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The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first novel in a new series by Jim Butcher. It's a bit of a hybrid, part fantasy, part steampunk - a Regency-flavoured world of tower cities called Spires, at war - or at least in competition with each other - protected by armadas of airships powered by artificial crystals and propelled by etheric currents.

It starts out with a generous set of introductions to the people who will, I assume, play important parts in the series. There are some lovely and quite viscerally written aerial battles. And Butcher definitely intrigued me with his sentient cats. I was however annoyed when a specific event, for which there had been considerable build-up and which was portrayed as an important nexus with significant political ramifications for various houses and personal ones for several key people in the story was suddenly interrupted to begin the unfolding of the main narrative, which is the surprise invasion of Spire Albion by Spire Aurora.

There's a rather interesting ensemble cast - the bold privateer captain with the mysterious blot on his past record, the completely mad etherialist (i.e., wizard) who possesses incredible power but can't manage to figure out how doorknobs work, his almost completely mad apprentice who communicates by talking to some crystals she carries around in a jar, the "warriorborn" officer and gentleman of the Spirearch's Guard, and two Guard trainees, both young women of the nobility, though from houses at opposite ends of the social ladder. And of course, the cat. There's also an interesting collection of villains - one of them the etherialist's former apprentice and another the captain's former wife - and a quick peek at an unidentified Big Bad who will likely figure more prominently in sequels. And there's a delightfully well developed cat culture and society which plays a significant role in the unfolding of the plot.

Butcher has clearly spent some time in world-building here, but aside from explaining the basics of his techno-wizardry, he allows the details of his world to emerge slowly. This sometimes leaves the reader wondering about the meaning and significance of some things, but the further one gets into the narrative, the sharper the picture becomes. One is left with the feeling that there are still major mysteries about this world, its society and its peoples to be explored - but for me, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It's a high-intensity action novel. There are lots of battles, ranging from close combat between cats and giant spiders to epic aerial battles between dreadnaughts of the air. But Butcher doesn't lose sight of character development in the midst of all the fighting - one comes to care about these characters.

This was fun reading, and interesting - and original - enough that I'm looking forward to reading the next entry in the series.


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