Jim Butcher, the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of The Dresden Files, which follows Harry Dresden, a private investigator and practicing wizard. The Codex Alera, an epic 6-book finished fantasy series following crafters who can control the elements through a person’s bond with that element. And finally, The Cinder Spires, a steampunk-inspired fantasy world following the war between two different spires, Spire Albion and Spire Aurora, towering miles above a shrouded mist-covered land. Jim will release his second novel in The Cinder Spires universe, The Olympian Affair, on November 7th, 2023.
During an AMA Jim did on Reddit, Jim described the world of “The Cinder Spires” as “It’s kinda League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets Sherlock meets Hornblower. There are goggles and airships and steam power and bizarre crystal technology and talking cats, who are horrid little bullies.”
Jim was kind enough to sit down with questions from Grimdark Magazine and tell us what we have in store for book two.
[GdM] I had the privilege of interviewing your son, James Butcher, last year and loved his debut novel, Dead Man’s Hand. How exciting is it for you to have a son who is now a thriving author in his own right?
[JB] It’s incredibly exciting! In much the same way as being chased by a bear. James’s first published novel was probably as good as my third. His second is as good as my fifth or sixth. He’s going to leave me eating his dust before long, and then I’ll be hoping for crossover readers from his fandom.
[GdM] What books, authors, or fiction works have significantly impacted your writing style and how you approach storytelling?
[JB] I owe great thanks to my writing teacher, Deborah Chester, who taught me everything I really needed to know about writing. Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer also both made big contributions to my initial writing style.
[GdM] Are there any genres or themes you want to explore in your future works? Is there a possible Romance or Horror novel in your head waiting to be released?
[JB] Oh, I’m not a complicated guy. If I was half as mercenary as I like to pretend I am, I’d have been writing mainstream thrillers a long time ago. For me, if the story doesn’t have vampires, ghosts, aliens, monsters, magic or superpowers, I just don’t get the point. Nothing wrong with thrillers, romance, literary or mainstream novels—but I grew up lost in Narnia, Pern, Amber, Gor, Prydain and Krynn. Those places will always be my native lands.
[GdM] Can you talk a bit about the hat joke for Dresden, which is a funny bit of trivia? Are there buried jokes in the covers for The Cinder Spires?
[JB] What hat? 😀 In the books, Dresden doesn’t wear a hat, but way back in the olden days, Penguin’s art department decided that the perfect visual shorthand for a Wizard/Private Investigator would be a guy carrying a wizard’s staff and wearing a fedora.
I used to tease the artist, Chris McGrath, about the hat, but he bested me in the funniest possible way—in the Cinder Spires, one of the central characters, Francis Madison Grimm, is an airship captain who wouldn’t be caught dead in public without his hat. Chris drew him sans chapeau, and when I saw the first draft I laughed until I cried. Chris very kindly went back in and gave Grimm his hat back, beneath his arm, and I have stopped teasing about it.
[GdM] James Marsters is now as synonymous with the Dresden Files audiobooks as he is as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Are you developing a similar relationship with Euan Morton?
[JB] I’ve never met Euan, but I hope to have the chance some day! He’s an amazing reader, and I very much hope we’re able to retain him for the length of the series.
[GdM] How would you describe a hero? Is Harry a hero, or is Tavi from Codex Alera? Does that differ from how you view a hero as a novel reader and not the author? Or is it impossible to separate the two?
[JB] My writing teacher always taught us to call the central character of the novel a “protagonist” rather than a hero, and I’ve maintained that practice my whole career. Not all protagonists are heroic, and not all heroic characters are protagonists. For writing purposes, I see them as completely unconnected roles.
That said, a hero is someone who runs toward danger, who steps up in a crisis to brave risks to themselves in order to protect others. A hero is anyone who stands between the threats and predators of the world and their would-be victims and says, “No.” A hero is some who sacrifices their own interests to benefit those who cannot help themselves.
My dad was a hero.
[GdM] What was the process for adapting “Dresden Files” for a graphic novel? Do you have similar plans for “The Cinder Spires?” Is writing for the adaptation to a graphic novel the same creative space as writing a book?
[JB] They let me write one script for one graphic novel, after which we all decided we’d be better off hiring a professional in the field and letting me give him an outline to use as a foundation. The graphic novels owe much more to the talent of Mark Powers than they do to me.
I’d be terribly pleased to see a Cinder Spires adaptation, but it hasn’t happened yet.
[GdM] I read that the “Codex Alera” novels are based on two supposedly lame ideas, Pokemon and Lost Roman Legion. Is that true, and if so, was your friend impressed with the outcome? Does “The Cinder Spires” series have an origin story as well?
