The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a new book from Jim Butcher (the author behind The Dresden Files) and it is nifty.
It’s also the first book in a planned nine-book series (called The Cinder Spires). My plan is to buckle in for a wild ride.
Also: not too many spoilers here, so go right on ahead.
Yup, it’s time for another book from the Dresden Files. Dresden has just finished being dead, so it’s time for him to avert yet another impending disaster. As ever — spoilers!
Nobody Tells Me Anything
As they say, poor communication kills. As I’ve noted in previous reviews, Dresden gradually gets better at avoiding this — the annoying, soap-opera like drama that occurs when somebody refuses to explain something important, or leaves out a critical detail. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anybody else is doing any better at it.
Mab, Queen of Winter, wants Dresden to kill Maeve, the Winter Lady. Which is… odd. And she never explains explicitly; she makes Dresden figure it out for himself. Most of the book could have been avoided (or simplified) if she had just explained herself… but she really doesn’t work that way, apparently.
On the plus side, Demonreach, the spooky island of great spookiness, is actually quite forthcoming. Movie included, curtesy of Bob the spirit-in-a-skull.
Oh, dear. As I expected, once you introduce Seven Laws of Magic that should never, ever be broken… they’re all going to get push, shoved, and shattered at one point or another.
This episode’s example is the law against meddling with time.
There are two parts to this. First, Merlin (yes, that Merlin) made a massive prison for epic supernatural evils of ultimate evil (think Cthulhu), and used time magic to construct it at five different times. This kind of makes me wonder if Merlin, who established those Laws of Magic, partially just wanted to avoid having somebody undo his work. Does using time magic have the same seductive appeal as other forms of dark magic (murder, meddling the people’s heads, etc.)? Or is it just that much more dangerous?
Said prison is the spooky island, Demonreach. And, at some level, it makes sense to have time magic be a part of the working. That’s part of Merlin’s traditional repertoire, and there are probably some big nasties whose time magic can be countered to prevent them from escaping.
But I’ve got to know: why was there an “echo” from the destruction of the island backward in time, warning everyone that it was about to be destroyed… when the island wasn’t actually destroyed? Or, if the echo was just from being attacked, why couldn’t our heroes tell the difference?
I want to know where the fey came from.
It’s not a trivial question, since the Queens of Faeries are clearly ancient; but how long have they been operating? We now know that Mab herself was once mortal. Was she the first Queen of Air and Darkness, however long ago that was? Were the Courts of Faerie explicitly established to protect the mortal world from Outsiders?
Did Merlin have anything to do with this?
I wonder how much is going to be answered in future books. It’s entirely reasonable to leave some questions unanswered — after all, that’s life — but there should be some reasonable explanation, even if we, the readers, are left to ponder the puzzle on our own.
It’s time for another round of the Dresden Files, and this one is a doozy.
If you haven’t read this far in the series yet, don’t read this review. The spoilers get increasingly large with time.
You Are Already Dead
In case you hadn’t guessed (or read the previous book), the story starts post-mortem. Dresden has to learn his way around as a ghost.
The whole business is a mix of entertaining and deadly serious. The reason why ghosts always look like they’re howling when they go through something? It’s actually painful to move through objects. Why are all the ghosts people actually notice, poltergeists? Because only insane ghosts are capable of manifesting, being seen, and moving physical objects. The previously seen rules about spirits being unable to cross thresholds and damaged by sunlight still hold. Ghost dust appears again, and so forth.
However, we also learn that ghosts are, essentially, living memories — so Dresden has to relearn how to use his magics as a ghost. There’s a lovely “oh crap” moment when he first realizes he can’t fling his usual Fuego.
That, and there’s the fact that he’s been sent back by an angel to solve his own murder.
Waldo Butters Rides Again
He’s back, and he’s still awesome. Waldo Butters is our clever everydude. In fact, while entirely lacking magical talent himself, he manages to end up with a couple of nice comments from Bob about his cleverness. He helps Bob design devices that let Dresden be seen and heard by normal mortals, despite being, well, dead.
For bonus points, he and a friend pretend to be Wardens in order to stall a bad guy long enough to deal with him. And does a pretty good job of pulling it off, at that.
