Robyn Bennis’ debut novel The Guns Above introduced readers to Captain Josette Dupre, Lord Bernat Hinkal, and the rest of the crew of the airship Mistral, caught up in a seemingly interminable war in defense of the Garnian empire against their Vinzhalian enemies. By Fire Above (2018) is the second entry in Bennis’ SIGNAL AIRSHIP series, and it’s just as flint- and steam-powered as the previous novel; while some of the former’s cheekiness has been set aside in favor of gallows humor and dark absurdity in the latter, it’s still as entertaining and compelling as its predecessor.
The only thing worse than being caught in a life-or-death battle is having to play at being a diplomat, and yet that’s just where Captain Dupre finds herself after the tumultuous battle that concluded The Guns Above. Her crew and ship are badly damaged and in need of rest, repairs, and recuperation, and yet none of those things will be made available because there’s a war on, don’t ya know, and resources are stretched thin. Captain Dupre’s burden of responsibility is further weighed down by the knowledge that her hometown of Durum has been taken over by the Vins, and her own mother is among the hostages. But without orders and supplies, there’s nothing Dupre can do but let Bernie and his dashing older brother Roland guide her through one tiresome meeting and soirée after another in the hopes that someone in Kuchin will be able to grant the assistance they need. Once orders come through and new crew members come aboard, the Mistral heads back to Durum, where unpleasant surprises and a completely unexpected betrayal await them.
Now that the groundwork for the primary characters has been laid down, Bennis has time to explore their darker and more unlikeable aspects in By Fire Above, and that risk pays off: Bernie and Captain Dupre are more believable, and their relationship develops a camaraderie that works to the overall benefit of the novel. Bernie’s still an insufferable snob, but some of his more irritating edges have been smoothed by the trauma and sacrifices of war, and he’s all the more accessible as a result. Captain Dupre’s internal conflicts over her growing interest in Roland, her duties to an empire that’s willing to let her captain an airship but refuses to treat her with the respect she deserves, and her responsibility toward a town and a mother that she couldn’t escape fast enough in her youth are extremely well-balanced. Switching narration and perception of events between Bernie and the captain lends opportunities for dark humor and bracing insight to a novel which could easily have been too bleak and brutal, considering the subject matter.
That said, Bennis doesn’t shy away from presenting the often ridiculous nature of a war planned by bureaucrats who are safely removed from experiencing any real danger, with definite shades of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Freshly-minted soldiers, many of whom seem barely old enough to shave, are expected to lug around supplies like “shoe polish, belt polish, button polish, button board, polishing brush, coat brush, grooming brush,” and on and on, with no thought to practicality or usefulness in the thick of battle. And when the battle to liberate Durum commences, it’s as realistically visceral and terrifying as one ought to expect, especially since most of Durum’s fighting force consists of townsfolk and tradespeople rather than trained soldiers. Bennis doesn’t celebrate bloodshed by any stretch of the imagination, and takes care to remind the reader that the Vins are just as human as the Garnians. It will be fascinating to see whether, in further SIGNAL AIRSHIP novels, Bernie and Captain Dupre receive satisfactory answers as to just what this war is supposed to accomplish, anyway.
Less time is spent aboard the Mistral than I would have liked — Bennis has a great eye for technical schematics, and writes them in such a way that the Mistral’s interior is easily visualized. Her crew is similarly well-written, with little details here and there that quickly distinguish them from one another, and which turn characters like Ensign Kember and Sergeant Jutes into real people. The ways that they each rise to the occasion when called to, while acknowledging difficult circumstances or damning consequences, humanize them despite the meat-grinder nature of the war machine they’re all bound to.
By Fire Above is a thoughtful, honest examination of the cost of war, not only in a large-scale economic sense but also in a small-scale, personal sense, and Bennis does an excellent job of questioning whether the awful deeds demanded of soldiers are equal to the sometimes-minute tactical gains that come as a result. The SIGNAL AIRSHIP series is well worth reading, and I’m excited to see what direction Bennis steers the narrative after this volume.