It’s airships and rifles in a kind of Napoleonic-era war in the steampunkish debut novel ‘The Guns Above’ by Robyn Bennis. Other than the steam engines mounted on the airships and the mention of trains, there’s little of the traditional Victorian steampunk ethos in this book. But there’s plenty of adventure, grittiness and sarcastic comments that put me in mind of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ series of which, I’ve admittedly only seen the TV series not read the books. [Ed’s note: this sub-genre is often called “Flintlock Fantasy”: a term first coined by Andrew Darlington while reviewing Stephen Hunt’s novel “For The Crown and the Dragon” back in 1994 – Sharpe with Steampunk pretty much covers it!]
Set in a European-type setting, the book enjoys the freedom of creating its own geopolitical history rather than attempting to slot itself into our own. It’s a background embellished by unlikely family stories from the crew and focuses on the first female in the Garnian Aerial Signal Corps to be given command of an airship. For Josette Dupre, it’s an opportunity to prove herself after years languishing as an auxiliary junior lieutenant and to make a difference in the war against Vinzhalia.
Along with her new crew, Lord Bernat, the aristocratic nephew of the pompous general, is assigned to the airship Mistral to spy on Josette and supply the ammunition to prove that she and women in general are incapable of command. Bernat is somewhat of a fop, though claims to be a dandy at worst, but both he and Josette soon defy expectations by becoming much more complex and interesting than the plot suggests.
Bernat is not as useless as he first appears and his self-deprecating wit makes him actually quite a likeable character. Josette soon proves herself not to be a feisty heroine of natural leadership ability and unerring tactics but, in fact, a captain not entirely sure of herself who makes some rash and inexplicable decisions.
The precarious life of an airman comes across very well in Robyn Bennis’ descriptions of Mistral’s trial cruise and subsequent enemy engagements. You really get the feel of the flimsy wooden frame, vast swathes of canvas and complete lack of protection from enemy gunfire. There are some great scenes of airships stalking each other through the clouds, just like Kirk and Khan in the nebula, the desperate attempts of crew to put out fires and carry out mid-air repairs amidst creaking timbers and rushing wind.
The cover bears the legend ‘Signal Airship No. 1’ and the plot, while nicely developing and wrapping up some of the strands and issues raised during the course of the book, still leaves us in the middle of a war that will presumably continue on into future books.
Gareth D Jones
(pub: TOR/Forge. 351 page small hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $36.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-8876-6)
check out websites: www.tor-forge.com and www.robynbennis.com