I finally picked up a Dresden Files book when Skin Game was nominated for a Hugo Award last year and wound up greatly enjoying it—putting it #2 on my ballot behind The Three-Body Problem. Butcher is back with another Hugo Awards finalist, but this year, instead of a Dresden Files book, the finalist is The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book in Butcher’s new The Cinder Spires steampunk series. Unfortunately, while Butcher’s skill as a writer still shows, I didn’t like it nearly as much.
One of my primary complaints with steampunk is the worldbuilding—but why are there airships and such? Butcher provides an inventive backdrop leading ineluctably to a steampunk world. A hostile, mist-covered surface lead humanity to escape to massive spires long ago. Magic crystals power everything from massive airships to Iron Man-esque gauntlets. Giant centipede-esque Silkweavers, well, weave silk, which protects against gauntlet blasts. Ethereal currents help drive airships (but must be protected against with goggles) and can also be tapped by magic users called Etherealists (driving them mad, but nothing comes free). Along with that are a number of smaller touches, from talking cats to steel that rusts away in days absent a copper coating to “Warriorborn” humans with catlike abilities to “vats” used to make everything from the crystals to food (limited square footage for crops on a spire).
Aeronaut’s Windlass is a departure from the more Harry Dresden-centric Dresden Files, and Butcher takes advantage with a large cast of characters: Grimm, privateer and airship captain; Gwendolyn, scion of a major aristocratic house and newly minted member of the Spirearch’s Guard; Benedict, a member of Gwen’s house, a Warriorborn, and a member of the Guard; Rowl the cat; Bridget, another new member of the Guard and Rowl’s pet; Ferus, master Etherealist; and Folly, another Etherealist and Ferus’ apprentice. The Relationships are a highlight. The budding romance between Bridget and Benedict. The curious relationship between Bridget and that damn cat. The familial relationship between Benedict and Gwen. The relationship between Captain Grimm and anyone, really (Captain Grimm is great). The relationship between Folly and Ferus. Or the relationship between Folly and anyone, really (Folly is great).
So there is a well rounded, diverse cast of characters. And there are inventive monsters, setting, and magic. So why aren’t I raving about The Aeronaut’s Windlass? It does have flaws. That damn cat got old in a hurry.  Butcher’s inexperience with sprawling, multiple-POVs shows and the story drags in the middle with too much exposition and setup interspersed with too little action. But really it boils down to a technically proficient book that nonetheless lacks that unexplainable spark of vitality that marks all of my favorite books. The sort of thing that makes me want to squee more than to write long posts extolling a book’s virtue in minute detail.
But what does have a spark? The airship battles. They are breathtaking. Literally holding-my-breath-like-I’m-cresting-a-hill-on-a-rollercoaster while I read breathtaking. There is a Master and Commander element with a naval command structure and rows of cannons that operate like much large versions of the gauntlets, but Butcher also makes full use of the extra dimension. Much of aerial combat in the world of The Cinder Spires consists of sneaking up on your enemy and plummeting past him in a surprise sneak attack from above. Every fight is superbly choreographed, paced, and written. Starship-esque trouble in the “engine” (crystal) room adds to the drama. The dog fights get The Aeronaut’s Windlass another star on their own. But there are just too damn few of them!
The Aeronaut’s Windlass works as a standalone while setting up a longer series. I really want to visit the surface (from the safety of my bedroom) and see many more airship battles. I want to see a mistmaw eat a ship, damn it. Book 1 is driven by an inter-Spire conflict, but it also suggests a world-threatening Enemy (another complaint about Book 1 is that it doesn’t get far enough into either conflict).
There is obviously something to it, because even very successful authors fail when they introduce new characters in a new world, but it didn’t grab me.
 I’m reminded of Robert Jordan’s line on Hobbits, “I mean, I love The Lord of the Rings and have read it at least a dozen times, but when you have too many Hobbits together, they can be so bloody cute that I need a stiff drink.”