Set in another world that feels both similar and fantastic, we’re treated to a steampunk-esque adventure helmed by the cunning Josette Dupre. She’s an ‘auxiliary’ officer – essentially a woman in a position of leadership in the military who is nonetheless seen as a lesser officer and forbidden from engaging in combat. But after her captain is killed in a battle, Josette takes charge and inadvertently manages a military victory that starts to change things for women.
Suddenly she finds herself given command of a brand-new airship, the Mistral, and surrounded by all kinds of political enemies that would rather see her dead than see a woman in command. The last thing Josette wants is to be some sort of trailblazer but she’s determined to keep her command even as others scheme to undermine her. She pulls together a crew of men – and also women, including a young female ensign – and together they set off to prove their worth.
The problem is Bernat Hinkal – a wealthy dandy whose lavish ways have caused his mother to effectively cut him off. His uncle makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He will pay Bernat to accompany the Mistral and write a sort of expose outlining all of Josette’s shortcomings. It’s something Bernat is more than happy to do, regardless of whether his report is true or not.
At least until he gets to know her. Spending time with someone and following them into battle in the middle of a raging war can change your priorities fast, after all. And there is certainly no shortage of life and death situations that befall Josette and her ship.
From start to finish I was hooked on Josette’s story and a large part of that is due to the world building. Bennis does a good job of throwing readers right into the fray while still providing the background they’ll need to feel connected to the story. The Guns Above takes place in a world very different from ours – but it still feels somewhat familiar. While we never employed airships in warfare the way Josette’s world does, Bennis invokes traditional naval warfare and terminology in developing her aerial combat. And though the countries and locations aren’t real, their motivations and histories seem vaguely pulled from our own world’s history.
And while Bennis goes through a good deal of effort to make the book feel real and the engineering of the airships feel realistic, it’s all quite easy to pick up and understand. There’s enough information there for those who want it, but not too much that it becomes burdensome on the plot – something that I greatly appreciated.
What I liked most, though, was how Bennis envisioned this world where women were slowly being accepted into combat roles in a vaguely 1700s inspired world. Josette attended a military academy in the guise of a man and revealed herself when women were finally given officer postings.
But their jobs – while similar to men’s – are limited and women are still seen as unfit for combat duty. Seeing how those prejudices exist and are challenged is inspiring and in a way it’s very topical. Women today are still struggling in certain areas when it comes to equality.
Now, I’ll admit, that’s also where some of my least favorite parts of the book come into play. I appreciate a good story about a woman proving herself in a man’s world but Bernat’s attempts to tear Josette down got a bit grating. He was actually a pretty grating character in general for much of the book and some of the things he did were a bit too out there at times.
That said, I’m glad to say that he grew by leaps and bounds. I’m quite excited to see how he continues to develop as a character – and hopefully as an officer or something – in later books. But having to read through the bulk of The Guns Above where he was writing some pretty awful things down and making things up about Josette was difficult to read just because it’s so stereotypical and ugly.
Still, I can’t be too harsh on that point because it’s part of what made the latter parts of the book so great. Bernat starts to truly come into his own and Josette continues to be her bad ass self despite the odds. And it’s not like Josette was the only bad ass lady kicking around in The Guns Above.
Gray, an engineer’s mate, wasn’t quite as compelling as I would have hoped, but fifteen year old Ensign Kember was pretty much my favorite character. Young, determined, and incredibly ballsy towards the end, she was awesome and I hope that the Signal Airship series continues on long enough that she someday becomes an airship captain in her own right because I’d love to see it.
The Guns Above is an impressive debut novel and it shows a lot of promise for the books still to come. In a lot of the marketing for this novel I’ve seen it compared to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin series. I can only hope that this series will stretch across as many books and stories as that one did.
Except unlike that series, this one has a seriously awesome female commander kicking ass and taking names while at the helm of an airship. If you’re a fan of steampunk and/or strong female characters who aren’t afraid to challenge convention, you won’t be disappointed!