A really engrossing Napoleonic War fantasy, and a generally delightful exploration of a fascinating scenario, namely, ‘What happens when the war effort runs out of men to recruit?’

Guns of the Dawn

First, Denland’s revolutionaries assassinated their king, launching a wave of bloodshed after generations of peace. Next they clashed with Lascanne, their royalist neighbour, pitching war-machines against warlocks in a fiercely fought conflict. Genteel Emily Marshwic watched as the hostilities stole her family’s young men. But then came the call for yet more Lascanne soldiers, in a ravaged kingdom with none left to give. Emily must join the ranks of conscripted women and march toward the front lines. With barely enough training to hold a musket, Emily braves the savage reality of warfare. But she begins to doubt her country’s cause, and those doubts become critical. For her choices will determine her own future and that of two nations locked in battle.

From this... (Painting of Raevsky Saltanovka)

From this…                        (Public domain: Source)

The premise hooked me as soon as I read about it: Alternate-universe Napoleonic wars? Subtle intimations of magic? Women going to war? Count me in, I thought. And I’m really pleased that Guns of the Dawn not only delivered on all counts, but exceeded my expectations.

For some reason, I wasn’t really expecting this to be a rather deep meditation on the horrors of war, the ways it irrevocably changes those who fight it, the way that one can never really go home from war. And yet this was that meditation, put refreshingly into the viewpoint of a person who would, in traditional fictional strictures, be left behind to pick up the pieces of war. And while I am also fascinated by stories of the home front, this role reversal gives a bright new perspective on war that I loved.

A book this length can risk some ambling, and this one does. 150 pages before the women’s draft, the book’s main premise, is called up, of which mostly we learn more about the Marshwic household and the strained relationship between Emily and Northway in a sort of pseudo-Jane Austen manner. Tchaikovsky’s writing is good, not too heavy, and the language is well-deployed, so that these long passages of set-up pass lightly. In other hands this could have easily been a dealbreaker for me, I think.

The underlying theme of the war, that propaganda cannot be trusted, and that even one’s King can lie to his people, is lightly treated for most of the book. Emily’s big discovery isn’t a particularly shocking one to the reader, not because it was obvious but more that we don’t find it to be the main issue. In Emily’s day-to-day existence on the Levant front, just surviving another sweep through the swamps is more important than the large-scale machinations behind the war itself.

What was really enjoyable to read was Emily’s progress from good housekeeper to valiant soldier, desperate leader of troops who begin to revere her even as she herself knows that it is all a fluke, all luck, and might come to an end any second. This, the soldier’s experience, is the true heart of the book, and Emily made for excellent, sympathetic reading.

Read-alikes: The Sharpe novels / Bernard Cornwell (for the battles and intrigues of the Napoleonic Wars), Temeraire / Naomi Novik (for a fantasy version of the Napoleonic Wars with dragons), Saga / Brian K. Vaughan (for the many ways war can destroy community, family, and country), All Quiet on the Western Front / Erich Maria Remarque and Gallipoli [dvd] / Peter Weir (for the horrors and impact of war on the soldiers).