Book Discussion: The Olympian Affair by Jim Butcher
SPOILER ALERT, this is the only one you are getting, as I have always maintained, a story succeeds or fails in the style of it’s telling. Therefore spoiler warnings are pointless because a story that is only worth reading once isn’t worth reading at all.
That said, not everyone agrees with me and I do understand the sentiment. Therefore be advised, I will be going into details of the plot about this fairly recent release. If it’s on your to read list and you cherish surprises then read no further until after you’ve finished The Olympian Affair.
I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The very first Harry Dresden book, Storm Front appeared less than a year after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone first showed up in Scholastic Books catalogs and it took Butcher about twenty years before he made his first “You’re a Wizard, Harry” quip. Regardless, Butcher has a huge voice in urban fantasy since the late 2000s. Allegedly, Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice started life as a Dresden movie.*
Butcher’s only other major series was the Codex Alera, which started off as a writer’s challenge. He was assigned two random things and had to make a story about them. He drew the Lost Legion and Pokémon. He didn’t turn it into a story, he turned it into a seven-book series.
All of that said, the Dresden Files started life as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. We are now well past the middle and are coming up on the climax of the series.
Naturally, Jim Butcher needed to start a new one. Aeronaut’s Windlass was released way back in 2015, right before Butcher’s life fell apart. He has finally launched the second book in the Cinder Spires series, The Olympian Affair.
The first book served primarily as an introduction to his new world. We got to meet the first crop of protagonists and antagonists as well as a very elaborate setting. We got to know some of the rules of this new world but frankly not a lot. Butcher has been writing long enough to not make the mistake of taking a gigantic lore dump all over his readers, the story is always more important than the background information, dole it out sparingly and only as needed.
You’ll see why this should be avoided when I dump it on you.
10,000 years ago The Enemy invaded Earth and destroyed the surface world. The human race is forced to live in archologies that are several miles high. The surface is a mist-covered uninhabitable hell filled with monsters. To be clear civilization collapsed after the spires were built. Mankind is now in a steampunk setting because civilization is only just getting on its feet again.
The human race gets around in airships, they are the only way to travel between spires. They are heavier than air aircraft that are powered by Etheric currents. I still don’t know what Etheric currents are but they are the all and the everything in this series. Wiki says they are, “Invisible currents of energy that course through atmosphere. Etherics is one of the main sources of energy that is used to power many things. Etherialists harness use the etheric currents as a source of power.” Airships catch or perhaps harness is a better word, Etheric currents in sails made of ether silk. They are lifted by organic crystals that are grown and also powered by etheric energy, although that can be converted into plain old electricity.
Etheric currents are not a win/win for humanity. They probably destroyed all electronics 10,000 years ago. If steel or iron is exposed to the currents it will rust and rot into uselessness in less than ten days.
There are also monsters in the mist that use the currents. Mist Sharks and Mist Maws can use them to fly. If you are outside and exposed to them directly you have to wear special goggles to keep from going insane (but mostly because you’re in a steampunk setting). There is a small number of humans that can utilize the etheric current, but they are all considered mad. This is not accurate the Etherialists just have an impossible time getting anyone to understand their point of view. Think of it this way, the rest of the human race can only see in two dimensions but Etheralists can see in three dimensions and are able to manipulate things accordingly. What they can do seems easy to them but may as well be magic to the rest of the human race.
The chief good guy is Frances Madison Grimm who is captain of the privateer vessel, Predator. He’s basically a well-written Horatio Hornblower type. And Predator, like every other ship has to use banks of cannon on either side of the ship because you can’t have turrets if you need sails. This world is effectively Napoleonic-era Europe.
No wonder Butcher didn’t bother with an exposition dump. (Here’s a fandom wiki if you need more info)
Jim Butcher has a track record for using the inciting incidents of a three-act play as a template for a book series.
Aeronaught’s Windlass was both the introduction and first inciting incident. We got to meet most of our protagonists and a couple of antagonists, the Big Bad hasn’t really been introduced yet just introduced. The first plot point was the militaristic and imperialistic Spire Aurora launching an attack that devastated Spire Albion’s major trading port.
The Olympian Affair takes place two years. There is about to be a major summit on Spire Olympia, in theory, it is to avert a way between Albion and Aurora, in truth it’s a chance for Albion and Aurora to pick up allies for their coming war.
Madame Cavendish, the evil Etherialist we met in Windlass has provided Spire Aurora with a devastating new secret weapon, one that can kill thousands and devastate a spire in less than an hour.
