Hugo Awards Assessment: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

I’ll start with the short summary: if I was reading this just for enjoyment and not as something to analyze, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. However, it still is a deeply flawed book.

Since my comments will contain spoilers for a fairly recent work, the detailed analysis is below the fold:

Let me start by outlining how I’m actually reading these things. Essentially, I’m treating reading these things like I’d read works in an English class, where I want to put my entire focus on it. Thus, I’m not reading this while I’m watching TV, which is how I normally read things. However, I’ve also been fairly busy lately, so that means that I have less time and less days that I can read like that. Thus, what I end up doing is spending roughly an hour reading a section, and then getting back to the book the next day or, far too often, a few days later. This does, indeed, break up the flow of the work, and also gives me a lot of time for “Fridge Logic”, as I think about the work and notice the odd things about it. If I was more into the flow of the work, I likely wouldn’t have noticed some of the things I’ve noticed here. That being said, it’s also not like the work grabbed me so much that stopping after an hour was at all hard. Rather, I tended to look forward to the time I could put it down and go do something else.

So just like reading works for an English class, in other words [grin].

Also, I’m not reading any other novels while doing this, but since I still want to read, I’ve been re-reading old comic books and things like Dilbert and The Order of the Stick. I’m doing this for two reasons. The first is to not have something to directly compare to the works; they need to stand on their own merits, and without potential confusions from other works. The second is that I don’t want these books to have too much competition that encourages me to stop reading them [grin].

Anyway, let me start with the positives about the book. I actually, for the most part, like the main characters. They are generally interesting and mostly likeable. In fact, they’re probably the best part of the novel, and sometimes are unfortunately underused. The concept of the world, as well, is interesting, although there isn’t enough history to make things really stand out.

However, the novel suffers from one serious and overwhelming flaw: too often it relies on us having an emotional connection to the world and characters that we don’t have yet, and so a lot of things, therefore, just fall flat.

Let’s start with one of the main events early in the novel: Bridget’s duel with Reginald, where he felt compelled into it so that he wouldn’t look bad in front of the very important young noble Gwen, who ends up as Bridget’s friend. Reginald is a jerk, sure, and Butcher seems to be relying on that impression to get us to care about the duel and to hope that Bridget beats him. But the pretense for the duel is somewhat ridiculous, and Reginald isn’t enough of a jerk for us to care that much about his getting humiliated, so for the most part we’re only concerned about Bridget, which means that what we really want is for the duel to not happen. And at the last minute it is interrupted by the Auroran invasion, which made the whole thing completely anti-climactic.

The Auroran invasion itself is an example of this. Other than the fact that the main characters are on the side of Albion and they say that the Aurorans are really, really bad people, we don’t have much reason to care about the conflict one way or the other. This, then, colours their invasion, because if it was done by the heroes it would be a skillfully planned raid, but by the villains we’re supposed to find it unacceptable. Since I’m not convinced that the Albions are that great, I’m not really buying that. That Butcher then moves to make the Aurorans more sympathetic only makes it worse. Sure, sympathetic antagonists can be a good thing, but you really need to establish your protagonists first. Otherwise, we end up wondering if the protagonists are more worthy of our emotional investment than the antagonists. Which again can be a good thing, but only if the work doesn’t rely on us having an emotional investment in one of the sides, but the main plot of this work is stopping the Auroran raid … and if we don’t have an emotional investment in the Albions winning, then we end up not really caring about the majority of the book.

The most obvious example is when Grimm’s ex-wife arrives. We are told that he had an ex-wife who is a fellow captain and is slightly shady, which would lead to a reaction of “That’s mildly interesting” in most readers. However, it is presented as the shocking ending to one of the chapters, so much so that you can almost hear the Elanesque “Dun dun dunnnnnn!” accompanying it. But, again, we don’t really care that much about it, and it isn’t that shocking, so it really, really falls flat.

Additionally, while the cats — essentially housecats — as an intelligent faction is an interesting idea, they often come across as punching way above their weight in fights. Sure, a swarm of them could do damage, but given their size — Bridget carries Rowl around — they’re horribly vulnerable in any fight with humans, but feel and are presented as if they could definitely be a real physical threat, which is a little ridiculous.

Also, Butcher (ahem) butchers the final fight by using Gwen as an excuse to infodump the entire plan of the fight, meaning that we know that Grimm is looking for reinforcements and so when they arrive there’s no surprise and not much suspense. Also, the battle is described in the most boring way possible. Yes, this is essentially the old ship-to-ship combat involving long volleys, but many works have made them be interesting, which is something that Butcher needs to work on.

At the end of the day, the book feels odd to me. It feels like a work that is a new trilogy in an existing universe, so that parts of it rely on your knowing the universe and so starting from that emotional connection, while needing to do exposition to explain to new readers how the universe actually works. Since there is no pre-existing universe here, the book then falls flat for pretty much all readers. That being said, the characters are entertaining and likeable for the most part, which saves it somewhat.

