This is a new novel, published in May 2017, but it feels old because it's as pulp adventure as it gets and debuting author Robyn Bennis plays it in tried and true riproaring manner. It's the first in a series of books about a lady named Josette Dupre who, soon into this book, finds herself the first airship captain in the history of Garnia.
That sounds pretty cool, right? Well, it's a curse in diguise, courtesy of a clever move by General Lord Fieren. In Garnia, women are allowed to serve in the military but can't occupy command positions, so Lt. Dupre has been stuck at the highest rank she can hold for a decade. And then, through a quick set of circumstances that she only half remembers, she goes and turns the entire tide of a battle by doing something pivotal and unexpected with an airship.
Suddenly she's a media sensation and the general has a hard decision to make about what to do with her. He decides to promote her to captain and give her a ship of her own, but a new one, an experimental one with all sorts of cool new technologies that are not yet tested in the field. He can accept all the credit for being progressive and not be at fault in the slightest when the ship crashes somewhere and rids him of the problem in the process.
And, just in case the woman proves infuriatingly capable enough to keep this new deathtrap in the air, he requires her to be accompanied by an observer, his fop of a nephew, Lord Bernat Hinkal. Of course, the latter is given the quiet task of reporting back on every incompetence he can find, which he'll do frequently in detail. Either way, the problem will solve itself. She will surely fail and probably do it in spectacular reportable fashion.
The catch for him, of course, is that Dupre is the latest in a long line of heroines who aren't going to be easily disposed of. She's very experienced, having learned everything there is to learn during a decade aboard airships. She's also willing to think outside the box, which gives her a good chance of surviving whatever will inevitably go wrong on the Mistral.
And, of course, plenty goes wrong. It isn't just the new ship, which she has to figure out in a set of trial flights, making adjustments as needed, major or minor. It's also the fact that these trials take place in the exact part of the kingdom where the enemy is about to open up a second front. It could be that this is deliberate on the part of General Lord Fieren but I doubt it as he doesn't seem to believe that there could be a second front. I think he just wanted her out of the way to crash and burn quietly during trials.
As with every other tough female lead in a pulp adventure novel like this, Dupre lives to frustrate the efforts of others to kill her off, because she has the glorious triumvirate of acute competence, sheer bloodymindedness and the power of convenience on her side. For three-hundred-plus pages, she does everything she needs to, which surprises the men in her world far more than it ever surprises us. There's nothing at all to surprise us but there's lots to enjoy about how we get to where we know we'll end up.
Bennis is an excellent writer of pulp fiction. Not only can she write prose that invites us to keep reading at pace (I finished this entire book during a single bath), she knows exactly how to handle action without losing us in the technical details but also gives the impression that she spent ten years on an airship herself and knows the thing inside out. Probably the greatest achievement here is in how she finds all those ever-elusive balances between plot and character, action and technical detail, coincidence and deliberate consequence. The result is a peach of a cliffhanger serial in novel form.
I also appreciated how she maps out Lord Bernat Hinkal's growth arc. Mostly, characters here grow very little, because they're all there for a reason and that isn't growth. They do grow together a little as a new crew would during trials and tribulations, let alone outright armed conflict, but none of the crew really end the book any different to how they started it. Similarly, a new captain grows a little as she comes to terms with command, but Dupre has little more growth than her crew. It was always going to be Hinkal who grew, because he came in under false assumptions and has to learn who everyone is, really, including himself. Bennis handles this well.
I really have very little negative to say here beyond the traditional issues of the genre, like that predictability and lack of character growth. Some of the best pulp authors who ever put pen to paper suffered from the exact same issues, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Robert E. Howard. That their work is as enjoyable now as it was in their day comes down to other criteria of being a good writer and Robyn Bennis fits amongst their number.
It's not surprising to see a quote from David D. Levine praising this novel on its inside flap, because the closest to this that I've read lately is his Arabella of Mars trilogy. Both that series and this feature throw a capable female lead into a misogynistic world that thrives on anachronistic tech. In Levine's series, it's an alternate history of space; here, it's an imagined world that's similar to ours in the past had technology moved in a different direction. Both will appeal to steampunks and fans of period adventure.
Also like Levine's Arabella of Mars, this is no standalone novel. It claims to be the first in a series labelled Signal Airship and the second book, By Fire Above, was released last year. I look forward to tracking it down and drawing another long bath. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by Robyn Bennis click here