Air ships overhead,
A generations-old war,
On the ground: Mother.
This sequel to last year’s The Guns Above is as spectacularly good as its predecessor. Josette Dupre, captain of the signal airship Mistral, is still contending with boneheaded orders, chronic lack of supplies, and criminally inept politicians. Her crew is recovering from their last mission, at least the survivors are; among them Ensign Kember, who gets to experience the comfort and joy of a military hospital when a wound turns septic. For better or for worse, Lord Bernat Hinkal also survived, so he and Dupre can continue their sniping conversations.
Mistral is too damaged to return to action, so she is gussied up with surface repairs and sent on a diplomatic mission to inspire allies, awe anyone sitting on the loyalty fence, intimidate the enemy and possibly woo some concessions from the enemy’s ambassador. Unfortunately, the ambassador proves to be more savvy than the advisors who conceived this mission, and he sees through the paint and glamour to the underlying reality of desperation.
Dupre is a straightforward person, so when she has to behave diplomatically she is badly out of her depth; she simply does not know the languages of gesture, nuance, clothing, glances, laughter, and obeisance that are de riguer at a court. Bernat has his hands full tutoring her and massaging her conversational gambits with nobility. To Bernat’s intense chagrin, the person he despises most in the world shows up and offers to help his efforts of turning his captain into a courtier. As they repeatedly explain to Dupre, if she just plays her part she can finally get the Mistral properly outfitted for war. Surely a little dancing, a few strategic moues, perhaps a simper, and maybe a dalliance are a small price to pay!
Then the war comes to the oft-disputed town where Dupre was born, where her mother still resides. It’s not as if she likes her mother, but love is a funny thing: you don’t have to actually like the person to be willing to risk your life to save her.
Bennis excels at the art of following the ball of “What could possibly go wrong, and how could things get any worse?” Repeatedly I asked myself these questions, and each time the answer was a fresh spin, a more tortuous twist. As a lover of snarky dialogue, I was kept entertained throughout; as an aficionado of age-of-sail literature, I was intrigued by descriptions of naval action on an airship; and as an admirer of strong characters I was delighted by Dupre’s competence.
The quality of this series is as good as the best Napoleonic-era naval fiction. Chris Wozney
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