Overall assessment: Meh. If this is the best science fiction has to offer, so much the worse for science fiction.

Note that this work finished last in the Hugo voting, and is the lowest work on Vox Day’s list not counting the ones he No Awarded. So, in theory, the best is yet to come no matter who you (dis)trust.

Now, since I’m reading this in stages, I’m taking notes as I go along on my impressions of the work so that I can look it up later to remind myself of things I noticed. I’ve decided to dump those impressions at the end here so that you can get my more detailed analysis and see how my impressions change or don’t change over the course of my reading:

First reading: up to the duel challenge.

– Gwen seems like an interesting character
– That her mother was testing her with this was pretty obvious from the start. Also, if there is a requirement for each noble house to provide someone to serve, then didn’t both sides here pretty much know that it had to happen anyway, and so that the conflict was fake?
– Liked the Victorian British tone
– The tactical aspects of the ship fight were interesting but the context was lacking to make it meaningful. It’s even hard to know which characters are of interest here. This had better go somewhere beyond being an introduction to the airships and their combat.
– Without the context there’s no real emotional or plot or character attachment to the Reginald situation; the points make sense logically, but it had better go somewhere beyond bringing the two characters together.

Second reading: up to the attack.

– Seems to be moving too quickly. We get Grimm arguing with the one Commodore, meet the other, get the creature attack, get the ethereals, meet the Spirearch, have the duel start with all the attendant drama, and then get the attack. It’s entertaining enough, but I think for more emotional and plot depth things need to be built up a bit more.

Third reading: after the attack.

– The book strikes me as better written as a new trilogy in an existing universe. It tends to do exposition that would be necessary for something new, but also expects us to care about the characters and the nation from the start. We’re told that the enemy Spire is made up of pirates and expansionists, but the first privateer attack we see is from the main Spire, and we don’t get to see anything really bad, even in the battle. So I don’t really care about the outcome of the battle, or even what happens to the characters in it, but the book clearly expects me to.

Fourth reading: the wife shows up.

– Still far too quick. Grimm himself hasn’t been developed enough for us to really care that he has a wife that we didn’t know about, let alone that she beat him in a race (through cheating, it seems) and that she might be a spy for the enemy, whom we’ve really seen little of up until now.

– What about the creatures from the ducts? I think there was an off-hand mention of them, but am not sure.

– Much exposition in this part, much of which wasn’t interesting, and certainly wasn’t interesting in the middle of a mission to stop massive sabotage from the enemy. The book would have been FAR better served to start with more of a cold war approach to the enemy and get the exposition out of the way and only THEN moving in with the raid.

Fifth reading: after the meeting with the cats

– Still mixing action and exposition. Moves too slow for action and too quickly for exposition.

– While they are likely to be a little bit bigger than housecats, they are presented as a threat far beyond their actual size, and a bit like “Mary Sues”.

– Seems to be mostly a pointless scene.

– The Etherealists are EXPLICITLY set up as a Deus Ex Machina type of thing.

– I STILL don’t care enough about any of this for this to matter.

– The Auroran scene would be interesting if we had any reason to care about them, or find this either a confirmation or contradiction of what we know about them. I’m not sure he wants to humanize the Aurorans at all when right now the only possible reason to care about the invasion is because of how bad the Aurorans are. If he wanted to set this up as an ambiguous conflict, then giving it a strong Albion focus was not the way to go. Otherwise, he gives us less reason to care about the conflict than we already had … and, again, I didn’t actually care before.

Sixth reading: Up to Bridget getting captured.

– Bridget gets captured AGAIN!

– Etherealists have WAY too much power.

– Her showing up at the scene is dangerously stupid and adds nothing to the story except to allow the heroes to find out that she’s involved.

– The tea thing was an interesting and humorous aside that was utterly unnecessary, kinda boring, and caused the main villain to lose some mystery.

Seventh reading: After the rescue/battle

– Saved by the horde of housecats!

– The boat scene was awkward and forced, and not particularly interesting.

– Still don’t care enough to care about this whole thing, and this looks like a massive defeat wasting resources when the enemy didn’t really need to.

– I found the fight scene fairly dull.

Eighth reading:

– The book still manages to make fight scenes dull.

– WAY too much explanation about what it happening and going to happen in the ship combat. For example, Grimm tells Gwen that he’s leading the Itasca into a trap in detail, when it would have been more interesting to have that actually happen and then explain it later … or not at all, or even just have Gwen exclaim that when they sight the Glorious.

– The ship combat seems to be based on old sailing ships, but again it should be possible to make that interesting, which the book fails at.

– The cat scenes are generally irritating.

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