Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn BennisBy Fire Above (Signal Airship, #2) by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #2
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"All's fair in love and war," according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, "Nothing's fair except bombing those Vins to high hell."

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up the nation's military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum―only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

My Review:

By Fire Above is the direct sequel to last year’s absolutely awesome The Guns Above. If you enjoy your SF with a hint of steampunk, really snappy dialog and fantastic kick-ass heroines, The Guns Above might just be your jam. It certainly was mine.

That this is a direct sequel to the first book is a zeppelin-sized hint that this book makes no sense whatsoever without having read the first book first. Not only is that where the situation is setup, but it’s also the foundation of all of the important relationships that power this particular series.

By that I mean the all-important frenemy relationship between Captain Josette Dupre and the foppish spy/supernumerary Lord Bernat Hinkal. If you don’t know how they began, you can’t really understand what happens between them here.

In this world where airships are not merely blimps but actual weapons of war not dissimilar to naval ships, Josette Dupre is an anomaly. Women are barely tolerated in the Garnian Signal Corps. She’s not supposed to be a “real” officer, and she’s certainly not supposed to command either ships or men. That she has turned out to be the best captain in the Signal Corps provides no end of embarrassment, consternation, annoyance and downright obstructionism at every turn.

Josette has no idea how the game is played, and she’s no good at playing it. She just wants her ship back in the air and back in the fight. But most of the first half of By Fire Above is tangled up in all the ways that the powers that be try to prevent that from happening.

So Josette spends the first half of the story on the ground playing politics badly and dealing with personal relationships she has no clue about. What makes this part of the situation so incredibly messy is that her hometown of Durum was captured by the enemy Vinz at the end of The Guns Above, with her mother trapped inside. She is desperate to persuade someone, anyone, that Durum can and should be retaken.

To make matters more confusing, Lord Bernat, usually called Bernie, seems to be in love with her mother. While on the ground, Bernie’s older brother Roland begins courting Josette. The relationship between Bernie and Josette was messy enough before their romantic lives became so weirdly intertwined.

The part of this story that focuses on the neverending war between the Garnians and the Vinz is way more compelling, and once the ship lifts, the story moves into high gear. And then it really flies, headlong into danger, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and keeps pouring on more power until the absolutely wild conclusion.

And we’ll be back, and that’s the best thing of all.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adored The Guns Above. It was my first A+ review of 2017, and definitely made my Hugo ballot for the year – even if it wasn’t nominated.

So I had high hopes for By Fire Above. And those hopes turn out to have been a bit higher than the Mistral can actually fly. Which does not mean that I did not enjoy By Fire Above, or that it is not a good book and a great continuation to a marvelous story.

It just didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

This story flies highest when the ship is off the ground, even when Josette isn’t actually aboard her. The first part of By Fire Above is all on the ground. The Mistral is in tatters, Josette has to battle the quartermaster to scrounge parts, and she has to spend a lot of time biting her tongue.

Her side is losing the war. It is obvious to all of those fighting it, but to none of the aristocrats and fops back in the capital. It is axiomatic that generals fight the last war, not the current one. Garnia has not lost a war in over 3 centuries. None of the ruling class are able to wrap their tiny minds around the idea that just because it hasn’t happened before does not mean it can’t happen now – especially if that reputation is not backed up by well-trained boots on the ground and strong ships and crews in both the air and the sea. Garnia has been resting on its laurels for far too long, while the Vinz have lost too many times and are determined to win this time – and have the trained soldiers and top-notch equipment to make it not just possible, but downright likely.

A lot of what makes this book interesting is the relationship between Bernie and Josette, and so far at least, that relationship is not a romance and is not veering into “will they, won’t they” territory. Bernie is in love with Josette’s mother, and Josette is falling for Bernie’s brother. Whether those relationships are at least partially about dealing with their feelings for people they can’t have is anyone’s guess.

But Josette’s romantic life is certainly a distraction from her true calling as an airship captain, and her continuing battles against the bureaucracy to retain her rank, ship and crew. I found those battles in The Guns Above much more riveting than any digressions into Josette’s love life in By Fire Above.

However, Bernie’s character arc continues to fascinate. He began as a self-absorbed and self-confessed spy for the government, determined to bring Josette down by fair means or foul. But by the end of this book, he has both changed and not changed. He is still a fop, and he is still self-absorbed, although it feels like some of that is an act. He has also discovered that he has found a place where he belongs, whether because or in spite of the violence it requires. Underneath that overdressed exterior lurks the heart of a warrior, and Bernie is just as surprised as anyone to discover it.

One of the things that ties Josette and Bernie together, particularly in By Fire Above, is the way that both of their identities are shaken, and in completely different directions. On the one hand, Josette discovers that everything she knows about herself has been a lie. Whether those revelations will shake her in the present or the future are yet to be determined.

On the other hand, Bernie has spent his life, at least until he first boarded the Mistral, as an example of the dangers of being a second son. He had no purpose, no ambition, and nothing to spend his time on except wasteful frivolity. He was in danger of dying of boredom. Now he isn’t certain of who he is or what he is becoming, not to mention whether he’ll live to see the next morning – but he’s alive for every second of it. It may be the making of him. We’ll see.

The twists and turns of the battle to retake Durum kept me on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t just about war and fighting – so much of that story had a surprising amount of depth and resonance, and definitely set the stage for book 3. This series is clearly not over.

Amazingly, By Fire Above ends on both a bang and a whimper – even if that whimper is coming from the reader. I can’t wait for the next chapter in this saga, hopefully this time next year!

Review: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: The Guns Above by Robyn BennisThe Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Signal Airship #1
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The nation of Garnia has been at war for as long as Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupris can remember – this time against neighboring Vinzhalia. Garnia’s Air Signal Corp stands out as the favored martial child of the King. But though it’s co-ed, women on-board are only allowed “auxiliary” crew positions and are banned from combat. In extenuating circumstances, Josette saves her airship in the heat of battle. She is rewarded with the Mistral, becoming Garnia’s first female captain.
She wants the job – just not the political flak attached. On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat – a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. He’s also been assigned to her ship to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. When the Vins make an unprecedented military move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself to the top brass?

My Review:

The Guns Above is an absolutely fantastic steampunk/Military SF action adventure story. This is one of those stories where it’s science fiction mostly because it isn’t anything else. The only SFnal element is the “not our world” setting and, of course, the airships. Those marvelous airships.

But in its protagonist of Lieutenant Josette Dupre, we have an avatar for every woman who has had it drummed into her head that “in order to be thought half as good as a man she’ll have to be twice as good. And that lucky for her, that’s not difficult.” And we’ve all heard it.

And on my rather confused other hand, it feels like Josette Dupre is Jack Aubrey, which makes Bernat Hinkal into Stephen Maturin. I’m having a really difficult time getting my head around that thought, but at the same time, I can’t dislodge that thought either.

Yes, I promise to explain. As well as I can, anyway.

Lieutenant Dupre technically begins the story as an Auxiliary Lieutenant, because women aren’t permitted to be “real” officers. Or give orders to men. Or participate in battles. Or a whole lot of other completely ridiculous and totally unrealistic rules and regulations that seem to be the first thing thrown over the side when an airship lifts.

Dupre is being feted as the winner of the Garnians’ recent battle in their perpetual war with the Vinzhalians. A war which to this reader sounds an awful lot like the perpetual 18th and even 19th century wars between England and France. (Also the 14th and 15th centuries, better known as the Hundred Years’ War, because it was)

Who the war is with, and which side anyone is one, don’t feel particularly relevant, although I expect they will in the later books in this series that I am crossing my fingers for. What matters to the reader is that we are on Dupre’s side from beginning to end, against the Vinz, against the bureaucracy, against her commanding officer, against the entire world that is just so damn certain that she is incapable of doing the job she is manifestly so damn good at.

And we begin the book pretty much against Lord Bernat Hinkal, because his entire purpose on board Dupre’s ship Mistral is to write a damning report to his uncle the General, giving said General grounds for dismissing the first female captain in the Signal Corps. It doesn’t matter how much utter fabrication Bernat includes in his report, because whatever terrible things he makes up will be believed. There are plenty of reactionary idiots in the Army and the government who believe that women are incapable of commanding, therefore Dupre must be a fluke or a freak of nature or both.

