This first novel by Robyn Bennis, The Guns Above (Tor), is a rip-roaring steampunk fantasy set in an alternate world with a French feel, perhaps around the 19th century. It features airship and ground battles aplenty, a feisty heroine (airship captain Josette Dupres), a dissolute fop, Bernet, who becomes her unwilling sidekick, layers of dialogue heavy on the double entendres, and plenty of politics, mainly of the sexual kind.
Having survived a battle in which she saved many men, though, with no real memory of having done so, Josette is put in charge of an experimental airship, with as motley a crew as you’ll find this side of Jack Sparrow’s band of merry men. She is charged with patrolling the front lines of Garnia, while at the same time testing the new ship. There are several problems she has to contend with. First, the crew don’t trust her expertise. Then there is the temperamental airship itself, which never seems to do what it’s supposed to – including being faster and much more manoeuvrable than others in the Garnian fleet. Not the mention the enemy invasion, which is introduced in explosive style, as you can imagine.
While there is a great deal to admire in the novel, I felt that the first third was laborious, going into minute detail about the construction and workings of the airship, a blow by blow account of recruiting its crew members and little sign of the story itself getting off the ground.
Having said that, once the air and ground battles begin, the action is relentless, exciting and fantastically well-written. Some scenes were intensely gripping, as bullets and bombs rip through airships and crews alike. There are perilous near-misses and powerful scenes involving the deaths and maiming of characters we have come to like (or at least become invested in). There is also lashings of witty dialogue, such as the entirely plausible acidic banter between crew members, and the caustic, teasing exchanges by Josette and Lord Bernet, just hinting at a “will they, won’t they?” subplot.
Overall there is much to admire in The Guns Above, and the standard of writing is first-class. However, it rather belabours the steampunk science, pouring lavish detail throughout on the mechanics of the airship, the most fully-realized character in the novel. I say that because generally the characterization of the humans feels a little sketchy and I would like to have seen a little more depth to the main players at least. On the other hand, I suspect this is only an opening gambit for a potential series and as such Robyn may be simply doing a slow unfolding of the lives of the key players. Certainly, if full on action is your thing, you’re bound to have a great time reading this novel, and it is easily strong enough to leave readers wanting more.