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The Guns Above, Robyn Bennis 14 August 2018

2017 steampunk SF, first of a series. The war between Garnia and Vinzhalia grinds on; Lieutenant Josette Dupre commands a scouting airship.

Obvious stuff first: the book wears its influences on its sleeve, most evidently Hornblower (Dupre always thinks she's done terribly, however great the victory). There's a certain amount of "girls can't…" in the setup. The world is very thin and underdeveloped, with oddly inconsistent technology levels (it has steam turbines, but no repeating rifles).

But it works. The world is built just barely enough to set the scene, even if we don't know what these people do when they aren't fighting with airships; and, perhaps because there don't seem to be any large bodies of water nearby, these people come out of an army rather than a navy tradition, which makes for some interesting variances from the usual pattern. While high command doesn't like the idea of women fighting, the people on the sharp end mostly don't have a problem with it. And while Dupre may be hyper-competent and self-hating, she also comes over as a real person rather than just a tool to make the right decision when the author needs her to.

Lieutenant Martel looked a little nervous. "Have you stood the deck for an evening landing in a light ship before, sir?"

"Mister Martel, in my previous rank of auxiliary lieutenant, I was absolutely forbidden from performing such a dangerous operation." She looked straight ahead. "So I've only done it seven times."

There are some odd linguistic choices: these airships are floated by "luftgas", and the boiler produces power via a "steamjack", which are very clearly helium and a steam turbine respectively; I found the alternative terms distracting.

The weakest point is probably the plotting, as there are very few surprises here; in particular, the superior officer whom Dupre has inadvertantly embarrassed by becoming a popular hero is more two-dimensional than I'd really have liked. There's a fair bit of attention paid to the operation of the ship (and let's face it, without that this would basically just be alt-Hornblower), which some may find tedious but I didn't.

"Don't worry, my lord," Private Grey said, her head popping up behind the steamjack as if she were spring-loaded. "These things are built to take a beating." She gave the top of the steamjack a reassuring thump, which must have caused something to pop out inside the housing. Grey's face froze as some bit of metal tinkled down through the turbine blades, bouncing from one to the next, hitting a dozen on its way down, until after several long seconds it finally reached the bottom of the housing and began rolling back and forth inside. "Shit," she said.

Of course there needs to be a foil for Dupre, and that's Lord Bernat Manatio Jebrit Aoue Hinkal – a foppish aristocrat set to spy on Dupre by his uncle the high commander, with the aim of getting her (and female captains in general, but mostly any opposition to his handling of the war) discredited. So as well as the obvious arc of his changing his mind about Dupre (as I said, very few surprises), he's a convenient character for the professional crew of the airship to explain things to. Viewpoint alternates between him and Dupre, sometimes covering the same events; and he does have skills of his own, in particular the ability to read people, which puts him a step above many audience-identification figures.

There's plenty of action (and a certain amount of war-is-hell carnage), but a decent chunk of character development too, at least for the two principals.

"Sir, I really think we ought to stop," Jutes called.

"Tell the riggers to cut away the fabric of the envelope one frame ahead of the fire," she said, by way of reply.

"Which fire?" Jutes asked, a tinge of resigned irony in his voice.

"The big one."

"Which big one, sir?"

She looked up at him, and could see him haloed in red, illuminated from both sides by flickering light. She'd imagined the midships hit as something minor, but apparently it wasn't. "The front one," she said.

"Sir," he said, and relayed the order.

Overall there's a surprising sense of fun that the Napoleonic and alt-Napoleonic fiction I've met rarely indulges in, and I enjoyed this a great deal while still recognising its faults. Followed by By Fire Above.

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Series: Signal Airship | Next in series: By Fire Above

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