Military Steampunk with a Dark Bite: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

By Fire Above is Robyn Bennis’s second novel, the sequel to last year’s enormously fun The Guns Above. In The Guns Above, Josette Dupre became the nation of Garnia’s first ever female airship captain—no longer an auxiliary officer in the Signal Airship Corps but one with full command authority. The Garnians are engaged in a long-running war with Vinzhalia, one that’s not going precisely well, but that doesn’t mean that talent, skill, and determination in an airship officer (or captain) will be rewarded. Especially not when that officer is a woman with a temper, little tolerance for fools, and a knack for showing up generals.

Josette has unexpectedly made a friend in the foppish young nobleman who was sent to undermine and discredit her. Lord Bernat (Bernie to his friends) found himself coming to respect both Josette and the Signal Airship Corps over the course of The Guns Above, though he’s never not going to be an aristocratic dandy. Bernie also met Josette’s estranged mother and conceived a passion for her.

But Durum, the town Dupre Senior lives in, has fallen to the Vinzhalian forces. Josette wants to retake her hometown, but instead of being sent to rejoin the fighting forces, as By Fire Above opens, Josette is summoned to the capital of Garnia to be recognised for her heroics. Court is Bernie’s milieu, not Josette’s, and she’s impatient with the kind of dissembling and self-involvement she finds among the aristocrats there. Though she does discover she rather likes Bernie’s elder brother Roland, even as she finds herself unwilling to trust his professions of affection.

She horrifies both Roland and Bernie when she has a very brief audience with the king and asks him to retake Durum. To their surprise, and hers, Josette’s airship Mistral and a small detachment of newly-drafted soldiers (mostly students from the universities) to assault the presumably-nominal garrison that the Vinzhalians left at Durum. It should be an easy victory to blood the new troops before they link up with the rest of the army.

Unfortunately, it turns out the Durum garrison isn’t nearly as nominal as Josette hoped. With her airship under the dubious command of a barely-competent second officer (to the despair of Ensign Sabine Kember, the other officer aboard) as Josette and Bernie liaise with Durum’s native resistance on the ground, Josette must rally the townspeople to create the diversion that the soldiers outside need—while dealing with her antagonistic mother and a resistance that has almost no access to guns of any kind.

And Durum’s resistance has a traitor in their ranks, so things will get even more perilous and emotionally complicated before the end.

Josette is not a kind of female character we often get to see. She’s a professional before anything else, a patriot because of circumstance and loyalty to her comrades, who’d probably be just as content and competent as a Vinzhalian officer, if circumstance had put her on the other side. She’s extremely competent in her professional sphere, and grimly determined not to be shown up or made a fool of outside it. We see this in her relationship with Roland, where she’s not entirely certain how she feels about it, or about him, but she’s prepared to work through her feelings (and his) after she’s had a bit of time to think about it. And her entirely platonic, sarcasm-fueled friendship with Bernie is a delight, now that they have settled into some kind of trust.

Josette isn’t the only woman in the cast. Ensign Sabine Kember gets a chance to shine in this installment. Kember is a compelling young woman, and shows us that Josette isn’t exceptional as a talented military officer who’s also a woman: she’s just exceptional in being the first to have the opportunities to command. Kember grows into her responsibilities, and struggles with the biased and barely-competent officer who’s been assigned as Josette’s second-in-command.

Like The Guns Above, By Fire Above shines with its voice and sense of humour—gallows humour, mostly, blackly glittering. Bennis slyly slides in a nod to the dead lesbians trope—in which Josette fails to recognise an obvious couple and one member of that couple remarks that everyone seems to expect her to die (she doesn’t)—and manages to make a fraught parent-child relationship grimly hilarious.

This is a fast, fun novel. But though deeply entertaining and with swashbuckling flair, By Fire Above doesn’t neglect the dark side of military service, either. It’s well worth reading, and I look forward to seeing much more of Bennis’s work in years to come.

By Fire Above is available from Tor Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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