A pair of intriguing, antagonistic characters, steampunk airships, a dry sense of humor, and feats of derring-do are at the heart of The Guns Above, a debut novel by Robyn Bennis. The novel’s strong focus on the action beats as well as the main characters marry a sense of character along with large helpings of crunchy detail to a finely honed level.
Lieutenant Josette Dupre is the first female airship commander in Gandian history. She is determined, ambitious, intelligent, strong-willed, and has a delightfully dry and snarky sense of humor. She’s also keenly aware of the precarious nature of women in the Signal Corps, and her own command an even more tenuous position. At the beginning of the novel, she is convinced that she has lost her command after the destruction of the Osprey, even in service of stopping an enemy advance. Thus when she instead is given the brand new but experimental, cantankerous, and ill-designed airship Mistral, she will not allow a command, even of a potential deathtrap, to be taken from her. In a real sense, the novel is a story of the relationship of a commander to her new airship, with all the pitfalls and joys of that, especially as it turns to be a trial under fire.
In the meantime, Lord Bernat Manatio Jebrit Aoue Hinkal, son of the Lord Marquis of Copia Lugon, is a lazy gadabout who, if not for burning through his inheritance, would idle the days away gambling and pursuing older women. Since his funds have now run out, Bernat finds himself drawn into the intrigues of his Uncle, who has determined that Lt. Dupre’s command must be undermined and destroyed. Bernat can become flush again—by destroying Dupre and helping getting women out of war and back into the kitchen and bedroom. And so Bernat is assigned to Dupre’s ship under false pretenses.
Can an ambitious, snarky first-ever female airship commander and a seemingly useless scion of the nobility secretly out to destroy her get along on a crowded airship, especially when the Vinzhalian war seems to be ready to move into a new and more dangerous phase? The Guns Above explores this question. I admit that when I started the book, I wondered if the author would take the well-trodden route of having a love/hate romance, or at least a liaison, between Bernat and Josette. Notably, I can report that the two characters have diametrically different tastes in sexual partners and it is clear early on from their meeting that such a liaison is not only not going to happen in the near term, but not going to happen, period. With that non-romance out of the way and not an issue, the author explores their antagonistic relationship under the pressure cooker of a new airship, and then, later war, in an interesting and nuanced fashion.
Aside from the character interactions and the arcs of the two characters, the novel’s technical details are a real highlight of the book. A fair number of airships in steampunk novels treat them as trappings and scene setting, background and image and wallpaper for stories. The author here, however, has thought long and hard about how airships would work, both in and out of combat. The combat scenes, in particular, come across as extremely geeky, but clear depictions of what a battle between airships would really be like, and the writing always makes it clear what the ships and their commanders need to do, and can do. I was enthralled by the action beats in the novel.
The diagrams in the front of the book of the Mistral are wonderful and give a good, solid engineer’s perspective of Josette’s airship. These diagrams enhance the technical grounding the novel has, and wonderfully. I would, however, have also liked a map, since being in an airship, and ranging widely, and the plot turning on maneuvers and geography of the nations in conflict, having a visual sense of where and what was what would have helped convey and reinforce matters when the plot hinged on revelations of the turns of the war. The author did a decent sense of explicating and showing the urgency of matters, however.
The rest of the worldbuilding gives an impression of a ruritanian sort of late 19th century world. It’s clearly an alternate science fiction world rather than a fantastic one. While Gand and Vinzhalia and Brandheim invoke a sense of fin-de-siecle Europe, and the small worldbuilding details do suggest a France versus Germany sort of War between the primary antagonists, with an Alsace-Lorraine area between constantly squabbled over, there are enough differences shown that the two nations are not simply carbon copies of their Earth parallels.
With both character and the underlying technicals robust and well written, The Guns Above is an excellent debut that makes me excited for the future works of the author, in this world as well as others. For the moment, however, I’ll take more tales of Dupre and her ship Mistral. More, please.