The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

With The Gun Above, author Bennis takes the gravitas of Master and Commander naval warfare and gives it a steampunk spin. Those worried that the fantastical will overwhelm the story can be reassured that the plot is tight and with few ‘magical’ elements at all. In fact, this felt like a Sharpe’s Rifles type of story rather than a science fiction steampunk. But while the book doesn’t shy from the consequences of war, it really is all about the fighting. There’s very little character development and I had a hard time feeling anything for our two main leads. I am reminded of a Naomi Novik Temeraire novel – substituting dragons for dirigibles.

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Story: Josette Dupris has fought hard yet it is only through circumstances of war that she is given command of a new prototype ship – one that no one expects to survive a battle. To ensure that she doesn’t retain the captaincy long, her superior officer places his diletante and bored nephew on her ship as a spy – to spin doctor her actions and discredit her. What should have been great for the officer – hopefully and literally killing two birds with one stone – has the opposite effect. Josette proves herself time and again and his dissolute nephew is about to grow a backbone.

Most books of this type can be quite wordy and epic in scope – and I often wish for less rather than more (McClellan’s Powder Mage series comes to mind). The Guns Above feels like McClellan Lite – we’re put directly into the actions and then it is non-stop battles after that. Bennis doesn’t sugarcoat the characters and each has their own distinct personality issues – Josette lacking communication and social skills/Bernat being a spoiled, foppish dissolute of an aristocrat. Of course, the two come from very different worlds and will help each other rise above themselves.

Those expecting a romance need not worry – there is none in this book. The emphasis is on battles – and there are a lot. Bennis takes special care with each, describing in detail the deaths and consequence of Napoleonic-era type of ‘sea’ battles. Honestly, I found it a bit much but also appreciated that due care and consideration was given to all the technical aspects – from how the ships were constructed/weaknesses to the weapons and how they had to be fired. The fantastical made perfect sense with the historical and blended seamlessly.

If there is one off note, it would be that both Josette and Bennis spend most of the book in a ‘bromance’ (yes, she’s female) and trading quips. They are good zingers and very witty – droll humor at each other’s expense. But I’d rather have had character development and observations rather than endless amounts of battles interspersed with throwaway bon mots. I enjoy intelligent characters as much as the next person but it felt a bit overwritten and underwritten at the same time because the quips formed the basis of the main characters’ working relationship. I expect that will change with future novels, though.

In all, an enjoyable and mature naval warfare novel with a steampunk twist. I think Naomi Novick fans will enjoy the series but McClellan and O’Brien may want a bit more depth. The Guns Above is a fairly quick read and smoothly written. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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