Bennis wrote one of my favorite books last year with The Guns Above. By Fire Above may not quite reach those same lofty heights, but it is one hell of a sequel. As before, By Fire Above is one equal part terrific action set pieces, pure hilarity, and deep military SF that is no more leery of meditating on duty and honor than it is of a little blood and thunder.
Fresh off the explosive events of the first book, Josette has a newfound fame as an airship captain and a very badly damaged airship. Rather than send her straight back to the front, the powers that be decide she would better serve the war effort doing flyovers to impress the nobility.
This leads to a slow first half. The Guns Above started slowly as well, but the care in setting up the fragility of an airship paid off when things heated up in the second half. The slow start here is neither as necessary nor as effective. And, frankly, Bennis is better at skewering the military than the aristocracy. Which is not to say that Bennis doesn’t get some good shots in.
“Then it seems to me,” Josette said, once she was reasonably convinced that the animal was under control, “that the dogs are doing all the work. Why are we here at all? Do the Duke’s hounds not know the way home?”
“You’re missing a critical component,” Roland said, laughing. “After the hounds have done all the work, we take the carcass away, before they can eat it.”
She wrinkled her nose. “This is truly the perfect sport for the aristocracy.”
By Fire above is still damned funny. Once again, this is Josette and Bernat’s show, although, as the cover suggests, Bernat arguably leaps to the forefront. Bernat has to come to grips with a brother who might take his title and his airship captain (“No, he will be Marquis because of an accident of birth. As a commoner, you couldn’t possibly understand how frustrating that is.”). He also has to come to grips with his new life as a man of violence and with the toll the war is taking on his wardrobe (“How many suits must this damnable war take from me before it’s finally sated?”). Josette has to come to grips with a new nickname—the Shark—and a growing legend:
“The stories say you’re ten feet tall.”
“As usual, the stories are just about half right.”
And she has to come to grips with her fraught relationship with her mother.
The narrative once again returns to Josette’s hometown of Durum, this time with the goal of liberating it from the Vins. After the big pitched battle that ended The Guns Above, Bennis shifts focus to an insurgency. A bloody, bloody insurgency, the sort that results in 70 soldiers poisoned to death and a couple hundred townspeople killed in retribution. “But for every one the Vins hang, another three rise up. Seems to be a certain . . . ornery streak to people from Durum, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir.”
With Josette and Bernat on the ground working to liberate Durum, it’s a more grounded story (I got puns!). Which is something new, and well done, but it’s the airship battles that really make the Signal Airship series great. Josette does wind up doing “the exact goddamn opposite of her job,” after all. We get some airship battles, but not enough, and not nearly enough with Josette at the helm (Ensign Kember steps into a more prominent role here, and a new, incompetent first officer is added.)
These are really, really good military SF books. Blood and thunder is getting as rare these days as serious consideration of duty and honor. Bennis is shy of neither, but keeps the wry tongue and black humor proper to military science.
- “It’s amazing what the fear of being thought afraid will do to an ambitious company captain.”
- “The morality of inflicting pain and death was one thing, but having the captain mad at you was another entirely.”
- “They behaved rudely, got drunk as fast as they could, made inappropriate advances, and invented all sorts of improbable stories that exaggerated their own personal heroism. In other words, they had at last become proper Garnian soldiers.”
By Fire Above is another kickass “hard steampunky” yarn. It is only the aforementioned slow start and one decision at the end—that I can’t talk about without getting way into spoiler territory—that keep it from the 5-star rating The Guns Above earned.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a copy of By Fire Above from the publisher.