Guns of the Dawn is an historical fantasy novel and my first time reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work. On the face of it, the novel would seem to fit into the current vogue for steampunk and historical mash-up, but it has a number of elements which make it stand out on its own. The heroine is Emily Marshwic, a gentlewoman from the royalist country of Lascanne which shares its borders with the newly-Republican Denland. Following the end of a bloody civil war, Denland turns its eye to its neighbour and soon the two countries are at war. Through Emily’s eyes, we see the men and boys of her family and household marched away to fight in a war which King Lascanne’s propaganda continually promises is almost won. Soon enough, it is the turn of the women to join the frontline and it is here that Emily Marshwic learns the truth about the war and what she is really fighting for.
From this summary, it can be quickly discerned that there are more than a few parallels between the Lascanne-Denland war and the events of the First World War. The weariness of the soldiers’ existence is conveyed effectively through the use of Emily’s letters home being a part of the narrative and it is through these that we see the internal journey and struggles she goes through reflected.
The battle scenes are to be commended as there is a clarity to them that doesn’t always come across in works of Fantasy. The immediacy of Emily’s experiences in the field are balanced with a well-conveyed sense that her own skirmishes are a part of larger military movements taking place. She knows some of what is going on but not everything as you would expect, and so we see and understand enough of the bigger picture of the action to become involved without becoming detached from it by bald description and detail. Though the more explicit fantasy touches are for the most part kept in the background, the fiery magical assaults of the Warlocks were a powerful echo to me of the bombardments experienced by soldiers on the Western Front.
In contrast to the relative grimness of the war, we have the story of Emily’s family and their trials with Mr Northway; the man believed to have ruined their fortunes and caused the death of Emily’s father. The characters are both well-drawn and well-spoken which grounds the reader, on the surface, in a refined gentility reminiscent of Austen and the Bronte Sisters. It might be thought that this would jar with the grimmer aspects of the plot but instead they compliment each other and provide a fitting contrast as the lies and deception underpinning the Lascanne-Denland war become clear.
Overall, I would say Guns of the Dawn has a lot to say about the nature of war and the real reasons as to why such conflicts happen. At the same time, it is also an involving, entertaining read that flows very fluidly and keeps the reader turning the pages well into the night.