Speculative Fiction Reviews, Interviews, Art and Whatever Else!
Denland and Lascanne have been allies for generations, but now the Denlanders have assassinated their king, overthrown the monarchy and marched on their northern neighbour. At the border, the war rages; Lascanne's brave redcoats against the revolutionaries of Denland.
Emily Marshwic has watched the war take her brother-in-law and now her young brother. Then comes the call for more soldiers, to a land already drained of husbands, fathers and sons. Every household must give up one woman to the army and Emily has no choice but to join the ranks of young women marching to the front.
In the midst of warfare, with just enough training to hold a musket, Emily comes face to face with the reality: the senseless slaughter; the weary cynicism of the Survivor's Club; the swamp's own natives hiding from the conflict.
As the war worsens, and Emily begins to have doubts about the justice of Lascanne's cause, she finds herself in a position where her choices will make or destroy both her own future and that of her nation.
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia for supplying a review copy.
When a friend asked me to describe Guns of the Dawn, I said "Imagine if Elizabeth Bennett was conscripted, and sent to fight in the trenches..". It's true in a superficial sense; many parallels can be drawn in the first chapters of the book, to something Austin might have created. Yet now, I feel as though I did the book an injustice by being a bit blasé about the premise. As much as I love Jane Austin, I don't know that her work ever resonated with me, in the way Guns of the Dawn did. *hides as Austin fans start gnashing teeth*
It really isn't that complex a novel, but there is something in the simplicity of watching one character over 658 pages twist, change, win, lose, love, hope and despair; that is incredibly effective. It may be why I became so enamoured with it. I've read so many novels recently with multiple points of view (pretty much every book this year!), I had quite forgotten what it's like to lose yourself so completely in one character's narrative. Watching as an author shows real mastery over character development, in a really concentrated and immersive way, creates it's own complexity.
And Emily is such fantastic character. I'm not sure where Tchaikovsky plucked all of her traits from, that enable her reactions to the situation to seem so bloody relatable; but he did a wonderful job. Emily is so strong, yet so full of doubt and fear. Fiery, yet still vulnerable. Kick arse, yet as inept as anyone would be with her limited experience. Full of wonder, yet so hardened. She was, well... Human.
So, I was enjoying it immensely.. Then a few lines of a letter written by Emily from the front lines:
I am picked apart.
Each day, some new scrap of me is pecked out. I am losing the things that make me human.
Right there. In those few lines, my guts lurched, my eyes began to sting, and all doubts fled; Guns of The Dawn became my favourite novel of 2015. Sometimes it doesn't take much more than a perfect description of despair, to push a great book into the extraordinary book category (not sure what that says about me!).
The secondary characters, both heroes and villains, are quite interesting as well. They are in most part, overstated in their behaviours and mannerisms - sometimes bordering on caricatures, or mega tropes (coining that!). However, it actually works in the books favour. The juxtaposition between those over the top secondary characters, and Emily, gives a really satisfying balance.
It amplifies how unnatural this state of living (and dying), is in Emily's eyes, how foreign this senselessness is. How utterly crazy you need to become, just to survive. It also gives the reader something to hold on to, so Emily's narrative doesn't become so despondent, that they feel alienated from it. I'd say it's why the book didn't slide into Grimdark territory, even though it's quite a grim book.
There are glorious battles. Much trekking through swamps that make your skin itch. Gun fire that will deafen you even though it's just words on paper. Tchaikovsky's veteran status (10 novels in Shadows of The Apt now, plus shorts and sci-fi), shows in his creation of these scenes; they are tight, atmospheric, and contain the perfect amount of tension.
And still, it's all secondary to the effect of war on the human spirit. That moment when the recognition sets in, that there are no winners; just dead humans.
The world building is simple, it feels as though it takes it's roots from the Napoleonic war at the beginning. It gradually builds on that setting, to become a world unique to this book; wizards that wield fire being the most 'fantasy' based element, and a tribe of wonderful, neutral natives called Idegenes, really hammer in the fact that it's a fantasy world.
It's not an architectural masterpiece, but I don't know that I really gave two damns that the world wasn't grandly designed. In the end, you can make your world building as expansive as you like, but if your characters don't shine, your book might as well be a documentary on the terrain of a distant star. Interesting, but not really engaging. I will certainly take this simple building, with fully realised characters that one can truly empathise with, any day.
The ending was righteous, yet left me slightly uncomfortable. I'm a greedy reader, I really want to know everything, about everything. So when this ends rather abruptly, I felt quite lost! I railed a bit about "how mean" Tchaikovsky was for not giving me the full run down on Emily's future. The problem is, it's still a pretty perfect ending for a standalone, so I can't really complain. Damnit!
If Adrian Tchaikovsky ever wants to secretly tell me what he thinks happens, I'll still take it though!
I guess that's about as much as I can say, without starting to read it to you! I'd buy everybody copies, but I ain't Oprah..