I enjoyed the first novel in this steampunk series, and By Fire Above offers an interesting follow. While it does not repeat the situations of the first, it is both true to the feel and holds similar themes. The characters retain their personalities, even Bernie who continues to be an amusing idiot at times but an endearing one. It’s rife with dangerous battles and perilous escapades. In fact, you’re tossed into the thick of it from the start with the Mistral limping to port heavily damaged after a battle.
The original cast has some replacements due to the costs of war, and others, like Kemper, step into a larger role. Kemper’s mettle is tested in ways no ensign should have to endure. Both her gender and the biased first officer assigned to the Mistral set her in positions where no decision is a good one. She’s only one example of a crew member stepping up, if the main one, and it’s nice to see the possibilities expanding. This is especially true because of how Kemper makes independent decisions, knowing what Dupre would do, but sometimes choosing her own way.
Don’t mistake my appreciation for Kemper’s story as a sign Captain Dupre has been pushed to the side, however. She and Bernie remain the main stage for a story that begins with the illogical nature of court and politics, and ends up with betrayal in the wind. There is trouble no matter where Dupre sets her feet.
Take a moment to imagine Captain Dupre at court. Yes, it is every bit as problematic and amusing as you think. It is taken one step further by the rivalry between Bernie and his brother, who is the heir by order of birth, not value…at least according to Bernie. Interestingly, Dupre and Bernie are not set up as a potential couple, though they’re mired in each other’s love life. They have a strong bond in any case. Otherwise, Dupre would not have been able to tolerate him at all, especially as he tries to educate her on negotiating the contrary loyalties and personalities found in politics.
Bernie is true to his nature. He’s still full of himself, lacking a true sense of ship-life, and bewildered by the crew’s treatment of him. At the same time, he’s loyal to a fault and willing to take risks no one of his station should be. Despite his character flaws, I can’t help but like him.
The novel has a good number of startling twists, all of which are grounded in what we know. This is even true for the last twist, one which caused me a little annoyance, not because it wasn’t true to the characters, but because I disagreed with the captain’s choice. I was involved with the characters and engaged by the tale all the way through. This is not an airbrushed version of war, maintaining the foot soldier viewpoint. This meant there were a good number of hard spots to manage, but I appreciate the realism over a prettified version where no one is ever hurt or makes the wrong call.
Ultimately, By Fire Above is a solid sequel to the first, offering a look at prejudice and bias from several perspectives, and not always the ones you’d expect, either. The story is strong, the underlying themes are incorporated well, and the characters are delightful and annoying in turn, just as they should be.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.