Robyn Bennis’ debut novel, The Guns Above (2017), is a fun blend of flintlock rifles, airships, military exercises, and wry commentary on both gender politics and “military intelligence.” There’s enough whip-smart dialogue to make any reader laugh out loud, and readers who are mechanically inclined will love the detailed descriptions of gears, flight tests, and ballast.
Josette Dupre is the first female airship captain in the Garnian Aerial Signal Corps, a promotion which may as well be a death warrant: her homeland, Garnia, is at war with the neighboring country of Vinzhalia over a contested bit of land, and her new rank comes with appointment to a “revolutionary new design” for airships — an appellation which generally signifies doom. Even worse, a ridiculous young aristocrat named Lord Bernat Hinkal has been added to her crew with the instruction to secretly report on her unsuitability for duty, thus proving that women have no place in the military. If Captain Dupre is to survive any of this with her life and reputation intact, she’ll need a strong crew, a sound ship, and more than a little luck.
Jana: The Guns Above was more accessible than I was expecting, especially with the pre-release comparisons I’d seen to Patrick O’Brian’s AUBREY-MATURIN series of nautical historical novels (which I’ve tried to read, but don’t capture my interest). Even though Bennis creates many of the technological elements out of whole cloth, she describes them in a layman-friendly way so that when characters interact with an airships’s components, I could easily visualize the airship’s jackscrews or gearbox with enough clarity that I wasn’t distracted from the plot or dialogue. Similarly, the moments of ship-to-ship warfare are written in such a way that there’s little to no confusion as to who is doing what, or which airships are engaging in cannon fire among the clouds. It was a little harder for me to picture ground warfare among hundreds or thousands of troops, but I read that as a deliberate distancing from Bennis, since the crew members aboard the Mistral often share that difficulty.
Marion: Because the airships are “ships” it’s almost impossible to avoid the Patrick O’Brian comparison. For me, in terms of access and clarity for a lay reader, the book reminded me more of the early entries in Bernard Cornwell’s SHARPE’S RIFLES series; for a couple of reasons. One is the idea that neither Sharpe nor Dupre are generally considered officer material. In The Guns Above, Dupre’s appointment is overtly political while Sharpe was field-promoted, but each of them is an outsider. The other similarity is how easily the books invite the reader into their worlds.
I loved how clear Bennis made the descriptions of the airships and other settings, and it was a stroke of genius to show us the airship Mistral for the first time through the eyes of self-indulgent fop Bernat, who has never seen such a thing before.
Jana: Societally speaking, I think it was a smart choice for Bennis to make the point that while Josette Dupre is the first appointed female airship captain, she’s not the only woman in the ranks of the Garnian military. Women aren’t forbidden from enlisting, but they’re often given ranks like “Auxiliary Lieutenant” and “Auxiliary Private,” or left as Ensigns. Giving Captain Dupre command of a mixed-gender crew and then placing the plot’s focus on scouting missions or testing the limits of their experimental airship, rather than wacky sexual hijinks or hand-wringing over whether women will faint at high altitude, keeps the reader focused on military matters and the excitement of the unknown. There are those who wish to see Captain Dupre permanently grounded strictly due to her gender — chief among them being Lord General Fieren, who sets Lord Bernat Hinkal at his task of espionage against Dupre — but her crew supports and respects her, and that was very important to me.
Marion: I thought Bennis set up a mixed-gender army and the resistance to it very smoothly. That said, one role reversal, the relationship between Private Grey and Bernat, seemed like a cheap shot even though it was played for laughs. This is one of those situations where, had the genders been reversed, I doubt we would be chuckling. At the very end, though, the resolution is great and sets up for a brilliant line delivered by Dupre. This, honestly, is my biggest nit to pick with the story.
Jana: I agree; Grey’s “courtship” of Bernat read far too much like sexual harassment in the workplace, especially because most of their interactions take place aboard the airship, meaning that he has no option to go somewhere safe. He’s trapped on board a skyborne vessel with a sexually assertive (not quite aggressive) individual who won’t take no for an answer. (I was reminded powerfully of a scene in The Empire Strikes Back, when Han makes overt advances toward Leia and forces her to accept a kiss — and what can she do about it? How can she escape or reject him without putting herself in even more danger?) It’s supposed to be played for laughs, but I didn’t find it funny … though it does ultimately allow for Dupre to take a shot at men being in the army, and that one moment was priceless.
Marion: There is just enough world-building here, I think. We see right where this civilization is technologically, and we see that the country Dupre and Bernie call home is being deliberately misled by its government. That sets up some good suspense. One of the blurbs refers to the world as “Ruritanian” and that made me laugh, but the allusion to Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda is accurate. This is an historical novel of an imaginary world. There is no magic or weird science, which leaves the story free to concentrate on the characters, the politics and those suspenseful battles.
Jana: I suspect that one of The Guns Above‘s elements which will get the most discussion is the snappy dialogue and internal monologues, whether seasoned crew members are having fun at Bernat’s expense or in scenes where he and Dupre bring drastically different viewpoints to shared experiences. In a novel which is, ostensibly, about a long-term war that claims lives and destroys towns, it’s important for the author to be able to balance the tone between comic and serious, and Bennis succeeds. There are lighthearted moments and plenty of verbal sparring matches, and Bernat’s recorded observations of Dupre’s captaincy are hilariously overwrought, but death and destruction are given appropriate respect.
Marion: I loved the action here. I think we see three aerial battles, one infantry battle from the air and one from the thick of the fight at ground level. Even more than the action, I loved watching the development, or revelation, of Bernat Lord Hinkal and Josette Dupre. Bernat has more depth than I expected, and Dupre emerges on the page as a pure warrior, which meant that I especially loved the exchange between her and Bernat, or “Bernie,” at the very end of the book. Dupre is also smart, clear-sighted about the realities of the military, and unsure of herself in moments, and I thought that was well-done.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am looking forward to reading other books in the series.
Jana: Agreed! All in all, The Guns Above was entertaining and well-written, despite a few issues of tone and some questionable character behavior. It’s a promising start to what should be a fascinating series, and is sure to please fans of military history novels as well anyone who’s dreamed of traveling aboard an airship.