Even though we don’t see the impacts on the mundane world, we get plenty of references to how the destruction of the Red Court of vampires has left behind a massive power vacuum. The White Council is busy putting out a thousand brushfires, the Fomor and others are making various power-grabs, along with assorted other individuals trying to take advantage of the chaos. I appreciate the inclusion of consequences that both make sense… and which have our protagonist kicking himself for not thinking of them. Speaking of which…
The Ghost and the Unreliable Narrator
This is, in my opinion, one of the best aspects of the novel.
We’ve seen the use of the unreliable narrator before in the Dresden Files series. (The most clear example being when the Queen of Winter had messed with Dresden’s mind, to prevent him from using his fire magic.) However, this particular variant takes the cake.
The whole deal is explained near the end of the novel. The answer to “who killed Dresden?” is… Dresden himself. He hired Kincaid to shoot him, and then made Molly wipe his mind of what he had just done. Why? Because he thought that, as the Winter Knight, he would inevitably become a cold, unstoppable monster.
But, one of the Fallen had meddled, pushing him into do it, by saying seven words and making Dresden think they were his own thoughts. So, an angel got to settle the score by saying seven more words. (Of course, that angel was sneaky, and got Dresden to volunteer for the ghost deal.)
Regardless, Dresden has a big old “What the hell, hero?” moment. He made a deal with the devil and took suicidal actions that damaged the sanity of his apprentice. He’s not sure what else he would have done, but he realizes that what he forced Molly to do crossed a line. And, in helping rescue her at the end, he helps to make that right. A little bit. Dresden’s help consists mostly of telling her to call the cavalry…
You Shouldn’t Have Left The Ectomancer With A Basement Full Of Wraiths
This is one of the other aspects I like about the series — the characters are not static, and characters other than just Dresden get some pretty good character development.
Mortimer Lindquist is one of those characters. He started out as a has-been medium whose powers had seriously faded. Now, after a few separate appearances, he’s back to full strength as a world-class ectomancer. He’s a small, bald and unimposing man. He’s also really, really good at handling ghosts.
So, it makes sense that our villain would, in her hurry to try to take over Molly’s mind, forget about him. Morty is pretty forgettable.
He still doesn’t like fights, but if you leave him with a whole bunch of wraiths… well. If you’re a ghost, he can take you out.
The failure of the Corpsetaker is also believable. Given the arrogance of the character and her great desire to possess someone as powerful as Molly, she overreached. And she… overlooked a little detail. It’s kind of annoying when a villain fails due to doing something dumb, but here, I can buy it. Since it’s just one… small… mistake…
It’s Not Quitting Time Yet
So, thanks to Mab and Demonreach… and some mysterious magical parasite… he’s not dead. And looks to recover. And, with a hint from an angel, he knows that Mab can’t change who he is. On to the heroics in the next novel!
That parasite, by the way? I suspect it’s what’s been giving Dresden nasty headaches that have gotten a mention in a few of the previous books. But we learn more about that in the next book — Cold Days.
This is the “wham episode” for the Dresden Files. It’s the only book that breaks the title two-word potentially-punning naming scheme. It also changes everything. The long running plot takes a sudden, sharp turn. And, also, stuff blows up.
If you thought the earlier books were a wild ride… hoo boy.
Oh, The Drama
Is this a soap opera now?
If you thought the brother that Harry Dresden didn’t know about was bad, it just gets worse in this book.
In fact, at least twice as bad.
The first big twist is that, actually, Harry has a daughter with his old flame, Susan Rodriguez.
Who didn’t tell him about it. Their little girl is around seven or so. Also, she’s been kidnapped by the Red Court of vampires.
Dresden is rather understandably furious. He’s mad at Susan for lying to him (by omission, at best), and even more mad at the Red Court. It’s Papa Wolf time. He goes a bit overboard, in fact. Still, I wonder if there wasn’t a less… overtly dangerous approach he could have taken. More on that later.
It gets better, though. It turns out that Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, is actually his maternal grandfather. An item kept (mostly) secret for everybody’s safety. At least in this case, the secret has been floating around long enough that some people had figured it out before the story opens, notably including a group of Red Court vampires. Again, oops. At least this makes all the secret-keeping feel a little more realistic, since the information did actually leak.
If both secrets had been out, and openly discussed? Then, surely, McCoy and Dresden together could have found a safe place for Maggie (Dresden and Susan’s daughter) to grow up away from all the things that go bump in the night – as Dresden eventually does. Instead of Susan just relying on her contacts in the anti-vampire underground, some of whom were ultimately untrustworthy.
