a lot of his stuff in the past – but this is definitely not his best and when combined with being puppy nominated too, it’s just not a good place to be.

And now I have a fair pile of graphic novels and other things that have been accumulating for a while. So I shall be back to rambling as usual in due course.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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