It’s steampunk, and the goggles do do something.
So steampunk is…in my humble opinion…largely a fairly stupid genre based entirely on the aesthetic tastes of people who like wearing their corsets on the outside of their clothes. However, I’ll admit that this opinion is based on a sample size of 2: Girl Genius and The Invisible Library, both series I want to like a lot more than I actually do. TAW makes the third, and it’s…written much better than the other ones, for one.
Here, we get a genuine sense of why people use swords rather than guns–and if we only get hints as to why these swords are copper-clad, well, there’s plenty of space for JB to expand this universe and explain it. Here, when the pirate captain girl wears leather and crossed bandoleros with cutlasses, they are given enough prior context, in-setting, that they fit her character as well as her posterior. And when everybody is altogether concerned with tea, it’s…fine. It’s cultural. It’s also made hugely significant in-story, not to mention sinister and mysterious, by the villain’s tea-and-biscuits obsession.
[Incidentally; effing wordpress has made its media caption editor 300% less useful and I don’t even have the energy to swear at them in all caps for it. Whatever. I think that’s XO Creedy on the cover, not Captain Grimm.]
And there’s the rub of it. The Invisible Library does not make setting intrinsically a part of its story and use elements of that setting organically in the telling of it; it just uses them as a backdrop–set dressing. Girl Genius does much the same, although it does it rather better, using the setting/props for humorous effect. The Cinder Spires, contrarily, feels like an actual universe; a setting with established culture, locations, and weight of history.
Oh, and unlike Girl Genius, the female characters are strong, lively, and badass without being annoying Mary Sues, and unlike The Invisible Library, the males act like people who have, at some time in their life, found themselves capable of punching someone else in the face and indeed can do so at any time necessary.
Plot: There’s this group of characters who assemble, and then they go do something. And that’s more or less it.
OK, fine. So, there’s Captain Grimm of the Predator, who is the guy from the first Horatio Hornblower novels who is Not Horatio Hornblower, the one who ended up taking the fall for mysterious circumstances involving a dead captain (but a successful voyage) while the other young officers concerned somehow ended up covered in glory. Grimm is completely mute and slightly bitter about this but remains a loyal son of Spire Albion–so much so that even after his ship is crippled, potentially fatally, he’s willing to take direct service for the leader of the Spire. What work can an airship that only goes up and down do?
It can transport a crack team of….junior trainees and semi-insane wizards to a different level (I somehow thought that Habble Landing was at the surface level. It…probably isn’t? Anyhow.)–and provide them personnel, medical and tactical support; it can make a ranged pursuit in the event of an enemy escape, and also Captain Grimm is one of the main characters so it makes sense to involve him.
Why is a small team of heroes necessary? Because Spire Albion has come under attack by Spire Aurora, the dirty commies, (literally), and while the Guard does outnumber the concealed raiders, they are stretched far too thinly to cover every level of the ten-mile high tower….and there is every indication that highly placed members of the Guard have turned traitor. Which also explains why two out of the three Guardspeople are young women on their first month of training, and why having a cunning and experienced–not to mention very patriotic and demonstrably loyal, but definitely outside the regular chain of command–soldier like Grimm as a backup is such a good idea.
Mind you, one of these girls is capable of calmly and instantly blasting an unsuspecting enemy soldier in the face at point-blank range, while the other one until recently spent her days hauling 150-lb slabs of vat-meat and can carry a grown adult male over her shoulder out of a burning building. And while the third Guardsperson is slightly more senior (he’s got about three years’ experience), not to mention a genetically enhanced fighting machine, the fourth member of the team is a cat. And they’re the sane ones, here.
The other two members of the team are the Etherealist and his apprentice, Master Ferus and Folly. Being able to use and manipulate ethereal energy–the stuff that allows airships to fly and crystals to levitate them, emit light, and gauntlets to blast eletricity–comes with a price. The knowledge of the ether strips away your ability to function in the human, normal world, and etherealists must rely on weird, compulsory behavior patterns to compensate. Master Ferus has a collection of oddball items including mismatched socks and size-thirteen hats. He can also track multiple different futures and rip the energy from existing crystals (and possibly the life from men), but can’t operate doorknobs. Folly can turn dead crystals meant for emitting light into very live crystals that can electrocute attacking megaspiders–but can’t speak directly to anyone who is not a crystal…or linked to one.
But anyway, Master Ferus’ mission is: to find the enemy etherealist who has guideded the Auroran attack force into Albion space and which is presumably concealing them now. The rest of the team, including Rowl, are there to support this.
And so it goes.
Now, this is the bulk of the main plot. But there’s an artistry to it. The novel actually slides into the adventure rather more slowly, beginning with heroines Gwen and Bridget’s departures for the Guard training academy, Grimm’s encounter with the Auroran battleship that lames the Predator, Bridget’s inadvertent duel with a churlish young man, Gwen’s almost-duel with the actual monarch of the spire, Benedict’s laidback snark, and so on. Still, there is a constant source of mystery and tension–following Grimm, Rook, and the silkweavers–which blends back into the main plot further towards the end, adding context to Rook’s cowardice and the weavers’ origins. This gives the audience some time to absorb the setting and the characters’ personalities a chance to shine in exciting–but not terribly out of the ordinary–circumstances. And they do shine: we know exactly how well the refined yet hot-headed Gwen is going to perform her role of smoothing the way for Master Ferus (i.e.: with extreme violence or at least the threat of it); we know that quiet, serious Bridget is calm in a crisis and far more dangerous than she thinks she is–and we know that Rowl is going to save the day (because of course he is).
At this point I’m going to say that since I’ve been working on this review for about three days and it’s already pretty long and not very good, enough is enough.
‘s a good book and there’s a lot more to it than I was babbling about. Jim Butcher is a really top-notch author when he puts his mind to it, and in this case he did. It’s a solid, absorbing book with great worldbuilding, great characters, exciting action, compelling themes, deep examinations of the intrinsic system of the compulsory blah blah blah.
Rated: Look, just take my word for it and go read the book, it’s really good.