Meanwhile, I’m just frustrated at all the secrets being kept. Seriously, people, those don’t help anybody. It just makes everything messier. And it also makes me wonder who Dresden’s maternal grandmother was.
A Deal With The Devil You Know
Dresden makes a dangerous deal to save his daughter.
Oh, yes he does.
He was in a bit of a rough spot after some adventuring resulted in a spinal injury which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Which makes it kind of hard to lead an assault through the parallel world of the Nevernever and from there to southern Mexico. So, he accepted the offer of Queen Mab to become her vassal. This required that he kill Lloyd Slate, the previous Winter Knight, in order to take up the position himself.
Spinal injury repaired. Magical mojo increased. But now he serves at the whim of Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, one very scary fairy indeed. It’s a particularly interesting twist, given that he’s been resisting her attempts to recruit him for many of the previous books. But, it’s plausible, since he knows several other ways of picking up the power he wants quickly — this is just the least horrific one. And he’s apparently willing to sacrifice pretty much anything to rescue his daughter.
As part of the bargain, has leave from Mab to rescue his daughter. But he fears that he will become a monster afterwards. Speaking of which…
The Well-Intentioned Extremist
Admittedly… the stakes are high. Especially once Dresden realizes that the Red Court vamps are going to kill Maggie in order to power a bloodline curse. One which will kill Dresden, Susan, his brother Thomas, and (he later realizes) Ebenezar McCoy. Which would be bad.
Dresden, having spent much of his life as an orphan, has some extra angst and bonus anger when anybody threatens his family.
This is adequate motivation for him to push his limits. We’ve seen that before — when he started a war with the Red Court over their attack on Susan Rodriguez, and also burned down a building. We’ve also seen it in his efforts to help Thomas. So it’s not out of character.
This is a delicate line to walk in the writing, however. It’s hard to sympathize with a protagonist who goes over the moral event horizon. Dresden probably manages to avoid going in too deep, at least so far — which is helped along by the fact that the bad guys are utterly evil. On the other hand, to keep him in a place where the reader can root for him, Dresden is going to have some serious regrets after all is said and done. In fact, it’s even worse than we realize in this book… but I’ll talk about that when we hit the sequel.
Meanwhile, in less psychological terms…
You Blew Up What??
Dresden causes a… small earthquake at Chitchen Itza, the big, famous Mayan pyramid in Mexico. With the associated considerable damage.
Also, because he redirected the bloodline curse onto Susan as she turned into a vampire, he ended up killing all of the Red Court vampires. All of them. Which means there are lots of bodies with their hearts exploded out of their chests, in addition to all the numerous other mortal and vampire bodies that are lying around the site.
And, still… the Masquerade prevails. If that kind of event occurred in reality… there’d be some hell to pay. Starting from that little earthquake. Earthquakes are closely monitored, and can be observed far from the area where high-tech seismic sensors would be damaged by the magic being flung around. The close monitoring is for two reasons. First, to learn about and understand earthquakes, learn how to manage living in earthquake-prone areas, and provide some amount of warning when a large earthquake occurs. Second, to watch out for nuclear bomb tests. (The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the related monitoring systems are the relevant information, if you’re interested. And here’s the Wikipedia article.)
This kind of monitoring is actually one of the ways we know so much about the North Korean nuclear tests. Since those are largely surface events, they’re relatively straightforward to tell apart from natural earthquakes.
Dresden’s actions? Not a natural earthquake. There would be people flying in there in very short order to try to figure out what the heck just happened. And then call for backup after realizing something funny was going on on the ground.
You could argue that the Red Court has (had…) enough influence in the area to avoid being disturbed, but that would be difficult. Ignoring a potential nuclear strike is not exactly in the national interest. Besides, the Red Court has been largely identified with the drug cartels, and I don’t think that’s quite enough influence to get the military to overlook threats to national security.
So, here is where I say that Dresden is definitely not our reality. Even with a lot of handwaving, I can’t quite make it fit. Nonetheless… I’m looking forward to the point where, as the story progresses, the Masquerade inevitably comes down. Perhaps during the Apocalyptic Trilogy that Butcher has planned.
Did I mention that the books just keep getting better?
For your entertainment today, books 4-6 of the series — Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites. As ever, much spoiling follows.
What Happened to the Mouse?
One thing I love about Butcher’s work — he keeps bringing old characters back, and reintegrating them into the storyline. Even if you haven’t seen them for a while.
