REVIEW: THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS (THE CINDER SPIRES #1)
A story set in the skies...
THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS is a book I'd bought on a bit of a whim, partly for the cover and partly for the premise, during a Barnes and Noble Hardcover sale. I'd made the purchase online and had no idea that it would be a 600 pager. Although I've remained interested in reading it, years passed before I finally pulled it off of my shelf and dove in.
HOW I RATED IT
3/5 While I had a good time in this rather unique fantasy world, I feel like a book of this size needed to have packed a bigger punch in order to justify it's longer page count.
One of the biggest criticisms I've heard about this book is that the characters felt kind of cartoonish. I feel like to some extent, that is true, but I also got the distinct sense that this was a deliberate artistic choice. Each of the main POV and all of the side characters felt quite distinct from one another, but they definitely have a larger-than-life quality and their exaggerated manners add to the sense of melodrama during their interactions with one another. As someone who doesn't mind animated films/series as well as JRPGs I kind of like that style of dialogue and characterization, but I did wish that these particular characters had more depth to them. They're all likeable enough, but for the amount of time I spent with them, I would have expected to form a much deeper connection with at least some of them than I ever really did. Captain Grimm is certainly the most interesting and nuanced of the bunch, but much of what makes him a more layered character doesn't necessarily manifest itself until the final chapters of the book. Benedict and Bridget are probably tied for second on my list since their bravery and sheer force of will make them rather compelling even if they aren't especially complex. Rowl is the type of character that I would usually hate, but he is executed so well, that the chapters from his point of view were typically my favorite moments in the book. Some of the magic-using characters were also fascinating to learn more about it. All in all, I think there's plenty to like here in this cast, I just think they needed to deliver more than they did in a story this long.
At this point, I've already mentioned the book's length a number of times. Part of the reason I stress this one point so much isn't just that I tend to read shorter books, but also because I think that expectations rise when I read something that requires a greater investment of time. For what it is worth, the pacing is actually pretty fast, especially for a book of this size and there is an even spread of action throughout. In the same vein as the characterizations, the overall tone of this story is fairly over-the-top. I wouldn't exactly call it zany or anything, but there's something decidedly whimsical about the way the story is told. I again, didn't mind this choice in and of itself, but I also have to question if this type of story should really have been as long as it was. Even though the narrative is fairly focused and I didn't necessarily feel as though there were any parts that were distinctly unnecessary, I think I would have rated the book higher if it was 100-200 pages shorter. There are some interesting developments, some fun reveals, and some competent twists and turns, but for the story to go on as long as it did and not have a bit more impact on me felt like a bit of a shame. I also don't think things tied up in as satisfying a way as they could have, opting instead to lead into a forthcoming sequel. That's probably an especially big problem considering that the book was originally published back in 2015 and the second book isn't due out until later this year (2023). I will consider picking up the second book since I have only just read the first and am curious to know where the story goes from here, but I don't think I would have maintained interested after all these years if I read it back when the first book launched.
One of the most appealing aspects of this book to me was the unique setting. This is a world where people live up in the clouds thanks to mammoth spires that serve as homes to different human nations. The main method of transportation takes the form of airships which are powered by mystical crystals as well as a fabric known as ethersilk. Conceptually, I absolutely loved this loved this world where spending time on the planet's surface is simply unthinkable. In execution, I don't really think that the book did enough to capitalize on all the potential that this type of setting had to offer. We only really get to see the magnificent airships in action during the opening and closing acts of the book, which I found rather off-putting. While I enjoyed the exploration of the different "habbles" of Spire Albion, it was hard not to be a little disappointed by how grounded the story ended up being, with most of the book being set within one of the levels of the spire. This is again where I think the length of the book has led to a harsher judgement of this element. To read through such a large book and stay in one place instead of flying to different spires and exploring the full breadth of what the world has to offer seems like an odd choice even if it made sense with the story being told here. One positive I will say is that the worldbuilding is done quite seamlessly. At no point do I remember getting a substantial exposition dump, nor did I ever find myself confused by a certain aspect of the world, the cultures of the different spires, or the magical technology that powers daily life. In a world that is so different from our own, I think this is quite an impressive feat. Hopefully the next book in the series will do more to let readers explore this interesting setting.
The cover has a beautiful design and is what initially drew me to the book. There is a nice embossing and gloss on the front lettering as well as a foiling on the lettering for the naked hardback's spine. In spite of these elegant touches, I couldn't help but feel like this book was otherwise a bit cheaply made. The hardcover itself is rather thin and kind of feels flimsy to hold even though I didn't actually have any issues with it bending or deforming in any way. While the dust jacket is made of a nicely thick material, it is also kind of slippery, so I found myself taking it off when reading even though I wasn't worried about damaging it at all. Things get much nicer in terms of the interior quality, thankfully. There are some gorgeous endpapers that show an illustration of the Predator airship. It's the same image for both the front and the back, but a cool touch all the same. The interior fonts, formatting, and chapter headings are all quite nicely done. I especially appreciate that everything is nicely spaced out rather than crammed in to reduce the page count. In short, it feels like this book's construction is at odds with it's design and ultimately cheapens what would otherwise be a more premium experience.
Overall, I actually did enjoy this book. It provided some lighthearted and fun entertainment while also delivering on a really interesting fantasy world. That said, the book really needed to deliver a greater depth in at least one of it's aspects and/or have condensed the story to a shorter length in order for me to be able to rate this any higher than a "Good/Fair."
(+) A very creative setting that's brimming with potential
(+) Cool airship battles at the start and end of the book
(+) Distinct and likeable, albeit somewhat "cartoony" characters
(+) Relatively fast pacing with lots of action strewn in throughout
(+) Seamless worldbuilding
(/) The cover lettering and interior formatting are really nice, but the actual hardback materials felt a little cheap
(-) The story spends far too much time grounded, when it should be soaring in the skies
(-) I didn't really feel all that connected to or invested in anything
(-) The ending isn't quite as satisfying as it needed to be
(-) Even though I enjoyed my reading experience, I never found myself eagerly reaching for the book
(-) Feels like this should have somehow been cut down to a shorter book (as in cut down in length, not crammed onto a shorter page count).