The captain and crew of the good ship Predator see the aftermath of such an attack on Spire Dependence. Dependence was described as a colony spire of Albion. There are a bunch of spires that were abandoned some time ago and are just sitting empty.
We never went down to the surface at all in Aeronaught’s Windlass. We were just frequently told it was dangerous as all hell. Even taking an airship down into the mists was taking a calculated risk. In the second concurrent adventure, we take a trip down to the base of Spire Albion. It lives up to its reputation when Bridgett and Sir Benedict are nearly killed twice in one day by monsters after they landed.
Since there were seven years between the first and second book there were some sharp developments and lore adjustments. You did see the same thing with Dresden but since those books came out once every year you didn’t really notice the differences. Most of this is stuff that Butcher had time to think about or discuss with readers. There is some minor stuff like sword edges are now kept sealed with wax, whereas before they were entirely clad in copper. It honestly didn’t make a lot of sense to me either as copper is too soft.
More importantly, in the previous book, we were told that Grimm was cast out of the Navy because of the Perilous Incident. We didn’t get any specifics but it was strongly hinted that a noblemen officer named Rook was the real culprit and the lowborn Grimm had to take the fall for it despite being the secret hero. In this book, we finally get the details and Butcher has decided that Rook had nothing to do with it. Grimm just needed to do what needed doing and it was pretty illegal.
The new Perilous Incident became a story that enforced the deep bonds of brotherly love between Grimm and Commodore Alex Bayard. In the first book, Bayard was frequently the cavalry coming to the rescue but they didn’t seem to be as tight. They needed to be in this story because Grimm had to be willing to die in Bayard’s place for the story to move along Butcher’s intended course.
It is a good story but the gears don’t mesh as smoothly as they should between the first and second book.
Bayard is being sent to Olympia as part of the diplomatic. His lover of thirteen years, Dutchess Abagail Hinton is one the monarchs of Albion’s best intelligence operatives as well as diplomats. If you don’t think the two of those things mix, then read a freaking history book. Abagail is the newest POV character in the series. She and Bayard are deeply in love, but various conflicts keep them apart. I am familiar with Butcher’s sensei Deborah Chester and this is very much her template for writing romance.
Abagail was only mentioned in the third person In the first book and it seemed like she was genuinely fond of Grimm. Now we find out she genuinely isn’t and unfairly blames him for the fact she and Alex aren’t married. Intellectually she knows this is a lie but she needs to blame someone.
Butcher also gives his readers a masterclass in how to introduce a villain with the Auroran duelist Rafe Velasco. Bayard is widely considered the best duelist in Albion Valesco is the best duelist in the world and has been sent by the king of Spire Aurora to kill Bayard as part of a political gambit. He quickly establishes himself as a fictional asshole to rival the Untouchable’s Frank Nitti.
BIG SPOILERS AHEAD
Valesco is shown to be a sadistic killer who used dueling as a way to legally indulge himself in murdering men who were basically helpless before him. And it quickly becomes clear that Grimm’s best friend Bayard doesn’t have a chance against him.
Abagail has her own affair of honor to settle.
I was very impressed with Butcher’s skill at keeping two separate duels interesting. It would have been way too easy to have bored the audience by the very nature of having one sword fight immediately after another. It would have been extremely easy to lose all dramatic tension due to the repetition but the readers’ anxiety is maintained despite this.
Primarily it was because Abagail’s duel had lower stakes and a power imbalance that favored her. Abagail’s biggest worry was cheating. The duel with Valesco had higher stakes because it was to the death and the odds drastically favored the vile count.
The third concurrent adventure concerns the honorable antagonists from the last book Colonel Espira and Sergeant Ciriaco the Auroran Marine commandoes who raided Spire Albion are now protagonists. In this book they come into more direct conflict with the real Enemy.
Madame Cavendish on the other hand is still unmitigatedly evil. But we find out that her goals probably aren’t.
Jim Butcher has said that this series could go as far as 9 books but could end as a trilogy if it doesn’t sell well enough. And I’m not entirely sure where this one lands. It could function as the middle of a story because of the death of couple of major characters. That said it doesn’t really function as a complete second act. Only the sales will decide for sure.
I very much enjoyed this book. It was well-written and well-crafted. The world feels real and there was something cozy about Victorian customs and manners. If you enjoyed Windlass and wanted more, it is not going to disappoint.
Even if the cover sucked.
* If you’re familiar with both it’s pretty obvious and Nic Cage did own the rights back then.
I could absolutely see the development process getting derailed by Bob Iger asking, “Don’t we own something like this?”