Military steampunk is such a fun genre. At its most basic form, it's fantasy, but with technology, oftentimes gritty characters, and, in the case of The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, some truly brutal warfare and airships depicted in such a believable manner that if luft gas was a real thing then I’d almost believe in airships.
Gritty realism is a great way to describe the world of The Guns Above. It certainly has that post-industrial revolution feel to it, including a military that is largely male dominated, with women serving in auxiliary or administrative roles at best. No one is aware of this inequality more than Lieutenant Josette Dupre. So when fortune grants her the captain’s role of her own airship, she knows she needs to make the best of the situation before her commanding officer, who is not in favor of this new opportunity, changes his mind and reassigns her to the furthest backwater post available. Dupre knows she can't simply do her duty; she has to do more. Fortunately, she's given plenty of opportunities to do exactly that.
Bennis hits all the high notes with her writing. The prose are descriptive but never bogs the reader down. She keeps the story moving forward at almost all times, which is good because there is a lot of story here. Throughout the narrative we are introduced to a world that is ruled by war, with neighboring nations at each other's throats now or at least at one time or another throughout their histories. The current threat comes from the Vin, whom Dupre is charged with keeping an eye on via a scouting and shakeout run for her new airship. We are taken through a routine of tests as the Mistral's crew goes about discovering her full capabilities and making modifications to eke out every bit of speed. If the story bogs down at any point, it's there, but Bennis does a nice job of turning it into an instructional session on how airships work in her world. It's actually very interesting and I was impressed with the nuances and level of detail the author provides. It's a nice bit of worldbuilding and helps the reader appreciate the intricacies, strengths, and weaknesses of airships.
If The Guns Above has any flaws it's in the interaction between the two main characters, Josette Dupre and her commanding officer's nephew, Lord Bernat, or Bernie. I'll leave it to the reader to discover how Bernie, a privileged aristocrat, finds his way onto the hurricane deck of the Mistral, but suffice to say it is not a welcome arrangement from Josette's point of view. Thankfully there is never a romantic connection between these two, but they also never really develop the type of relationship I expected. Neither friends nor enemies, they fall somewhere between. Ultimately, the two do learn to respect one another, but I think more time could have been spent developing their relationship. This is the only the first book in the series, though, so who knows how these two will get along in future novels. Of the other crewmen onboard the Mistral, many are fairly stereotypical and others are never really fleshed out enough for me to have cared about them one way or another.
The last comment I'll make is about the battle scenes in The Guns Above, which are both spectacular and horrifying. War is hell, and no less so in this novel. Airships bring a unique component onto the battlefield; they have decided strengths but also very apparent weaknesses, both of which the authors brings into full play as Dupre demonstrates such courage, resolve, and grit that it isn't just the enemy that fears her, but her own crew. She's a strong character that I'm looking forward to spending more time with in the next novel, By Fire Above.
The Guns Above is a solid four rockets. I really only docked it one rocket because I think the author could have spent more time introducing us to the crew of the Mistral and I still don't think Josette and Bernie quite worked together (but maybe that was the point). The Guns Above is the first novel in the Signal Airship series. I've already got the next book in my hands thanks to NetGalley and will be reading and reviewing it soon.