Guns of the Dawn, originally published in 2015 in hardback and ebook, with a paperback version due on November 1, 2016, is my favorite fantasy that I’ve read this year … and I read a lot of fantasy.
The story begins in media res, as gentlewoman Emily Marchwic fights her first battle in muggy, oppressive swamplands, as a new conscript in the Lascanne army. There’s a brief, inconclusive battle with their enemies, the Denlanders, who are almost impossible to see in the impenetrable murk until they are upon her and her friend Elise. Emily, shocked to the core by her up-close contact with death and killing, flounders away with her unit when they retreat, leaving dead on both sides behind in the swamp.
From here we flash back three years, to when the war between the countries of Lascanne and Denland first began. Their long alliance fractured when the king of Denland and his family are killed in an uprising that becomes a revolution. With their royal family exterminated, the Denlanders form a parliamentary government, but then word passes around Lascanne that the Denlanders, now intent on remaking other countries in their republican image, are invading Lascanne. A protracted, bitter war begins, and the King of Lascanne begins drafting men from every household to join the army.
Emily Marshwic lives with her siblings Mary, Alice and Rodric, and Mary’s husband Tubal and their son, on the Marshwic country estate. Though they are minor gentry, the Marshwics have been living in reduced circumstances since their father committed suicide after a succession of business failures. First Tubal joins the army, sinking his savings into a lieutenant’s badge, and then Rodric, with patriotic fervor, joins as soon as he turns the minimum age of fifteen. By that time all able-bodied men are being drafted into the Lascan army, with a few exceptions like the Mayor-Governor of their town, the dour, clever Mr Northway, whose underhanded dealings contributed to the suicide of Emily’s father. Despite their years-long bitter feud with Northway, Emily visits him to beg him to spare her brother from the army. Her pleas are in vain, although Mr Northway begins paying Emily some rather unwelcome attention, along with supplying her household with more welcome supplies of food to stave off wartime shortages.
The war drags on, becoming increasingly desperate, and eventually the King’s messages proclaim that each household is now required to supply one woman for the army. Unlike other wellborn ladies of Lascanne, Emily feels it’s her duty to go, rather than appoint a servant in her place. So Emily joins the army, after one last fraught meeting with Mr Northway. A few weeks of rather ineffective boot camp, and Emily is sent off to the swamps of the Levant front, thrown into battle with other unprepared recruits, hit with the reality of how hellish being in the midst of war really is. Emily finds refuge in her friendships with a few of the other women and with the members of the “Survivor’s Club” in their camp, including her brother-in-law Tubal and Giles Scavian, an attractive young warlock she had once met at a party. Most unexpectedly, Emily finds some comfort in her correspondence with Mr Northway. Between his clear-eyed cynicism and refusal to lie to her, and Emily’s experiences on the battle front, Emily begins to question this war with Denland. The swamps of the Levant aren’t the only thing that’s murky. Truth becomes a valuable and increasingly rare commodity.
While Guns of the Dawn focuses mainly on Emily’s wartime experiences ― and make no mistake, this is frequently grim and gritty reading ― it also deals with politics, friendship, family relationships, and romance. Adrian Tchaikovsky has created several well-rounded characters. People often surprise you in this novel, revealing unforeseen depths to their personalities as we get to know them better, and as their experiences change their views and priorities. Emily Marshwic has some similarities to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, and Tchaikovsky has commented in an interview that Emily’s “bureaucratic nemesis Mr Northway is very much a Mr Collins homage.” Perhaps my memory of Pride and Prejudice fails me, or Tchaikovsky is thinking on a far more subtle level than I am, but the cold, corrupt and ambitious Northway is so much more intelligent and self-aware than Mr Collins that I find it difficult to see substantial similarities between them. Most surprising to me was that Northway unexpectedly becomes a sympathetic person, despite his many character failings. His attraction to Emily compels him to make adjustments to his life:
‘But do not cast so much blame my way, Miss Marshwic, for I do what I can. What would you do if all you could accomplish were little evils to ward off worse?’
‘You have not scrupled at little evils previously, I think,’ she said, but her tone was not as harsh as before.
‘But those were for my own good,’ he told her, and a ghost of his smile returned. ‘Now I am soiling my soul for others, and it does not sit half so well with me.’
‘You are candid, Mr Northway.’
‘I have always spoken the truth with you, Miss Marshwic,’ he said. ‘Possibly because I so enjoy your expressions of outrage.’
There’s a limited amount of magic in the world of Guns of the Dawn, which doesn’t touch most people in their day-to-day lives. Muskets and swords are their primary weapons in battle, but the soldiers are aided by warlocks who are magically gifted with powerful flame-throwing abilities ― highly useful in war! ― that they received from the touch of the king of Lascanne. There are also a few glimpses of non-human races, particularly the small native indigenes who live in the Levant swamps, understood and appreciated by only a very few humans.
The publisher describes Guns of the Dawn as a “pseudo-Napoleonic historical fantasy adventure,” but that only scratches the surface. This novel is set in a fantasy world roughly equivalent to 18th century Europe, in the early industrial age, but the quasi-British society has more of a Regency-era atmosphere, while the political aspects echo bits of the American and English civil wars. The battlefield scenes and military elements call to mind variously the Napolean wars, the French Revolution, the Vietnam war, World War I and World War II. Using this grab-bag of European military and social history, and adding to it a touch of magic, vivid imagination and insightful writing, Adrian Tchaikovsky has assembled an engrossing, enchanting novel. This is one stand-alone novel that makes me deeply hope for a sequel.