RogerBW's Blog

Guns of the Dawn, Adrian Tchaikovsky 12 January 2016

2015 military fantasy. As the war between Lascanne and Denland drags on, the gentlewoman Emily Marshwic finds herself fighting on the front.

This is a fantasy that's aiming for a Napoleonic feel, but various small things come out just slightly off. The soldiers carry muskets fired by "arc-locks", which by the very limited description we get sounds rather like a wheellock ("the arc-lock spun and sparked and fire met the powder inside the chamber"), but there is a network of steam trains. That could be explained by an odd technological path, but then we find that an ensign is explicitly an officer rank, while a sergeant is superior to an ensign and you can get promoted from ensign to sergeant and then later to lieutenant.

The war itself is clearly intended to be vaguely Napoleonic, but there aren't any really huge set-piece battles; it's more of a blend of the First World War (there's a "big push" explicitly named) and Vietnam as seen in the films (small patrols moving through swamp and jungle and getting ambushed, and success measured by body count). There's mention of naval forces because you have to have those in a Napoleonic story, but the actual fighting is in two separate contested areas on the borders between the two countries, with no foreign possessions ever mentioned. The Levant front, where Emily spends much of the book, is basically an infantry fight (with a very few warlocks, imbued with the King's fire): there's no sign of cavalry or artillery, though they get mentioned briefly in other places. (And the muskets are usually referred to as "guns" even by experienced soldiers, which grated somewhat.)

After Emily's first engagement in chapter one, the next eleven chapters are flashback, showing how she got there. This is unfortunate in that it removes tension: when Emily makes a friend of a fellow recruit in chapter nine, we already know that that name is of someone who turned up dead in chapter one. This isn't foreshadowing or an impending sense of doom, it's just a weary realisation that this friendship can't last so could we get back to the point where it's ended and on with the story please?

I get the feeling that militaria don't really fall into Tchaikovsky's area of interest, and he'd rather be writing vaguely Thomas Hardy-ish, vaguely Regency novels of country life. The war is a necessary part of Emily's story but it all gets a bit fuzzy and cinematic. It's not a bad thing that Tchaikovsky is focused on the people, but the fuzziness is still a weak leg that makes the book feel lop-sided.

This book is about, not the war that takes up the majority of its pages, but Emily's progress from a relatively unremarkably country gentlewoman in reduced circumstances to an expert soldier who will take world-shaking action at the climax of the book. There's a love triangle (predictable once it's established), and meditation on the nature of heroism and reputation, not to mention how a war can get started and how bloody difficult it is to stop it. Even after one side has won.

It often feels like notes for the film; descriptions and conversations are sketched in and the narration hurries on to the next thing. That's not entirely bad (I'd often rather read an underwritten book than an overwritten one) but it did sometimes grate on me as I was reading. There isn't much to distract one from the main narrative, and this is enjoyable light reading, though a bit of a slender reed for some of the concepts it's asked to carry.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:38pm on 12 January 2016

    How does this deal with women in the military given the Napleonic feel? Is it normal, unusual but permitted (perhaps with social consequences), or is she disguised as a man?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:31pm on 12 January 2016

    Unusual but permitted: after many drafts of younger and younger men, there aren't any left, and so women get scraped up in the next draft. Our heroine is one of the first batch, and various adjustments have to be made.

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