This is a familiar tale with a heavy feminist hand at times so not for every reader, but it is told wonderfully with courage, humor, and raw truth. At the heart, this is an account of the transition between treating women as precious objects and as real people capable of serving in war. I liked how the history of this alternate world is blended in, making it clear women in the military is both new, and older than any imagined, through the mention of an amnesty event where crossdressing women could become soldiers in truth rather than only by masquerade.
But don’t let me lead you to thinking this is a political diatribe, because it’s not. The argument is shown rather than told through a wonderful war romp that’s boots on the ground…or rather in the air…realistic. The story follows an airship captain, Josette Dupre, who was promoted for political reasons after making a dangerous, but necessary, choice that changed the course of a major encounter with the enemy. The general is determined to prove her a figurehead and idiot when he’s more aware of the glossed over accounts than the actual war, to the point that he ignores wise advice and claims victory when a rout is a better description.
Enter his nephew, Lord Bernat Manatio Jebrit Aoue Hinkal, or Bernie for short, who has run through his allowance yet again and is sent to join the army to make something of himself. He’s a fop and a wastrel, wholly bought into the propaganda, but he’s smart enough to recognize a low-level officer’s life will require more effort than he’s willing to expend. Agreeing with his uncle’s perception on the war and women wholeheartedly, he offers to spy on Josette instead.
Bernie is a complete idiot, persistently ignorant when any fool would have recognized the reality, a character type that will drive some readers nuts, but he’s not dumb…he’s just brainwashed. Annoying much of the time for sure, but that he would get his comeuppance, and that I looked forward to seeing it, couldn’t be denied. He’s in for a real education, and to his credit, once he opens his eyes, he’s willing, if not eager, to learn.
Josette is smart, fully aware of her situation both as a liability and a political toy. She marks Bernie’s purpose from the start, but also knows there’s nothing she can do about it. The best demonstration of the type of person she is comes in two parts: First, her reaction to all the publicity is both that any loyal soldier would have done the same and the hero worship is likely to cost her everything. Second, the way her crew signs on to a mission sure to ruin their reputations on a ship that is an experimental nightmare because they want to have her as their captain. That kind of loyalty is earned and immediately proves Josette to be the real thing. Then how she’s able to calculate the modifications to the ship and put together the military situation from a few clues cements the impression.
The description of the ship and how it worked (along with munitions and supplies) was lovingly provided, and I’ll admit my eyes glazed over right around the counting of the ship’s ribs, but that was the only time. I enjoyed the details almost as much as how I enjoyed the way Josette and her crew flew their airship. They sensed air currents, learned from breezes, identified risks from sounds, and knew where the flaws were in the design based on sound shifts and contradictions between what the ship did and what it could do. This made the airship come to life.
So…you might get the impression I really enjoyed this book, and if so, you’d be correct. It is, as I said at the start, a familiar story. What makes it worth the read is the lively character interactions, the description bringing not just the world but the whole military situation into focus, and the immersive qualities. If you like steampunk, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by not checking this one out.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley.