Steampunk is largely an aesthetic in the minds of most, the joke being that it’s when goths discovered brown. There are a great many stories out there in this subgenre that revolve around goggles and gears, Babbage engines, and top hats, and… the list goes on. I truly love me some steampunk, but the largest majority of it is just simple adventure stories and fluff. Strip away the ideas, and there’s really very little else to work with. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for this to keep going properly, it needs somebody to wade into the fray like they know what they’re doing and shake it up a bit.
Enter Jim Butcher.
The Dresden Files did for urban fantasy what needed to be. Like steampunk, it relied on the crutch of aesthetics more than actual storytelling more often than not. Most people didn’t bother with pushing the lore. With Butcher, there was a sudden and deliberate revival in the idea of actually creating characters and stories that evolved and pushed boundaries once Dresden got going, and suddenly urban fantasy was about so much more than killing (or becoming) the monster of the week. It had that, of course, but it became so much more. I submit that with this book, The Cinder Spires is gong to do the same thing for steampunk. After all, if he could make the battleground of the goths cool again, why not this? I couldn’t be more pleased.
Let’s go ahead and acknowledge the pros and cons of Butcher’s work.
Being honest, he’s not the best wordsmith if we’re going for “literary” quality. He tosses adverbs around like Halloween candy, which is something almost every pro today says you shouldn’t do. I only notice it because I’m working on improving those skills. But here’s the thing about it. His skills are more than competent to get his stories and characters across, and that is where this man shines. If I weren’t focusing on learning so much from what I’m reading, I certainly wouldn’t have noticed any of the technical stuff.
His worldbuilding works better in Dresden because he is dealing with real world Chicago, but he has built onto that world considerably. Here, the world is clearly based somewhat on standard steampunk “alternate reality Victorian England,” except that it may not even be Earth. I kept thinking all the way to the end that he might pull a Planet of the Apes kind of thing and tell us it’s been millennia, but it’s really Earth. He still might. I don’t know. All I know is the Spires have been in place for thousands of years. But many seeds are planted, and he knows how to make them grow. I’ll be curious to see how that develops. In the meantime, readers can expect plenty of standard Victorian England type phraseology and sensibility. Not really a bad thing in my book, but it did keep me going back to my theory.
On character and story, Butcher is a grandmaster in my humble opinion. He’s got a formula. He knows how to use it. He knows how to break it when he needs to. And he’s fun. So that said, as with the majority of Dresden, this book is a master class in story and character. That’s what wins me over time and again with Butcher’s work, and that’s what will continue to keep me coming back and praising his name.
There are not one, not two, but THREE incredibly strong female characters in this book, and that’s just on the hero side of things. If you’ve followed my past reviews (or anything else, really), you already know I like this sort of thing. Warriors to the front! Butcher didn’t disappoint me.
One of them, Gwendolyn Lancaster, is going to divide his audience, of that I have no doubt. She’s young, strong-willed, intelligent, decisive, built like a porcelain doll, and has zero diplomatic skills. In short, Gwen’s a bitch, tempered only by the pleasantries of society and the fact that other people have rank, even though she’s still noble-born. In some ways, it’s like if you put the ladies of Downton Abbey through military school. Personally, I like her. She’s got spirit, and this book is a proving ground for her that will have amazing repercussions on her character development.
As a foil to Gwen, we’re given Bridget and Folly. Bridget is also of a noble house, but hers is one that was great in the past and is hanging on by a thread. She’s built like Brienne of Tarth, standing over a foot taller than Gwen, but she’s far more gentle and diplomatic. And Folly is a couple of snapping twigs away from becoming the next Harley Quinn. She’s the apprentice to Ferus, an etherealist (sort of this world’s psionic/mage class, and equally as crazy as Folly due to the nature of doing what they do).
You can’t have strong ladies stealing the spotlight completely though. The guys in this story are also wonderfully written. Captain Grimm is one of those ship captains who inspires such loyalty that both his crew and his readers will want to follow him to the bitter end. There is so much rich subtlety in this character, and it lends itself to really establishing the crew of the ANS Predator, to say nothing of the Predator herself. This little airship is the Millennium Falcon of this world, but her crew is worthy of Enterprise. Gwen’s cousin, Benedict, is a necessary and charming counterpunch to Gwen, providing us with some running commentary on just how abrasive she is, with the result being that her rough edges get smoothed out a bit.
The real villain of the piece doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, but it’s pretty obvious that Butcher’s building up for more, and she makes good use of what time she has. Grimm’s ex-lover is equally fun when she makes an appearance. Both of them really are larger than life personalities, and how it reflects on the heroes is really well executed.
And yet, none of these characters are the star of the show.
In the Spies, cats are in a weird kind of partnership in some places and treated as pests in others. But at no point are they merely “pets.” If anything, it’s the reverse. There’s an old saying that dogs have people and cats have staff. There’s another that cats were once worshipped as gods, and they’ve never forgotten. It turns out, Bridget speaks “Cat,” which means Butcher gets to give us a cat who will demand your attention and adoration, but he won’t be impressed by you. It’s just not done. Meet Rowl. Through Rowl, we get to understand the hierarchy of the different factions of cats as well as our own limitations of being merely human.
Now combine all of this into a steampunk veneer and proceed forward into some incredible aerial / nautical combat a la Horatio Hornblower or Master and Commander. There’s a kind of heroic / romantic kind of quality to that sort of thing that sells it for me in most cases where any level of competence can be demonstrated, and Butcher pretty much plugged into it right from the beginning. There are parts of this, especially towards the end, that just feel like Star Trek II. You can tell he had as much fun telling it as I did enjoying it.
Mr. Butcher, you’ve done it again. You’ve clearly learned from your exploits on Dresden. Unlike with that series, I didn’t have to wait two books before you pulled the ripcord. I got it in the prologue and first chapter, and it didn’t relent. Even in the parts where you slowed down for the characters to take a breather, there was so much going on that I didn’t notice the real world intruding on me. Thank you. A thousand times, thank you.