Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Shadows of the Apt” series was one of my favourite epic fantasy series of recent years so I was looking forward to reading his first book in a different setting. Unlike his previous 10-book series, “Guns of the Dawn” is a standalone novel (although not a particularly short one) and rather than the Apt series’ sprawling set of characters this focuses on a single protagonist.
The first chapter introduces Emily Marchwic experiencing her first firefight while her military unit attempts an advanced through a trackless swamp and has a bloody but inconclusive skirmish with their enemy. After this introduction the first section of the book flashbacks a year to show how Emily got into this situation. In the earliest part of the book she is as far from a soldier as it would be possible to be, living with her sisters and brother in their ancestral estate and from a social class which means it would be inconceivable that she would have anything as common as a job, let alone fight in a war. However, there is a war and it is going increasingly badly for her home Kingdom of Lascanne as they fight against the radical revolutionaries of Denland and one by one all the men of fighting age in her household (and Lascanne in general) are conscripted until in a final desperate act the King is forced to order that every household must provide one woman to be conscripted into the army. Therefore, after a rushed boot camp, Emily finds herself a junior officer assigned to the swamps of the Levant front of the war where most of the book takes place.
One of the things Tchaikovsky did really well in the Apt series was the battle scenes (even if there were perhaps too many of them at times), as well as managing to combine character development and action the series did a good job of showing how technology and worldview of the different civilisations in the series would effect the outcome of the battles. The battle scenes in this book are equally good. Everything is seen from Emily’s perspective and it does a good job of showing the confusing nature of the warfare where the combatants are often unclear about where their allies and their enemies are and how in this sort of battlefield the different tactics and personalities of the commanders on either side shape what happens. Although this is a fantasy setting there are only a couple of fireball-throwing warlocks to add magic to the battles, otherwise the level of the technology sees the musket being the main weapon, part of the reason that the female conscripts are sent into battle since (as Emily’s instructor points out) they don’t need to be able to match the strength of a male soldier to be deadly. The swamp setting is claustrophobic and means the focus is generally on small squads fighting each other, rather than some of the epic battles in the Apt books these are battles where individuals can have a real impact and as the book goes on and Emily grows in experience and slowly rises in rank through a mixture of luck and good judgment she starts to learn to be a leader and play a bigger role in the outcomes of the fighting. Many of the scenes feel very tense, the Lascannes army is taking heavy casualties and seems in a desperate situation so it feels as if the characters are genuinely in peril (even if Emily as the sole protagonist is protected a bit). Although the battle scenes may be compelling the overall tone of the book is very anti-war, with the overall senselessness of the brutality being one of the main themes, as well as the futility of all the soldiers dying in a front that is largely a sideshow to the much larger conflict in the other fronts of the war. Since the book’s plot follows the first female conscripts in a previously all-male army their interactions with the male soldiers are one of the main focuses of the plot, I think this is explored well showing the reactions of the male soldier varying from outright misogyny to (initially grudging) respect as the female soldiers make a useful contribution to the battle.
Compared to the Apt books it may have lost the epic scope and imaginative worldbuilding, but thankfully the characterisation lives up to his previous work. I found Emily to be a compelling protagonist and although she changes a huge amount during the book in terms of what she is capable of and how she acts I thought the character development felt plausible at each stage and even in the earlier sections of the book she does show signs of the (possibly foolish) bravery and stubborn determination that will help her a lot during the war. By the end of the book she is making decisions that would have been incomprehensible to her at the start of the book but the development along the way means that her actions do seem consistent with what her character has become. I think it also avoids the potential trap of making Emily too good at being a soldier, she may become a useful fighter and officer but the book does show there are better soldiers and her capabilities do generally seem believable (although to be picky she seems surprisingly good with a sabre when the book never shows her being trained with it). There is also a good cast of supporting characters, some of the best dialogue comes from the scenes between Emily and local dignitary Mr Northway who is an old enemy of her family and he is an interesting and ambiguous character who initially feels like an antagonist but evolves into something more complex since in his own way he is often trying to the right thing. As the book goes on the interactions between them also become more complex after Emily begins to realise he has a romantic interest in her, something that she is unsure how to deal with. There are also a number of interesting characters among Emily’s fellow soldiers in the Levant, including some likeable characters and some who feel as much the enemy as the initially faceless soldiers they are fighting against.
In the past Tchaikovsky has sometimes had a bit of a problem with the pacing (sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow). I think in the book he has got the pacing just right and after a steady start it increasingly picks up momentum until it gets to an initially surprising, but satisfying, final section. Everything that happens in the book has a purpose in terms of Emily’s character development, I think that helps the pacing but it does have a downside that it can feel a bit contrived at times and sometimes the setups for future plot developments are obvious enough that it’s possible to predict what sort of event is going to happen to Emily next.
As well as the predictability of parts of the plot, I think another flaw is that the world-building feels a bit drab and lacking in depth compared to Tchaikovsky’s previous work. It does feel like Napoleonic War-era England with a few token pieces of magic added (and the possibly non-human race of swamp dweller who are probably the most interesting piece of world-building). It’s also hard to get much impression of what Lascannes is like beyond the one provincial town Emily lives near.
Overall, this isn’t without a few flaws but I think they are fairly minor and I found this to be a very entertaining fantasy novel that lives up to the best of Tchaikosky’s previous work.
Rating : 9 / 10