Robyn Bennis delivers a rollicking black powder military adventure filled with sass, humor, and plenty of shooty-shooty explosions. Oh…and airship battles…don’t forget the airship battles. If you’re into military sci-fi/fantasy you’ll definitely want to check this series out.
I’m doing something a little different for this review in that I’m reviewing two books together. I admit I’m doing this in part because I’m being a little lazy and don’t want to write two reviews. It’s my blog I can do what I want.
I actually read the first book in the series, The Guns Above, when it came out in May of 2017. This was back before I started my blog so I never reviewed it, though I’ve been meaning to come back to it for a while. The Guns Above was one of my favorite books from that year and I don’t think it ever got enough attention.
First let me give you the initial story…
“The nation of Garnia has been at war for as long as Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupre can remember – this time against neighboring Vinzhalia. Garnia’s Air Signal Corp stands out as the favored martial child of the King. But though it’s co-ed, women on-board are only allowed “auxiliary” crew positions and are banned from combat. In extenuating circumstances, Josette saves her airship in the heat of battle. She is rewarded with the Mistral, becoming Garnia’s first female captain.
She wants the job – just not the political flak attached. On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat – a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. He’s also been assigned to her ship to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. When the Vins make an unprecedented military move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself to the top brass?” – Goodreads blurb
That’s the Goodreads blurb for The Guns Above. The novel opens at the close of a battle in which Jossette Dupre has somehow managed to survive the downing of her airship which lays aflame and in pieces around her. When she makes it back behind the lines she is lauded a hero and given command of her own airship, something unheard of for a female in the Signal Air Corps. But it comes with a catch; assigned to her crew to watch over her is the nephew of Garnia’s most powerful general, a noble who has no business being anywhere near an army, much less an airship. What follows is a glorious story filled with laugh-out-loud humor, witty dialogue, and loads of action packed air battles.
There are two primary points of view in The Guns Above. The first is that of Jossette Dupre. Jossette is a new favorite character of mine. She’s fierce without having to tell you she’s fierce. Instead it just comes out in her no-nonsense approach to her crew, airship, and combat. She doesn’t care about politics, which does cause problems for her here and there. She doesn’t even really care that she’s her nation’s first female airship captain (though she’s aware of the stakes involved). What she does care about is her ship and her crew and being the best airship captain she can be. She isn’t out to prove anything to the world, she’s out to prove things to herself and perhaps to something unspoken in her past.
Lord Bernat, or more specifically Lord Bernat Mantio Jebrit Aoue Hinkle – Bernie for short – is a foppish aristocrat with no real life skills, a gambling habit and a predilection for older women. Bernie is broke and when he wires his family for more funds is instead tasked by his Uncle the field marshal with keeping an eye on and reporting back on the nation’s newest celebrity, Captain Josette. Bernie has no military experience, is a fish out of water aboard the Mistral and something of a thorn in Josette’s side.
What I really loved about the interaction between these two characters is that there’s no simmering love interest. That’s evident from the start. Instead they fight and bicker like two siblings, or acquaintances of a mutual friend who don’t really like each other all that much. Things get even more interesting when Bernie meets Josette’s mother…remember what I said about him liking older women? Josette has to navigate her airship in battle and herself and her crew around the open spy in their midst, while Bernie has to decide what he really thinks of this determined captain and life aboard an airship. It all makes for some fun reading.
The story is set in an alternate world reminiscent of early to mid 19th century Europe with allusions to other cultures from our world. The armies use black powder weapons including rifles and cannons. There is no magic in this world which might make the book lean more sci-fi than fantasy. I guess that would make it a sort of retro sci-fi? I say that because of the airships which act as a proto-air force and the whole black powder thing.
You might think because there’s airships that this is a steampunk novel. But it isn’t. Not really. I read somewhere where another reviewer called it “steampunky” as in it’s like steampunk, but not really. This is because yeah it has airships but they are held aloft more like hot air balloons and early versions of dirigible airships of our world, not powered by strange semi-magical electric currents like you see in many steampunk novels. Absent also is much of the steampunk genre in terms of dress and other world building.
