“She had no memory of her escape from the stricken ship, but she must have gotten out somehow. If she were still inside, she would be on fire, and she was reasonably convinced that this was not the case.”
These lines, on the first page of Robyn Bennis’ debut novel The Guns Above, convinced me that this was a book I was going to like. First pages can be uncertain predictors of things to come, but in The Guns Above’s case, my initial impressions were well and truly borne out: with delightfully dry whistle-past-the-graveyard humour, a soupçon of sarcasm, and an approach to military action that reminds me of nothing so much as Forrester’s Hornblower or Cornwell’s Sharpe novels—but with airships and female officers.
Josette Dupre is an auxiliary lieutenant in the Garnian military, in the Aerial Signal Corps. This is a world with a 19th-century level of technology (apart from the effective airships): there are trains and muskets and rifles, and the world retains many prejudices concerning the appropriate place and social responsibilities of women. But due to the army’s incessant need for personnel, women are allowed to serve as auxiliary officers, albeit never above the rank of junior lieutenant. And they’re certainly not supposed to be commanding troops in combat.
But Josette ends up doing just that and turning the tide in a significant battle, coming to the attention of the Garnian newspapers. A slighted and petty general, who wants to avenge himself on her for stealing his spotlight and at the same time prove how unsuitable women are in the army, decides to promote her to the rank of senior lieutenant and awards her command of an airship—one that’s an experimental design. He’s setting her up to fail, and assigning his nephew, foppish dandy and flirt Lord Bernat, a part-time wastrel with all the military knowledge of a sparrow, to chronicle her every flaw and failing. And if there aren’t enough flaws and failings, Bernat is supposed to invent some.
With a crew who doubts her experience and her expertise, a general who’d prefer her a dead failure rather than a live success, and a vessel that might turn out to be a death-trap, Josette has more than a few challenges to overcome. And that’s before she takes her airship into combat, and discovers that the enemy have stolen a march (or quite a few marches) on the Garnians. Josette will need all her skill and determination just to survive, much less succeed.
The Guns Above is just about bursting with fun. Bennis has written a really good debut, with gripping action and compelling characters. Josette is a great character, tough and competent and possessed of a sense of humour—and an awareness of her own flaws—that’s fascinating to read. Bernat at first glance doesn’t seem so sympathetic, but even at his most morally compromised, he has a certain entertaining appeal. And he quickly develops into a sympathetic personality.
The airships. The airships are really well-thought-out. They seem like machines that could work. Impractical, finicky, dangerous machines—the characters mention more than once that the Aerial Signal Corps is not well-known for its survival rates—but machines that make sense. And the action sequences are properly tense and full of peril and gunfire and cannon. And the potential for fragile airships to break or catch fire or fall out of the sky.
And, as a bonus, Bennis has dry sarcastic way in narrative of highlighting how self-deluding and not concerned with actual reality the chauvinistic men in charge are when it comes to women in the military. The rules restricting what women are supposed to do (and not do) are clearly being broken left, right, and centre, and have been for as long as the women have been in the military.
The Guns Above is an immensely entertaining, fast-paced adventure. I really enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to see what Bennis does next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.