The Guns Above is the best book I’ve read in a while, and I can’t wait to share it with you. Look for a review on release day next Tuesday. Go buy it. Now. Still not sold? Back already? My (non-spoiler) interview with Bennis can be found below for you reading pleasure.
HP: Flintlock Fantasy or Steampunk?
This was a topic of debate among myself, my editor, and my agent. There are definitely flintlocks, but none of the magic and other fantastic elements you usually see in flintlock fantasy. Just so, there’s an ongoing steam revolution, but none of the analytical engines that form the backbone of steampunk. We just weren’t sure what to call it.
Then Patricia Briggs called it steampunk in her blurb, and it’s been steampunk ever since. Because, if Patricia Briggs says it’s steampunk, that’s good enough for me.
HP: You are on an airship that is about to make a rather, ahem, abrupt ground landing. The young ensign has asked you for a reading recommendation for her convalescence. Why should she read The Guns Above?
For one thing, it’s a lot funnier than Gangrene & You, which is the other obvious choice for this situation. I mean, the authors of Gangrene & You sure tried their best, but it’s just not a topic that lends itself to comedy.
Moreover, The Guns Above will provide her with the inspiration she needs to get better quickly, so she can get out of the hospital and quit the air corps, like a sensible person.
HP: Why airships and early modern tech?
Because it’s so much fun! The Guns Above changed a lot between my original concept and the finished product, but every stage had one thing in common: airships on the cutting edge of incredibly rickety technology, built along scientific and engineering principles that even the designers didn’t fully understand. With my characters at constant risk of dying horribly, half my job as a writer is already done.
HP: What were your primary historical inspirations?
I drew quite a bit from Napoleonic and Restoration-era France for military hardware and battlefield tactics. I also drew cultural and geohistorical aspects from feudal Japan, and particularly to its relations with China, Korea, and the Mongol Empire. Of course, the big influence for the airship service was the British Royal Navy of the early 19th century, by way of Hornblower and the unparalleled Aubrey-Maturin series.
HP: If I were to—speaking completely hypothetically, of course—want to build a working airship in my back yard, about how much would that run me?
Let’s run the numbers for a Garnian semi-rigid scout, since it’ll cost you a little less (and Mistral’s specifications are still classified.)
You’ll want 150,000 cubic feet of helium for your first fill-up. That’s going to cost you about $13,000, but you also need to keep a reserve, so I recommend you buy an even twenty grand worth. Still a great deal, compared to what the Garnian army is paying for their luftgas.
For the envelope, you’ll need 1500 fabric yards of silk, accounting for some loss in stitching. It doesn’t have to be high quality and you can probably get a bulk discount, so let’s call that five bucks per yard, for a total of $7500. Of course, you’re going to need to rubberize the silk to make it airtight, so we’ll round that off to $10,000. Just be glad you’re not using goldbeater’s as your airtight material, because that would really cost you.
For the keel girders, aspen wood is desirable because it has long fibers, works easily, and doesn’t burn as fast as some other woods. Let’s call it 15,000 board feet. You’ll need significantly less than that on the, err, first try, but I figure you might as well save a trip to the lumber yard for the second. At $2 per board foot, that comes out to $30,000.
Now, let’s talk power train. You’re going to want six propellers on this bad boy. If you pick them up used, you can probably walk away only $4000 poorer. Lucky for you, the price of steam turbines has come way down over the past couple centuries. You can probably nab an appropriate-sized model for around ten thousand dollars. Add a lightweight boiler and condenser, and we’re talking $15,000—a steal!
Finally, we’ll add an extra $10,000 for miscellaneous joints, glue, varnish, paraffin fuel, swivel guns, wicker, first aid kits, more first aid kits, no seriously lots and lots of first aid kits, and a crate of whiskey. That comes to a grand total of $89,000.
Hey, there are cheaper ways to die, but few are cooler than a homemade airship.
HP: I feel like I could probably do that after reading this book (the building an airship, not the dying . . . ok maybe the dying too). You spend a lot of time talking about ballast, balance, propeller speed, the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow—why so serious?
You should have seen the first draft! There was half a chapter in there detailing the construction of the keel segments and girders, and expounding the relative merits of blimps and semi-rigid airships compared to fully rigids. It bore a striking resemblance to the “this is every type of whale” chapter from Moby Dick, and it was about as interesting. I cut that and everything resembling it in subsequent drafts, but I left enough hard-tech talk to give the impression that there’s a full world hiding behind the page—that all the technobabble wasn’t merely a plot convenience, but a complex reality running on its own rules.
HP: There are authors who have been publishing for decades who can’t write anything half as good as The Gun Above. Did you ever stop to think about their feelings?
Before I answer, I’d just like to say that I love these questions. They’re helping me rid myself of that last, lingering speck of humility that I’ve been trying to squash for years.
But to answer your question: no. No, I didn’t.
HP: What’s next?
In the short term, as soon as this book is out and things have settled down, I’m going to take a week off and do nothing but sleep, read, and play video games. In the medium term, my editor and I are working on revisions to the sequel, tentatively called By Fire Above. It’ll continue the adventures of Josette and Bernat, and delve deeper into Ensign Kember and Josette’s mother, Elise.
In the long term, I’m thinking world domination.
Preorder The Guns Above, out on Tuesday, May 2 from Tor at Amazon.
Read an excerpt from The Guns Above at the Tor/Forge Blog.
Visit Bennis at her website.
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More about The Guns Above:
In the tradition of Honor Harrington and the high-flying Temeraire series, Bennis’s THE GUNS ABOVE is an adventurous military fantasy debut about a nation’s first female airship captain.
They say it’s not the fall that kills you.
For Josette Dupre, the Corps’ first female airship captain, it might just be a bullet in the back.
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. Bernat’s own secret assignment is to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision.
So when the enemy makes an unprecedented move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself?