While the crew cut wide beechwood fuses and hammered them into shells, Bernat quietly asked Josette, “Is this entirely safe?”

“May I remind you that you’re aboard an airship,” she said. “Nothing we do is entirely safe.”

He frowned. “I mean to say, where would we be if a stray spark set off one of these shells?”

She stared at him. “Technically speaking? We’d be in a lot of places. The surrounding woods and countryside, to begin with. If these winds hold up, parts of us might even make it to Halachia.”

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As Bernat watched another load of shells being carried down from the magazine, he said, “Well, I’ve always liked to travel.”

Josette Dupre is not your average Aerial Signal Corp soldier. For one thing, she’s a woman—and while there are several women enlisted in Garnia’s air force, they are still by far the minority. For another, Dupre has been an Auxiliary Lieutenant for more years than she cares to dwell on, watching others rise through the ranks—because of her gender, this is the highest role she can reach aboard an airship. Still, Josette fights the good fight; she’s at home in the air, she loves a smart fight, and is damn good at her job.

Everything changes, however, when her captain is killed mid-battle. Josette takes control of her ship, smothers the Vinzhalia ground forces, and saves the day. And as the Garnian King is wont for a PR victory, Josette finds herself both a lauded war hero in the papers and the recipient of an unprecedented promotion as the first female captain of an air ship in the Garnian Air Corp. (This is terrifying for Josette, as war heroes don’t last longer than a fortnight in the fickle realm of public opinion.)

Captain Dupre must go about the tricky business of assembling a new crew (many of whom question her every move), learning the intimate details of her new airship (why isn’t Mistral moving as fast as she should be?), and be combat-ready for the next inevitable skirmish with the Vins (battle status: never-ending). To further complicate matters, there’s also the frustrating presence of Lord Bernat Hinkal, the dandy aristocratic nephew of General Fieren, assigned to the Mistral as an “observer” (read: spy).

When the Vins press a surprise offensive, Josette, Bernat, and the Mistral are Garnia’s best hope--if Josette can keep her ship and crew in line long enough to execute a strategic counter-attack and save the day.

The debut novel from Robyn Bennis, The Guns Above is fast-paced flintlock fantasy with brash characters, a heaping dose of black humor, and all the airship battle scenes a girl could ever ask for. In plain words: I loved this book. Part of my infatuation may be because this was the exact perfect book, at the exact perfect time--The Guns Above is the kind of swashbuckling war novel that begs to be read on a late summer afternoon (I don’t know about you, but sunsets and dirigibles are an ideal pairing in my book). But to reduce the joy of Josette and Bernie’s (mis)adventures to a “right place, right time” argument is unjust, for Bennis’s debut is deftly entertaining on so many levels.

On the characterization front, Captain Josette Dupre is the all-star in this book as the trailblazing hard-nosed captain who cares deeply for her ship and struggles to find the right cadence of leadership with her crew. Rapid ascents to power are great and all, but if you can’t manage or inspire those beneath you, what good is the title? Josette grapples with the balance of inspiring courage and fear on her ship; she deals with everyone questioning her decisions. She’s an unstable madwoman hungry for battle, or a scared and overly-cautious mouse of a captain--either way, she faces people who inherently distrust her orders. I appreciated the examination of this and that Bennis doesn’t resort to didactic or reductive reasoning for these questions. While sexism plays an important thematic role in this book, the relationship that Dupre builds with her crew is nuanced and layered, folding in questions of war ethics and the realities of battle.

Similarly, the other protagonist in this book was a complete surprise—Lord Bernat, or Bernie to those close to him, is a hoot. We are first introduced to the remarkably self-absorbed Bernie as he is trying to swindle money out of his uncle, the General, in order to support his self-admittedly foppish lifestyle. Suffice it to say, dear readers, the initial impression of Lord Bernat isn’t great. He then goes on to the Mistral as a spy, sent to debunk Captain Dupre by writing up missives of her ineptitude as a woman and leader, which will be used as ammunition against her with the newspapers and Garnian armed forces at the request of his General uncle. Bernie is excessive and sneaky and ridiculous--but even early in the book, there are glimmers of a real person underneath his facade of cluelessness. Bernie can read people--and yes that might be a skill developed in card games, but he puts his abilities to use aboard the Mistral for the first time in his life. Somehow, Bernie becomes more real as a character and endears himself to the crew, including Josette—and to readers.

And beyond the characters, there are all of the battle scenes! I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the awesomeness of the many battle scenes. There are beautifully written montages and action sequences, detailing the intensity and danger of fights aboard big ships of flammable gas. Bennis has a knack for making realistic, engineer-detailed battle scenes fun (in fact, reading a lot of these scenes put me in the mind of classic submarine war movies—it’s pretty much the same instant-death-if-you-make-a-mistake scenario).

Like I said, I loved this book. If you’re in the mood for peril on the high skies, a swashbuckling pirate of a captain, and an unlikely sidekick, The Guns Above is for you.

In Book Smugglers, 8 Garnian air screws out of 10.