GUNS OF THE DAWN by ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY
HB, 658 pages, Tor
After the success of the ten-volume insectiod extravaganza of the Shadows of the Apt series, Adrian Tchaikovsky has turned towards more human concerns in Guns of the Dawn, a hefty stand-alone flintlock fantasy.
When the war came, it came first for Emily Marshwic’s brother-in-law. Then it came for her little brother. And now the war has come for Emily.
Emily Marshwic, a woman of good standing, who has kept her family together in the aftermath of her father’s suicide, must take up her musket and her father’s duelling pistols in defence of the realm of Lascanne. The war sweeps her from the ballrooms of manor houses to the swamps of the notorious Levant front, where a ragged line of red-and-white is all that stands between Lascanne and the republican Denlanders who are threatening to overwhelm the country.
Or so Emily believes, at first. But lie piles upon lie and while she finds trust and friendship with her comrades in arms at the front, behind the scenes political machinations could spell disaster for all of them.
Sometimes it’s hard, when you feel obliged to provide a star rating for a book. From the beginning, while perfectly decent, Guns of the Dawn was hovering around four stars. It’s a pretty linear narrative, enlivened at the beginning of the chapters with extracts from the correspondence between Emily, away at the front, and her stay-at-home frustrated admirer Mr Northway. It’s an easy read, deceptively simple, but the story draws you in until you suddenly find you’re rooting desperately, not just for righteous, courageous, stubborn Emily, but for everyone around her. For me it was the point where one of the secondary characters died so nobly, so beautifully and painfully, that the book tipped over into five stars and never lost its hold over me from that point onwards.
The fantasy elements are slight but they are there – warlocks, touched and empowered by the hand of the King of Lascanne, are the secret weapon of Emily’s army, and the fire they wield is terrifying in battle, and even more terrifying when duelling warlocks turn against each other. The people of Lascanne have their magic, and their fabled cavalry, but the Denlanders have patience. And they have machines of war the world has never seen before…
The best comparison I have been making is that Guns of the Dawn is like Elizabeth Bennett dropped into the middle of the Crimean War, but it’s more than that. The festering swamps of the Levant, the mist and the fear, feel more like a Vietnam movie than anything else, and Tchaikovsky (an experienced re-enactor, and by gosh that comes in handy here!) seems to draw on every major conflict from the Crimean to Afghanistan, the English Civil War to Syria, for his background. The nature of fighting might change, but war on the ground is the same immutable hell as it has always been.
And even when Emily returns from the Levant Front, her war is not quite over…
The ending is perfect. I cried, then I hugged the book, then I wanted to read it all over again.
It’s – what, not quite the end of February? – and Guns of the Dawn is already a strong contender for my Book of The Year. Absolutely brilliant. You need to read it.
*Disclaimer – I was sent a free copy of this book by the publishers in exchange for an honest review.