This was deeply satisfying read. It’s a flintlock fantasy that I first heard about from Karina of Karina Reads and that appeared on Dragons and Zombies’ list of Flintlock Fantasy recommendations. I first started reading it last year, then put it to one side for something else (so fickle!) before starting it again this year and binge reading it in a couple of days.
But you don’t really need to know any of that …
What you do need to know is that this is absolutely worth picking up. It’s got great characters, an involved and engaging plot and great writing. The story follows Emily Marshwic, a gentlewoman of good family whose country, Lascanne, is at war with its neighbour, Denland. And of course they’re winning the war, but after taking all the volunteers, and then the conscripts – first the healthy ones and then the slightly too young and the slightly too old – well, then the draft comes for the women. And after forty days’ training Emily goes to war.
The war is happening on two fronts: the Couchant, where the much lauded cavalry of Lascanne expects to decimate the enemy with traditional tactics; and the Levant, a swampland in which none of the usual rules of war seem to be effective. (Side note: couchant and levant are both heraldic terms that apply to animals, couchant meaning to lie down and levant meaning to rise up; this is Very Interesting). Emily goes to the Levant front, following both her brother-in-law and younger brother. This landscape is as much an enemy as the Denlanders are and Tchaikovsky’s writing makes the damp, sticky heat, the vicious wildlife and the rotting, stinking, clinging, muddy, foggy atmosphere palpable. He captures too the utter confusion of chasing one another through the undergrowth taking pot-shots and trying to keep in formation and not lose one’s bearings in a landscape in which none of these manoeuvres make any sense.
“It seems to me that we surely must have done more than simply travel to reach this place. We must have undertaken some more fundamental journey to some dreadful spirit world.
If all that separates this terrible place from home is mere distance, then we are lost.”
Which all sounds a bit bleak doesn’t it? Yet it’s also a story of strong friendships and camaraderie, of the need for peace, and of our ability to make light of ourselves and each other in the worst of situations. There’s a well struck balance between the dreadful realities of war and the humanity of those fighting it. And the story is driven inexorably onwards by two things: our need to find out the truth (in a number of ways), and Emily’s transformation.
A good third of the book is devoted to Emily’s everyday life and experiences before her arrival at the Levant front. We are introduced to her when she is still a gentlewoman for whom doors are opened and things are carried. She and her sisters Mary and Alice live in their much reduced ancestral pile, Grammaine, doing all the things that even impoverished gentlewomen do – taking food and medicine to tenants, running errands in town, doing the household accounts, dealing with correspondence, maybe even buying a new dress on occasion. Waiting for news from their menfolk away at war. And Mary has a baby to look after, Alice seems to live half-in/half-out of a fantasy world in which every man is potentially her tall, dark stranger, and Emily has only her absolute loathing for Mr Northway (beloved enemy and hated friend) to keep her going, which she exercises regularly. Cristan Northway is the evil Mayor-Governor of Chalcaster and she takes every opportunity to visit him in his office and harangue him about his latest injustices, whatever they may be. Until she takes the draft. Then all that energy gets redirected into learning how to fight and shoot a musket and not die. And Emily is good at it. Not superhumanly good at it or anything like that, she just knuckles down and does the job and manages to not die a lot and she listens and she thinks and her once black and white world becomes every shade of grey. But she survives. By the end of the book, her whole world has been overturned, and the reader’s too.
Now my biggest problem with books like this one, books I’ve really enjoyed, is that I want to give away all the good stuff because I’m excited and I want everyone to love the book as much as I have. And the only way I’ve found so far to enthuse without spoiling everything is to list all my favourite things, without explaining any of them. I realise this isn’t really any good for anybody reading this, and I am sorry, but it’s too much fun not to do it. So, my favourite things, in no particular order, are: The Survivor’s Club; Emily’s relationship with her brother-in-law Tubal; Mallen the tracker; Brocky and Angelline (oh my, all the hearts!!); the wizards’ duel; the Indigenes; the hide-and-seek solution; the Denlander’s ‘magic’ guns; the army humour (our father was army and we grew up with stories of this sort of thing); Doctor Carlingswife (ha!); and the Bad Rabbits, Dead Cats and Fat Squirrel.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.
At six-hundred odd pages long, Guns of the Dawn is a brick of a book, but it’s gripping and there’s not too much dawdling. Maybe Emily could think a bit quicker on occasion, but that’s all. It’s a book chock full of great characters (with only one cartoon cut-out amongst them – yeah, looking at you Colonel Resnic, you knob), and because of that it’s warm and funny, heart-rending and numbing, and, above all, recognisable. It’s got a lot to say about national personalities, and the price of knowledge (because you can’t un-know a thing), and that moment in time when everything rests on a knife edge.
This was my first Tchaikovsky. The idea of starting on a ten-book series by an author I’d no experience of wasn’t very tempting, despite the good things I’d heard about The Shadows of the Apt. Now I’m a lot more willing. And I’m not super keen on looooooooong series – so I hope that gives you an idea how much I enjoyed this book.