The General is looking for ammunition to shoot down, not just Dupre, but the notion that the Garnians are losing their perpetual war, or at least running out of manpower to fight it, and that womanpower might possibly be at least part of the answer. But the General, like so much of the military hierarchy, is content to rest their laurels and their asses on the so-called fact that Garnia hasn’t lost a war in over three centuries, therefore they can’t be losing this one now.

The past is not always a good predictor of the future, especially when combined with the old truism that generals are always fighting the last war.

But what happens to Bernat, and to the reader, is that we follow in Dupre’s wake, observing her behavior, her doubts, her actions and her sheer ability to command not just her crew’s obedience but also its fear, its respect and even its awe. Dupre, whether in spite of or because of her so-called handicap of being female, is a commander that troops will follow into the toughest firefight – because she is their very best chance at getting to the other side alive – no matter how desperate the odds.

Dupre, her airship Mistral, and The Guns Above are all winners. The Garnian military hierarchy be damned.

Escape Rating A+: It’s obvious that I loved The Guns Above. I got completely absorbed in it from the very first page, and was reluctant to put it down at the end and leave this world behind. Dupre is a marvelous hero who has clear doubts and fears and yet keeps on going from one great thing to another. Part of what makes her fantastic is that she hears that still small voice inside all of us that says we’re faking it, but forces herself to keep going anyway. She exhibits that best kind of courage – she knows she’s terrified, but she goes ahead anyway. Because it’s her duty. Because she knows that, in spite of everything, she is the best person available for the job. Not that she’s the best person in the universe for it, she has way too much self-doubt for that, but that in that place and in that time she’s the best person available. And to quote one of my favorite characters from a much different universe, “Someone else might get it wrong.”

The way that this world is set up, and the way that the setting up proceeds, reminds me tremendously of the Aubrey/Maturin series by the late Patrick O’Brian. That series features a British naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars, along with the friend that he brings aboard his first (and subsequent) command. Like Dupre, Jack Aubrey is also a lieutenant in his first outing, called “Captain” by courtesy when aboard his rather small ship. As is Dupre. Also like the Aubrey series, there is a tremendous amount of detail about the ship and the way it is rigged and the way that the crew behaves. The reader is virtually dumped into a sea of lines and jargon, and it makes the setting feel real. In the O’Brian series it was real, and here it isn’t, but the feeling is the same, that this is a working ship and that this is the way it works.

Also the focus here, like in the O’Brian series, is on this battle and this action and this fight, not on the greater politics as a whole, most of the time. It feels like the Granians are England in this scenario, and the Vinzhalians, France. This is not dissimilar to the Honor Harrington series, where Honor is Jack, Manticore is England, and Haven is France. “This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.”

Dupre is only a resident of the halls of power when she is about to receive a dressing down, as is Jack Aubrey in the early days.

But the comparison of Aubrey to Dupre makes Bernat into Maturin, and it actually does work a bit. But where Maturin was a doctor and discovered a function aboard the ship early on, Bernat is rather different. He’s a spy for his uncle, and Dupre knows it. He also begins the journey as a completely useless supernumerary whose only task seems to be to foment small rebellions. Also he’s a complete fop and as out of place on a ship of war as fox in a henhouse. Until he gets every bit as caught up in the action as the reader.

The fascinating thing about Bernat is that he neither changes nor reforms. And yet he does. At the beginning of the story he’s a complete fop, more concerned about his dress, his drink and the quality of his food than he is about anything else, including the progress of the war. He believes what he has been taught. At the end of the story, he is still a fop. But his eyes and his mind have been opened. Partially by Dupre, and partially by the rest of the crew. And, it seems, partially by finding something that he is good at. Aboard the Mistral, he has a positive purpose. On land, only a negative one. And it changes his perspective while not changing his essential nature.

At least not yet. Finding out where he goes from here, along with what plan to be the wild gyrations of Dupre’s career, looks like it’s going to be fascinating. And I can’t wait.

The Guns Above has received my first A+ Review for 2017, and will definitely be on my “Best of 2017” list, along with my Hugo nominations next year. This book is absolutely awesomesauce.