The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis is a Steampunk war story about a woman who, by luck and her willingness to fight, becomes an airship captain. She is set up by the general, with his nephew Bernat being sent aboard to report on her and provide evidence she’s incompetent.
After the opening battle, the first third or so of the book progresses naturally along these lines with Josette trying to establish her command, and Bernat attempting to foil that, until it gets into the thick of the book where a great battle is promised and then delivered upon.
The plot is pretty straightforward so it’s a bit hard to talk about that without spoiling it, but those who want an epic steampunk war piece will not be disappointed. The amazon listing states this is in the tradition of Honor Harrington, and I think that despite the setting change from space to airships, this book delivers on that about perfectly. Fans of David Weber should absolutely love this.
For my personal tastes, the Weber-esque aspects were the weakest parts of the book. It goes into hefty detail on the workings of the airship, the procedures of the crew, etc. Now this isn’t bad writing by any means, it was all very competently done, but those stretches of pages don’t appeal to me, and they occupy large portions of the book’s real estate in hefty detail. That said, it will likely appeal to every other science fiction reader out there big time, so it’s understandable why it was written that way.
Where Bennis actually does quite well that goes beyond what Weber’s done in my opinion is provide a very excellent dichotomy of characters. Josette is rough, rugged and a hard worker to root for. Bernat at first may drive you crazy, and you’ll find yourself agreeing with Josette’s internal and external assessments of him, but he grows on you as his intelligence and wit are revealed. The side characters like Bernat’s lordly uncle and Jutes are well done and memorable also.
The best part of the book, however, is the tone. It’s so masterfully done and multi-dimensional. While it’s a very dark story, really highlighting the horrors of war and making a very gritty environment, the sense of humor and sarcasm from the characters makes a wonderful balance to that. I laughed out loud at several points during the book, which is very difficult to make me do. And at the same time I felt horrible for the characters for what they were thrust into. Being able to achieve both of those moods simultaneously is an incredible feat in writing. This adds a layer to the characters where they don’t just feel like military grunts.
It’s paced very well, and the developments are very nice in terms of the war. I wish we’d see a little bit more of the personal side of the characters, as things are hinted at but the focus stays very much on the war. That’s natural given the crazed state they’re in, but there are points where we could have seen just a little bit more of a push in that direction.
On the war itself, I do appreciate the author’s subtle anti-war messaging to it, the way that Bernat as a lordling really can’t explain what the war’s about and why it matters, nor can the military in Josette. They try, but the reasons are thin. They just have to destroy the enemy because. And sometimes our real wars feel like that in earnest, especially in the last few decades. Josette’s sense of duty despite this is both admirable in points, and makes you want to scream at her to do something else – but it does always come off well developed and natural. This message didn’t come across as preachy at all either, which is a bonus.
On the flip side, I didn’t feel much sense of progress from Josette or Bernat internally. The latter gave up on his mission to destroy her, but didn’t really change or develop in much of a sense. Josette by the same token had her command firmed up, but the same in terms of lack of much internal development. And I didn’t get a great sense of resolution of the war – now this is consistent with the worldbuilding as the war is talked about as a multi-generational thing that never seems to end, but I would have liked a clearer resolution in that regard where I at least felt some progress was made one way or another.
There is one other message of the whole women are oppressed and held down and everyone’s sexist which is not subtle at all, and while at certain points of the book it can get a bit burdensome, I don’t find it as overwhelming as I have in some books. Still at this point, there are far too many books with that monolithic message where it rings propagandic from publishers in our society rather than ringing true, and it’s not fun to read in the least. For the majority of the book though, it doesn’t have much of an impact or cause too much of a problem.
The prose is about perfect. I mentioned the wit and humor at points, but the descriptions of all the airship components and the workings are really marvelous. You feel very immersed in the world as a reader, it’s incredible. This is a great steampunk fantasy world that’s sensible in every regard.
I’ve put a lot of criticism in here but the real reason for that is I was so immersed that I care about the book, settings, and characters. It’s very few and far between that a book makes me care to that level of detail or that I can envision so much of it so vividly. I found all of it memorable, and extremely well done. I’ll go so far to say that this is the best book of 2017 to this point about halfway through the year. Highly recommended.