Guns of the Dawn is a stand-alone fantasy novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s got some interesting DNA, putting together one part Jane Austen, one part Sharpe, and one part steampunk-magic, to create a delicious genre fusion which really is greater than the sum of its parts.
I’ve enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s work before; his Children of Time was one of the standout sci-fi novels of 2015. In this novel, however, we’re worlds away from the soaring heavens of that book – mired instead in the steaming swamps of a gunpowder war, and the socially confining settings of the ballroom and the manor house. As the book begins, our protagonist is a relatively privileged member of the nobility, in a nation slightly below the cusp of industrialisation. Her position of privilege is clear to the reader – and to the character herself, if to a somewhat lesser extent. As brothers and sons march away to war, her initial concerns centre on an old family enemy, blamed for the suicide of her father. There’s a lot of verbal sparring here, and the author wraps it up in the tropes and context of a novel of manners. There’s dancing, discussion of marriages, and a good deal of familial bickering. But it’s surrounded by a world which is undergoing a convulsive shift in paradigm. Tchaikovsky shows us a monarchy in conflict, entering a total war for the first time, against what it regards as an ideologically venomous enemy – in this case a Republic. The provincial area that we see through the protagonists eyes is just that – loyal, rural, with a way of doing things which has been shaped over generations.
This part of the world shifts gradually throughout the narrative, as droves of working men are sent to a war far longer than anyone anticipated, as far fewer come back injured, in body and mind, and as women begin to be drafted into the conflict. The seemingly cohesive social tapestry, held together by convention, is shown up as increasingly threadbare as the economy of the nation teeters on the edge of a precipice. It’s all wonderfully done – the decline in the nation being viewed through the eyes of the protagonists’s family, evoking an atmosphere of gentility, adversity, and…well, occasional flat-out wrongheadedness.
Running in parallel, there’s the war – the very thing causing all the social issues. We get something of a ground view of the war, our protagonist being drafted in as a foot soldier. Over the course of the text, there’s a bit of an expansion in scope, as she works up through the ranks due to a mixture of competence (something in worryingly short supply) and attrition (of which there is a far more worrying amount). But the setting, well, it’s alive, almost literally. A swampland seething with poisonous creatures, mobile geography, shifting waterways. Water absolutely everywhere. Curious indigenes of doubtful reliability. A sense of a hazy, languid, oppressively constant heat. The prose evokes the worst kind of jungle warfare, and makes you feel the misery and desperation of Emily and her colleagues, as they wade around, trying to find and combat an enemy in a mutually hostile environment. It’s a place which is vividly awful, and utterly real.
Whilst we’re watching Emily Marshwic trudge about the place getting shot at, we do also get to spend a lot of time in her head. And there’s a sense of change there. She begins the text focused enough, fitting within a traditional role with pragmatism, duty and honour. As the world changes around her, however, Emily starts becoming something else – a career soldier, changed by the struggles of war, scarred by them, suffering from and forged by them. As she and her compatriots bond between near-death experiences, the differences between them seem to fall away. Class and gender are shattered idols beneath the cloven hooves of war, and Emily and her colleagues are there to try and bind the remains into something new, settling who they are at the same time.
Emily’s journey is one that you can see in other coming-of-age military stories – but it’s one where the heroines journey is delicately crafted; her transition from pampered noblewoman to hardened soldier and survivor is pitch perfect, and entirely believable. Some of the supporting cast also get some excellent character development; her mutual antipathy with the provincial governor of her home town is particularly delightful, changing as the social ground shifts beneath the pair of them.
Then there’s her relationship with one of the Kings Warlocks – who turns out to throw fire and be a nice guy at the same time. Emily’s struggles with how to start, maintain and end relationships in the midst of conflict is shown in excruciating, riveting detail, as she tries to define her life in the shadow of the guns. It would have been nice to see a few more of Emily’s colleagues given more room to themselves – but the book is already pretty hefty, and his is really more of a wish for more of the same than a criticism of what’s there – the supporting cast is ably, sensitively portrayed. I’m convinced at least half of them would be heroes in another series (and the other half, if asked, would say that they were the villains of the same!).
The plot...well, in some ways it’s the story of social movement. From rural life to industrialisation, from chivalry to total warfare. From conflict to reconstruction. In other ways, it’s very much a personal story. Emily Marshwic is the reader’s eyes in these events, a groundling looking up at the stars – whilst perhaps shaping their passage ever so slightly. Her life, her loves, her fears – her struggle with trauma, combat and the aftermath – sit alongside some superbly crafted, marvellously paced battle scenes, and the shifting nature of the conflict, both at home and on the front, keeps the tension ratcheted fairly high where necessary, and the reader turning pages. Not to spoil anything, but whilst there are some lulls in the action, these are reflective, characterful and intriguing moments, and their fusion with guerrilla warfare and flat out warfare makes for a fantastic read.
Is it worth reading? Yes, I’d say so. Tchaikovsky has written some excellent characters, in a wonderfully realised world, with a plot that, at one stage, kept me up far past my bedtime to finish. So if any of that sounds like something you’d enjoy…it’s worth picking a copy up.