You can tell Bennis did some research on airships. One of the highlights for me was the technical aspects of the airships throughout the books, from fragile ship design, to the steamjack which powers them, to the gas and envelopes that keep them aloft. Some readers might be turned off by some of this detail but it really made the ships seem real and plausable.
My favorite aspect of the stories though were the battles. Bennis does a fantastic job immersing you in these scenes filled with aerial bombardments, airship duels with roaring cannon and smoke filled skies, and the thrill of flying through the air. I once commented that these battle scenes reminded me of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October, only replacing 20th century underwater submarine warfare with 19th century airships in the sky.
I hesitate to say much about the plot to By Fire Above for fear of giving anything away about how The Guns Above ends, though I know I’ll have to give allow for some minor spoilers. Yes Josette and Bernie survive to fight another day. Only now they must deal with even more fame as Josette has garnered more acclaim and is something of a national hero, at least until the next one comes along. But now she with Bernie’s help must navigate the scheming world of politics while trying to prepare for the next big battle which has a very personal connection.
What By Fire Above does more than The Guns Above is focus on character development. Where The Guns Above scratches the surface in this area, giving us just enough background to keep the narrative flowing and fun, By Fire Above delves much deeper into each character. We find out a lot more about Josette’s past and what drives her including a major surprise or two. She also gets something of a love interest (and no it still isn’t Bernie). Bernie undergoes some major soul searching about who he is and what he is becoming. We also get to see things from a third perspective, that of Lieutenant Kember, another female member of the crew who I really came to like. Kember kind of idolizes Captain Dupre and is always comparing herself to Josette while trying to also be her own person and officer in the air corps. Kember was a welcome POV addition in book two.
Like many sophomore books in a series, By Fire Above is heavy on character development as well as adding to the depth of the world building. The Guns Above focuses mostly on the front line of the war with some excursions behind the lines for refitting. By Fire Above spends a lot of time behind the lines in the nation’s capital and other locations. It is in these chapters where much of that character development takes place and the action is very limited. But once the narrative shifts back to the war things pick up the pace and once again Bennis throws the reader into the thick of the smoke and noise of battle. Only this time it isn’t all in the air.
While these books are very much military fiction with all that entails in terms of battle scenes and the military, they also touch on a number of themes that aren’t specifically about war. One theme spanning both books is that of drive. By that I mean what drives the characters. For some it’s their past, for some it’s family, for others it’s who they compares themselves against. But there’s always this thing hovering around each character sometimes conscious and often unconscious about what drives them.
The series also explores gender and sexual roles. Most prominently there’s the whole issue of women serving in the military. While many new sci-fi/fantasy novels today are written with in a refreshing way female characters taking on any role and presenting it as if there’s no question women should be in those roles, and as if they’ve always been in those roles, The Signal Airship series takes a different tack. Here Bennis takes an approach more akin to how things occurred in our world and pushed that boundary a little. So, while women serving in the Garnian military are not unheard of, and they don’t have to hide their sex to do so (like many women did over the centuries in our wold), women in these books are limited in the military roles they can occupy until Josette comes along. But she is set-up to fail, which provides much of the tension in the background of the books.
As of now there are only two books published in this series. I don’t know if Tor will publish more or not. I hope they will because I’m a sucker for these kind of stories. If you’re looking for some humorous and witty dialogue with strong female characters who are intelligent, and fierce, and can fly circles around the less competent dudes, and a foppish aristocratic spy who isn’t very good at spying, or fighting, or well much of anything except annoying those around him, this is a series you’ll want to check out. If you love military/gunpowder fiction with all the smoke and fire of a well written battle scene this is a series you’ll want to check out. If you love airships, and steam, and flying through the clouds, this is a series you’ll want to check out. If you love all of the above…well, what in the hell are you waiting for…go pick up these books, let loose you’re mooring lines, and up ship for a soaring adventure you won’t want to come down from.
Author: Robyn Bennis
Series: The Signal Airship Series
Publication Date: The Guns Above, May 2017; By Fire Above, May 2018
Pages: The Guns Above 351; By Fire Above 368
Rating: The Guns Above 4.5 of 5 Stars
Rating: By Fire Above 4 of 5 Stars
Series Rating: 4.25 of 5 Stars