For instance, the Alphas, the group of friendly werewolves, who first show up in Fool Moon, come back in a big way in Summer Knight. The pixies that Dresden befriended earlier (by means of feeding them pizza) are actually critical in taking down the big bad in that novel. Susan Rodriguez, the girlfriend half-turned vampire in Grave Peril, returns in Death Masks with a new ally and a new agenda. Michael Carpenter, the Knight of the Cross from Grave Peril, pops back up in Death Masks as well, with his own associated friends and enemies. We meet the gangster Marcone again, and learn more about his background… and the reasons he tries to run a “clean” criminal business. This is one of the things that I like most about this series — elements from earlier books recur in a reasonable way, and are then elaborated upon.
On the other hand, I’m still waiting for a couple of minor characters from the earlier books (Chauncey the demon, and the dragon Ferrovax) to show up again in a big way. There’s plenty of books left for Jim Butcher to explore some of these more “background” characters who hint at greater depth to come. One of those is the puppy rescued in Blood Rites that stayed with Dresden… named Mouse. Who is a fun recurring character in the later novels.
As a final example, the White Court vampire, Thomas Raith, a secondary character of some importance in Grave Peril, proceeds to come back again as an ally in Death Masks, and then as a major character and generator of plot in Blood Rites. Speaking of plot generation…
No, Luke, I Am Your
As it turns out, Thomas Raith is actually Harry Dresden’s half-brother. They share their mother, Margaret called LeFay, in common. Margaret was a wizard of no mean skill and exceptional knowledge of the Nevernever in general and the Faye in particular, and got swept up into the White Court of vampires for a while, having a son with the rather evil King of the White Court, before escaping and later meeting Harry’s father.
This helps explain why Thomas risks his own life in Grave Peril to help his brother — he already knows, and feels obliged to help out his younger sibling. Once Dresden realizes he has family, he gets protective. Having spent many years after the death of his father as an orphan, having family is an appropriately big deal for him, and results in some fun character development.
What surprises me is that the secret actually gets kept. (As a matter of fact, the brotherly relationship is still kept secret through the most recently published book, as of this writing.) Seriously, I would think that this would come out. Especially when they have matching pentacles, and a certain similarity in their looks – although perhaps that is effectively masked by Thomas’ White Court inhuman prettiness.
This is often a problem in Fantasy Kitchen Sink type stories.
The epic villains… are, well, kind of boring. And often kind of stupid. The Dresden books do a bit better.
In Summer Knight, Aurora is a Summer faerie effectively trying to save the village by destroying it, which is pretty decent. Duke Ortega gets Harry into a duel, then cheats, and his partially “civilized” approach to conflict is kind of interesting. Lord Raith seriously underestimates Karrin Murphy, and we get to see him angrily dealing with the consequences.
The character that really annoys me, though? Nicodemus. He’s in it for the kicks. Why does he try to start the apocalypse? Because he can. Because it would annoy the Knights of the Cross, and give him a chance to kill one of them. And, of course, for the evulz. He’s intriguing in some ways — but he’s still dumb enough to offer Dresden a chance at joining up with the Denarians. That didn’t go quite as planned. So much stereotypical villainy.
John Marcone, on the other hand, is fascinating. He’s a mobster who runs most of the profitable crime in Chicago… and yet, he cracks down when it comes to people hurting children or when the world needs to be saved from fallen angels working on magical bioweapon delivery. That’s a nicely complex villain.
And speaking of doing the smart thing…
Brave Sir Robin
To quote an early point in Blood Rites: “Over the course of many encounters and many years, I have successfully developed a standard operating procedure for dealing with big, nasty monsters. Run away.”
This is a Good Plan.
Frankly? In real life, if you’re facing a fight, if you can run away, that’s likely to be the best option. Getting into fights is bad. People get hurt, and you don’t have control when the situation has gotten that far. Especially if you are outnumbered, or if the other guy is bigger than you, or has a weapon…
It’s a critical question in a lot of stories — why is the hero in a fight? Many times, the hero isn’t considering alternatives to powering up and smacking down. Dresden, on the other hand, is actually practical. When he’s in a fight, it’s generally because he couldn’t find any other way out of the situation. Even the duel he gets goaded into gives him an opportunity to make a safe-haven from the vampire war that couldn’t be obtained any other way. Plus, the unavoidable fight is often as a part of an escape attempt.
That, if it’s a flying demon monkey throwing flaming poo at you, you’ve got that much extra motivation to run fast.