[JB] I don’t know exactly what you’ve heard, but I did put those books together on a bet, in order to win an online argument. I was challenged to use a terrible idea to write a good story, and I demanded he give me TWO terrible ideas. He did. The story came together, and wound up being half a dozen novels.
The Cinder Spires came to me while driving home from a LARP with a minivan full of sleeping teens. I was listening to Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, while racing an enormous thunderstorm home, and the first couple of chapters just appeared in my head.
[GdM] Can you tell readers about The Olympian Affair and where we are in the story?
[JB] In the world of the Cinder Spires, war is brewing between two major Spires, Albion and Aurora. Fleets of airships armed with energy weapons are on the brink of major war, and both Spires are trying to convince other major Spires to join their side in the coming conflict, or at least to take a stance of constructive neutrality. A major trade summit at Spire Olympia sets the stage for intrigue, alliances, betrayals and general skullduggery in the last days before the war. Lord Albion, Spirearch of Spire Albion, has charged Captain Grimm and his crew with the task of supporting the diplomatic mission to Olympia.
If only the enemy didn’t have other ideas.
[GdM] What is Warriorborn: A Cinder Spires Novella? And where does it fit into the series progression?
[JB] Warriborn is a novella set immediately before the events of the Olympian Affair. It centers on Sir Benedict Lancaster-Sorellin, who leads a small team of warrioborn—super soldiers, born with the prowess of lions in their blood—to a remote Spire to recover vital intelligence for the Spirearch. Unfortunately, the Aurorans got their first, and Benedict soon finds himself in a desperate race to survive both Auroran warriorborn and terrible surface creatures, while simultaneously trying to herd a small tribe of cats.
Think of it as a Bond mission at the beginning of the movie. It won’t be necessary to have read the novella to follow the novel.
[GdM] What are the major themes of “The Cinder Spires” series? Do these differ specifically in The Olympian Affair?
[JB] Talking cats. Come on. Everyone is there for the cats. We all know it, it’s just that no one wants to admit it.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about themes while I write—they just appear naturally there when you craft a story properly. I often don’t realize what the theme of one of my books is until months or years after it’s been published.
But I promise there are cats in The Olympian Affair.
[GdM] Chicago, the backdrop of Dresden Files, has a rich cultural history, both good and bad. This city plurality fits because Dresden is undoubtedly a grey character. Setting-wise, are aspects of the “The Cinder Spires” worldbuilding reflected in the characters?
[JB] I just write down the conversations of my imaginary friends. I don’t do it on purpose. But if I’m building the world properly, it’s inevitable that it will happen on its own. If you take the time to make sure that characters truly walk and breathe and eat and think in a world with enough dimension to feel real, they’re going to embody aspects of it whether you want them to or not.
[GdM] The characters in The Cinder Spires are eclectic and have a defined voice in the narrative. How do you craft a varied cast and ensure their voices shine through?
[JB] Mostly by making them as distinct from one another as I can. They come from very different backgrounds and very different upbringings, so of course they’re going to see the same things from different perspectives. They’ll have different priorities and prerogatives, and those differences will be reflected in their goals and how they choose to go about them.
[GdM] The concept of etherealists, crystals, and the magic system, in general, is unique. How did you approach the magical system creation for the series, and were you inspired by anything?
[JB] I really enjoy how Sanderson plays with his magic systems in Mistborn, and I wanted to play too! Between that and beginning with the notion “any sufficiently advanced system of magic will be indistinguishable from technology,” I had a great time creating these characters who can basically do what engineers can do—but skip all the troublesome bits with designing devices in the middle.
[GdM] Having magic and technology in a story can be delicate. How do you ensure that the two aspects complement each other and that one does not outshine the other?
[JB] I don’t see any problem with one outshining the other, depending on what you want to do with your story. That said, regardless of the story universe, magic tends to be something intimately personal, while technology is almost by definition impersonal, made for just anyone to use. So I use magic for the up-close stuff, technology for the broader story issues, and so far it seems to work out.
[GdM] How many books do you have planned for The Cinder Spires series?
[JB] Depends on the audience, who are ultimately my bosses. I’ve got outlines for a three, six, or nine book series. Assuming copies keep moving, I’ll keep writing, but I think six will probably be just about right to tell a really good story.
[GdM] What are you reading right now?
[JB] The Blood Trails series by independent author Jennifer Blackstream! Excellent urban fantasy, strong on mystery, written by someone who clearly loves to solve puzzles.