Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
Every now and then, a random book recommendation I come across on Twitter turns out to be a gem. Last week, I was made aware of The Guns Above, Signal Airship 1, by Robyn Bennis. I liked the sparse description, read the sample chapters, and when they ended, absolutely had to know more. So I purchased the book and continued reading. And pretty much read it as fast as I could.

The Guns Above is steampunk fantasy set in imaginary Garnia, a country in a constant state of war with its neighbours. The reasons are never made clear; it’s just something that has always been done. It’s a pre or pseudo-industrialised world where steam powers factories and airships, but everything else mostly resembles 19th century Europe, down to its hierarchies.

Military is the only place where women get to show their worth, and that only because the country is running out of men to enlist. It’s still not easy for them, and they’ve been given proper commanding positions only a few years previously. Except on airships.

The book begins with the aftermath of a battle. Josette Dupre wakes up among dead bodies with no proper recollection of how the battle has gone, but she’s soon told she was the hero of it, who single-handedly turned the tides for Garnia. As a reward—though reluctantly and only because of the pressure from the newspapers—she’s given an airship of her own to command, an experimental new model, Mistral. She knows it’s just to get rid of her, but she takes it anyway. She’s accompanied on the maiden voyage by Lord Bernat, the nephew of the most important general, who’s been sent there to spy on her and to make her look bad, to discredit her in the press.

Despite the premise, the book is a fairly straightforward military fantasy. The maiden voyage turns into a series of battles, as Mistral and its crew encounter the enemy where they shouldn’t be. The battles are vividly and brutally described, and lengthy, but never boring, even if I couldn’t always keep up with the terminology. And everything ends in one final battle where Mistral gets to show what it’s really made of.

Underneath all the warfare, there is a story of two people, Josette and Bernat. It’s not terribly heavy on emotions. We never learn much about their pasts or motivations, like why she’s in the army or why she hates her mother, or what Bernat’s been doing with his life before being tricked into the army, apart from gambling. But the snippets we get are enough to give us a notion of who they are.

Their relationship carries the book. It’s not a love story, and it’s not even a proper friendship. But the encounters between the two, often subtle, and the bantering, made me really like the two and hope they would become friends after all. Bernat tries his best to fulfil his mission, but having been thrown into all those battles, he grows as a person and begins to admire Josette instead. For her part, Josette doesn’t really change as a character. Her journey is more external, growing into her role as the first woman captain of an airship. She’s tough and unyielding to begin with and those characteristics are only strengthened during the book. But in the end, they sort of come to realise that they work well together. And I found it so compelling, I immediately purchased the next book too.

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