Synopsis: Exactly what you’d expect if Jim Butcher switched to writing steampunk.
Book Review: Jim Butcher is most famous for his Dresden series, a popular urban fantasy series focusing on the secret magical underworld of modern-day Chicago. (I reviewed one last year) Fans of that series will find a lot to love here, because this is exactly more of that, except in a steampunk setting.
Butcher’s greatest strength as a writer is his fantastic world-building. The world he’s weaving here is engrossing. It is complex, and fantastical, with tons of details that really bring it to life, and what seems like an infinite amount of compelling story hooks! I want to read stories set in this world! I want to know what broke it, and observe how these island-societies function, and find out what’s lurking down in the surface mists. Which is why I really wish Jim Butcher would license his worlds to other authors. This world is extremely fertile fan-fiction material, just begging for a good author to till it.
Because Butcher has two big flaws, as I see it.
The first is that he doesn’t do character development. For me, this is a killer.
Every character in this novel is a stock character, ripped directly from TVTropes. The aristocratic heiress, the rugged sea captain, the kooky inventor, the working class hero, etc. You can call them stereotypes or archetypes, depending on how charitable you wish to be. However the thing you can’t call them is REAL PEOPLE. They are pre-rendered personalities.
Now, Jim Butcher is good at the craft of writing. And his world-building skill serves him well when he slots these characters into it. They are beautifully depicted. You will never find a more exquisitely-painted rendition of the rugged sea captain – he will play that role to its fullest until you are bursting with rugged sea captain flavor!
But that still doesn’t make him a person. That’s a problem for people like me, who read to see characters displayed, and to see characters develop. The dialog doesn’t much matter, because it will never reveal an aspect of the character you didn’t already know about. It will always simply confirm “Yup, rugged sea captain!” For this reason, almost all the dialog boils down to adolescent one-up’s-manship. Lacking anything else to do, it can merely entertain us by being “witty” and “snappy.” Butcher does this well, but it feels empty. How many words of that sort of thing can you really read?
Likewise, the action never serves to expose hidden depths of a character, because we already know everything there is to know. It simply reinforces “Yup, she reacted exactly like an aristocratic heiress would!” The characters will never change. They’re all unique and likable, and cartoonish in that way.
Butcher also manages to make all his action boring because of this. None of the characters ever feel like they have much at stake in anything. They’re rushing from set piece to set piece, participating in highly-cinematic action scenes, and I’m bored because they’re meaningless. Just a few days ago I linked to a video on why the actions scenes are often the most boring parts of modern action movies. The same applies here. Butcher doesn’t give me any reason to care about his cartoon people.
Butcher’s second major flaw (again, IMO) is that he doesn’t know what NOT to write. This book is massive – well over 600 pages. Nothing compelling happens in it. I started skimming very early on, and I don’t think I missed anything. A few books back I praised Novik’s Uprooted because it told a novel-length story in the space of a novel. It couldn’t be shorter. And it wasn’t padded out. Butcher is famous for churning out 15 (16 now?) Dresden novels of a planned 20-novel arc, many of which are pretty long. And yet he hasn’t told even ONE novel-length story in all those pages! I strongly suspect that by the time he’s done, a better author could have told that same story in the course of a novella. I do not have that much of my life to waste on someone who can’t tell a succinct story. Aeronaut’s Windlass is written with the same strategy. Every page feels like it’s preparing me to sit down and grind through 20 years of daytime soap opera with nothing to say.
And ultimately, that’s my problem with Jim Butcher. He provides endless pages of word-based entertainment product, but there is no substance to it. It’s popcorn. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Honestly, I couldn’t finish the book. Even skimming it. I could not justify sinking that many hours of my life into something so meh.
Butcher’s very popular of course, so there are clearly a lot of people who love this sort of thing. Good world building, vibrant stock characters, witty quips, and lots of running around and fighting for the heck of it. If that’s your thing, I’m not here to say it’s bad or stupid. Hell, I love Chuck Tingle, which is just stupid gay erotica satire. But this is a recommendation blog for people like me, and for people like me: Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: It’s really not a bad book for book clubs, I suppose. The nice thing about light fare is that it can entertain a broad cross section of the population. The main thrust of the discussion at our meeting was the world building. It can be a lot of fun to discuss just what is going on, and how we see things. Most people picked up on the “this is far-future Earth after an apocalypse, with people using technology they don’t really understand and therefore thinking it’s magic” aspect, which was cool. So I cannot say this is a bad book for book clubs.
Honestly, if you want to give Butcher a try but you don’t want to start 15 books behind in a series whose first couple books even die-hard fans admit are pretty subpar, THIS is the book to start with. And it’s just like every other Butcher book, so you know you won’t be missing anything. ;) But that said, there’s a reason I go with a Recommended or Not dichotomy. As much as this book ain’t bad, I can’t say “Yes, you should read this!” I cannot actually recommend it, so… Not Recommended.