Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Reviewed by J. D. Popham

By Fire Above, the latest novel by Robyn Bennis, is not the adventure story it deserved to be. This is a hard thing to say as I quite enjoy the irreverent and slightly manic quality the author brings to her stories. Sadly, while there are passages in Fire that work well, the book as a whole is sufficiently weighed down by its flaws that it struggles to stay airborne. 

Fire is the second novel in Bennis' Signal Airship series, a steampunk offering centered around protagonist Josette Dupre, captain of the airship Mistral. Bennis' first novel, The Guns Above, followed Dupre's trial by fire as the first woman to command a combat airship. Her need to prove herself and gain her crew's confidence as captain provided that book's primary source of dramatic tension. At the close of The Guns Above, Dupre's command bone fides are established, both with her crew, and the Ganarian Kingdom's high command. Even the enemy Vin, awed by her heroics, refer to both Dupre and the Mistral as "The Shark". 

By Fire Above begins where Guns left off, aboard the battered Mistral in the aftermath of the first novel's climactic battle. It's a tricky starting point. The dramatic energy and tension, expended in battle just ended, are at low ebb. The wounded Mistral and her depleted crew head back behind the lines for refit, replacements and some much deserved R&R. Spare parts shortages and logistic snarls delay the Mistral's return to combat, forcing Captain Dupre to spend her time attending galas, rubbing elbows and playing politics with Ganria's upper crust, and dallying romantically. Despite two ship-board incidents inserted to boost the tempo of its early chapters, the first half of By Fire Above drags badly.

Even in the absence of action sequences, the nuanced shadow play of high-stakes political intrigue is endemic to seats of power during wartime. This should have provided ample edge-of-your-seat story telling opportunities. Unfortunately, in By Fire Above, Bennis never really engages their potential. In large part, this is Josette Dupre's fault.

In order to convince us of the captain's badass bone fides, Bennis continually resorts to dumbing-down the other inhabitants of her steampunk world. At times this is such a naked device I'm reminded of Spengo, the planet of idiots from Mom and Dad Save the World.  Faced with the kingdom's political and social elites Dupre yawns her way through one political or social confrontation after another, either deflating or overawing imperial aristocrats and bourgeoisie, according to the needs of the plot, with unrealistic aplomb. Amusing at first, this device quickly becomes tedious. By hobbling Dupre's supposedly dangerous political opponents in order to make the Captain appear formidible, Bennis jettisons much needed opportunities to inject dramatic tension and narrative velocity into the story. 

Absent drama from Fire's political intrigue, Bennis is forced to keep the reader engaged by playing for laughs. But humor and the odd dallop of pathos (particularly when so much of the humor depends on her lead characters smirking and rolling their eyes) aren't enough to sustain By Fire Above through the novel's early chapters.       

Finally, in chapter eight, Dupre and the Mistral depart the capital to besiege the city of Durum, occupied by the enemy Vin, and the story gradually picks up much needed steam. While Durum has no strategic value, it's Dupre's home town and her mother and assorted friends are trapped there. In order to free them, Dupre has convinced the King of Ganaria that the city is only lightly defended: a perfect training mission for a newly minted army division (jokingly referred to as the Fearless Fops) in need of 'blooding'. The Mistral accompanys the mission, only to find that Dupre's intelligence as to the defenders' strength is on the unreliable side. Hijinks ensue.

This is where Bennis seems most comfortable, and where the steampunk world she's created comes to life. The city provides a well drawn backdrop for the book's second act, and its siege is a marvelous set piece with many moving parts. Shifting her point of view between Dupre, aristocratic second son Bernat, and young Ensign Kember, Bennis deftly shows the parts off in detail while keeping the larger action moving at a brisk and steadily rising tempo.

Even here, though, Bennis' characters and plot often ring false. She repeatedly breaks through the belivability envelope in order to push the plot forward, or to deliver Dupre and her companions from disaster. Events hinge too often on characters acting against character, or wildly improbable strokes of luck becoming unaccountably probable, causing the story to lose its natural flow and become forced. Fortunately, the brisk pace of events Bennis maintains in the second half of the book are sufficient to keep the story aloft.

Bernat, the preening aristocrat, largely delivered comic relief in The Guns Above. He begins By Fire Above in much the same vein, but as the book moves from the capital city to the front Bennis begins adding depth to his character. Indeed, by the end of the book Bernat is in many ways becoming more interesting than the tin-typed Dupre, who has gained scar tissue from the adventure, but little by way of wisdom or insight. Indeed, during By Fire Above's denouement, Bernat shows himself the wiser of the two, and gets the book's best line in the bargain.

Ensign Kember's character ends By Fire Above much as she began it: primarily a vehicle for reflecting Josette Dupre's brilliance. Despite negligence on Dupre's part that puts Kember and the Mistral in avoidable peril (and could result in the ensign's court martial on capital charges) her hero worship remains undimmed. It will be interesting to see whether, should the series continue, she will cease to see her captain through rose tinted aeronaut goggles and move past the role of dutiful side-kick.

When all is said and done, By Fire Above is bouyed up despite its flaws by the irrepressable sense of fun Bennis brings to her writing. It's a quality that will allow many readers to ignore (or at least quickly forget) the smoke and occasional clanking eminating from the steampunk engine room, and simply enjoy the airship ride. In the current science fiction and fantasy zeitgeist, fun action-adventure stories are often dismissed as 'pulp' fiction: comfort food written by lesser writers for lesser readers. Happily, Robyn Bennis doesn't read those memos.

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