The Guns Above starts out in media res. Or maybe a little more after media res, beginning at the end of a battle. Wait, what? I wouldn’t have minded seeing that battle, but we will get plenty of that, and the book starts at the beginning of the story. Josette Dupre, courtesy of surviving an airship crash that her captain did not, just became the first female airship captain in the history of the Corps. That’s the good news, as much as anything that requires one to go back up in an airship can be considered good news. The really bad news is that the newspapers are making her out to be a hero, which is dangerous when they are also making General Lord Fieren out to be a fool.
The result is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it has been a very good year. More gushing below the fold.
Back to the setup. Josette now has an enemy in Fieren, a mustachioed, tea-drinking general who takes meetings in front of paintings and could have stepped out of War and Peace. This results in Fieren assigning his dissolute nephew Lord Bernat to her airship as an observer/spy. All while she is earning the trust of a new crew (much of the old crew having met the fate of her former captain) and learning to fly a new, experimental airship. And there is a Vin invasion on the horizon.
The Guns Above is a hard book to pin down. I asked Bennis in our interview if it is Steampunk or Flintlock Fantasy. She indicated they struggled to answer that question until Patricia Briggs called it Steampunk in her blurb (technically she called it “steampunky”). It is true that there are no fantastical elements, which makes Flintlock Fantasy a stretch. But it feels like Flintlock Fantasy, with its military emphasis and some of the realism, especially in the big battle at the end. It’s not alternate history, because it’s set in a secondary world. I don’t tend to think of it as Steampunk, though, because it has a different feel. It doesn’t take the haphazard approach to the tech that Steampunk books tend to. Is there such a thing as Hard Steampunk?
Lost in the debate over Hard SF is that, for all the limitations that they bring, applying rules rigorously (whether the rules of physics or invented rules of magic or whatever) can add a hell of a lot of narrative tension. Bennis gives us a world in which you really believe such an airship could exist. Hell, you could probably build one in your backyard. The luftgas that lifts it is apparently helium, and the frame is a rickety affair of light, soft wood. Bennis spends a lot of time investing the reader in that. By the time the battles hit, you know just how parlous a situation our heroes are in. The choice to devote a good chunk of the book to first trials of Josette’s new airship.
It also gives us time to get invested in the main characters, Josette and Bernat. We see that Josette is supremely competent, if prickly and insecure. And Bernat is not, in the end, such a bad chap, if a cad. And not, as it turns out, entirely useless. Early in the trials Josette engages Bernat in a friendly shooting contest. Bernat proves the better shot. A lot of writers would’ve let Josette mash Bernat. Bennis understands that Bernat needs to pull his weight as a character too. And later, when Bernat is having trouble hitting the enemy, we know it is because it is shooting at people that he’s struggling with, not just shooting. It also makes Josette’s position look a little more precarious, failing in front of the crew. Although, in light of the impressive shooting she does do, we get a glimpse at her fear at how insecure her position is.
Her role as a female character, too, is stronger for the realism. Female soldiers are new to the Garnian military. It started with women, including Josette, passing themselves off as men and enlisting. (The combination of an enormous need for fresh bodies, limited medical care, and relatively limited gear made the early 19th Century the heyday for female soldiers in our world.) The tolls of unending wars made the Garnian brass willing to bend social mores. And women are particularly suited to serve on airships, which have extreme weight restrictions. (Technically they’re supposed to drop the women off before each battle, the sort of ludicrously unrealistic thing only a bureaucrat would mandate.)
The Guns Above is also remarkably funny. Not in the way of a comedic book, or even relying entirely on snark from the characters (though we get plenty of that). It’s a dry wit that runs throughout the book. The timing is impeccable. Bennis will often setup the joke and let it marinate for a page or two before delivering the punchline. And it is very much of the gallows humor variety common to soldiers.
Bernat laughed nervously. “Quick learners.”
She spared him a glance. “Yeah. I imagine you learn a lot on the way down. Things like, ‘The ground sure comes up fast’ and ‘I should have stayed a farmer.’”
While the crew cut wide beechwood fuses and hammered them into shells, Bernat quietly asked Josette, “Is this entirely safe?”
“May I remind you that you’re aboard an airship,” she said. “Nothing we do is entirely safe.”
He frowned. “I mean to say, where would we be if a stray spark set off one of these shells?”
She stared at him. “Technically speaking? We’d be in a lot of places. The surrounding woods and countryside, to begin with. If these winds hold up, parts of us might even make it to Halachia.”
As Bernat watched another load of shells being carried down from the magazine, he said, “Well, I’ve always liked to travel.”
“So you’re not going to throw me overboard?”
“Oh, I’m certainly going to throw you overboard, but on your way down, I want you to know that you have my admiration.”
But the humor never gets in the way of action. There is a bit of a slow start, but when they spot an enemy scout on their trial run, things kick into high gear. The last half of the book had me gripping the armrests on my chair. The big battle at the end is as good as anything Brian McClellan wrote. It’s bloody and dirty and visceral in the way any well written early 19th Century-esque battle ought to be. Josette does not screw around in matters of war.
These bumpkins may not care which side of the border they’re on, but I do. If destroying some old bridge can better our odds by the minutest fraction, you may consider that bridge destroyed. I’ll destroy their bridge, and their mill and their granary for good measure, and I’ll do the same in every goddamn village and hamlet from here to Arle. And if I run out of bridges and mills and granaries, I’ll burn the crops in the fields, poison the wells, kill the animals, and foul the meat. And when the Vins send out foragers, I will hunt them down by twos and threes, and hang them at the side of the highway as a warning to the others. I tell you, I will do whatever is necessary to tip the scales, and I won’t stop until every one of those goddamn Vin bastards either retreats to his lands or lies dead on mine.
I’ve already written too much and I feel like I’ve given you just a taste. There is so much more I could say because every element is so well done. I finished The Guns Above a couple weeks ago and sitting here writing this review, I want to pick it back up and start from the beginning again. As a matter of fact…
5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a copy of The Guns Above from the publisher.