By Fire Above, by Robyn Bemis, Tor
In this sequel to The Guns Above, Robyn Bemis continues the steampunk adventures of a woman airship captain. Once again, Josette Dupree, captain of His Majesty’s Signal Airship Mistral, along with her intrepid crew and not-so-intrepid supercargo, aristocrat Lord Bernat Hinkal, have been given an impossible mission: with glamorous but woefully inadequate repairs to the airship, she is to play a largely ceremonial role at the capital city. None of the real damage the airship sustained in the last batter has been repaired, including the “steamjack” engines. The bags are filled not with expensive, inert luftgas but explosive “flammable air,” a very bad combination with an engine apt to throw off sparks. Needless to say, Josette is unprepared for the courtly intrigues into which she is suddenly propelled (and with which Bernat, who grew up in such a milieu, is happy to reverse roles and become her guide). In the air, conducting a battle in three dimensions, Josette is as cunning as she is courageous. But thrown into the viper’s nest of courtiers or forced to face her own romantic feelings for Bernat’s brother, she finds herself all too fallible.
Josette has no intention of becoming a trophy hero and soon maneuvers to lead a mission to free the border state where her estranged mother (and Bernat’s lover) lives. From there, one mishap after another balloons (excuse the pun) into disaster.
As in the first adventure, I was impressed by the detailed construction of the airships, as well as the scientific (hooray for physics and chemistry!), mathematical, and engineering principles involved, as well as the strategies when battles are fought in three dimensions (up/down as well as side/side and forward/backward). The action sequences were breathtaking. My reservation, as before, pertains to the creation of a political geography so akin to Western Europe that it made no sense to not use the actual nationalities and thereby avoid reader confusion with made-up names and cultures. That reservation aside, I heartily recommend the series and hope to see more Josette’s unfolding stories (and I expect to see her, like Horatio Hornblower, become admiral one day).