The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

There was a dark moment in my life recently when I thought maybe I was going to break up with steampunk. We had a good run, steampunk and I, but I read a string of steampunk books that were pretty much identical and thought, “Eh, maybe we should start seeing different people.” I’m pleased to say that The Guns Above has rekindled our relationship by being funny, gritty, realistic, and full of good character development and solid writing. The steampunk elements are simple but effective. It was a joy to behold.

Guns Above takes place in a fictional world similar to Regency-era Europe. Troops and massive airships battle in a war between Garnia and Vinzahalia. The question of why they are at war comes up several times throughout the book, with answers ranging from a terrible metaphor involving shoes to “because territory.”

Through a combination of a military success and backstage politics, Josette Dupre becomes the first woman to captain an airship in the Garnian military. The same general who appoints her captain also assigns his spoiled, rich, and very pretty nephew, Bernat, to spy on her and report damaging information that will allow the General to demote her right back again. He had to promote her because of her accomplishments in battle, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it, and he wants to reverse the process as soon as possible.

Thus our cast of characters is assembled. Josette is desperate to prove herself in her first command. Bernat, whose foppish demeanor and incredible naïveté hides a clever mind, is desperate to bring her down. Josette has a Sergeant, named Jutes, who is just generally awesome, and she has a crew that is desperate to survive the war. The Mistral, Josette’s airship, is something of a character in her own right. This book works so well partly because The Mistral has a design that actually makes sense. It’s not a hot air balloon with gears glued on it.

The reliance on airships is the only significantly steampunk aspect to the story. Otherwise, it’s a realistic war story. The airship fights read very much like naval battles, only with more dimensions to worry about and different technical problems. Ground battles feature mud, confusion, stupid deaths and lucky escapes. Josette does ruthless things in the service of military strategy in a war that seems extremely pointless. The action scenes are thrilling and horrifying at the same time, and Bernat, who knows absolutely nothing about the military, is great point of view entry character.

This is not a romance, but it is the first book in the series and we’ve yet to see what will become of Bernat and Josette. The development of these individual characters is sublime and watching their relationship change from animosity to mutual respect is incredibly satisfying. Both Josette and Bernat are masters of snark, sarcasm, and the polite yet devastatingly passive-aggressive response, and it turns out that they both kick ass like mad. I’m madly hoping that in sequels they will get together romantically but honestly watching them become friends is as satisfying as watching them become lovers would have been because it places their relationship squarely in a place of respect and trust. I could read their verbal sparring matches about Josette’s mother all day long and never get bored. They are Hepburn and Tracy with more bloodlust.

I try never to penalize a book for a bad cover, because typically authors have little control over covers and some of the worst covers contain the best books. However, I love to praise a good cover, and the cover of the hardback edition of The Guns Above (by Tommy Arnold) is fucking gorgeous. Observe the following:

  • The heroine is neither in a sexualized pose nor a pose that is anatomically impossible
  • The hero is behind her, clearly in a supporting position, not stealing the scene
  • The book and the cover both leave the ethnicity of the characters open. Neither character is depicted as white on the cover and both are consistent with the book description except that Josette has brown hair in the book and black hair on the cover.
  • It actually looks like one of the battle scenes from the book.

Guns Above is feminist, fun, exciting, and moving. It’s the first in the new Signal Airship series and I can’t wait for more.

I’d recommend this to fans of historical action (it has a strong Master and Commander vibe) as well as fans of alternate history and steampunk such as His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik ( A | BN | K | G | iB | Au ). I regret to say that there are no actual dragons in the book. For now at least, airships and banter will have to suffice.

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