Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Some books just check all of your boxes, and Guns of the Dawn certainly checked all of mine.

Guns of the Dawn follows Emily Marshwic, a young noblewoman whose family has recently fallen on hard times. In fact, the whole kingdom of Lascanne has fallen on hard times: after revolutionaries overthrow neighbouring Denland’s king and threaten Lascanne’s monarchy as well, the two former allies become embroiled in a long, bitter, sluggish war. This war swallows up most of the men in Emily’s generation, then those older and younger, until finally a royal decree calls also for the conscription of one woman from each household. Emily volunteers to go for hers. Thus, she must leave behind the fairly comfortable life of a genteel woman in favour of musket, uniform, and the threat of death.

The book is very roughly divided into parts that lean either more Flintlock or more Fantasy of Manners. That is, while the majority of the book focuses on Emily at war, with many exciting and bloody battle scenes, there’s also a few of the typical Fantasy of Manners “tropes”: some emphasis on class division, things being either Proper or Improper for ladies, quite a bit of dry wit and banter, and (shock, gasp) a ball. For fans of flintlock — don’t worry, it starts slow but once the war hits, it really hits. For fans of Fantasies of Manners — don’t worry, Emily’s non-war-related problems and dreams aren’t forgotten in battle. Personally, I adore both genres, so y’know, win-win for me; I’m genuinely not sure if I was more excited about all the thrilling battle scenes or on Emily’s very swoon-worthy romance. (…The war takes up the majority of the focus, but my notes seem to be mainly about the romance — “He was seducing her in ink… and she was being seduced!” Happy sigh.)

In terms of action and the war more generally, I thought Tchaikovsky did a fantastic job. Guns of the Dawn sticks to a relatively more realistic portrayal of warfare: e.g. far too much confusion during battle and propaganda about how everything’s definitely going fiiine from the government. The action scenes focus a lot on outmaneuvering the enemy squad in a truly terrible environment, making each one feel exciting, tense, and smart. While there’s some magic involved — Lascanne employs war wizards, loyal to the king and very deadly — the majority of the fighting is done with muskets, blunderbusses, and, if things get particularly grim, sabres.

The central premise of women’s conscription in an ~18th century setting adds an interesting dimension to these familiar themes. As Emily’s training sergeant points out, guns are the great equaliser in war and can rapidly change who can fight. Usually in a fantasy book, either there’s equality between the genders and female warriors are unremarkable, or a female warrior is an extreme outlier (and often disguised as a man to boot). I loved the fresh take on the female warrior trope here, where the social friction and problems seem to be closer to those in our own world (cf. Soviet female soldiers in WWII).

Another aspect I really enjoyed were the characters themselves. Our lead, Emily Marshwic, is just plain fun to follow. Even before she gets a musket, she’s very determined, practical, and fierce. She’s the sort of person who, while everybody around screams, “Somebody, do something!” is the somebody who does something. And after she gets that musket… well, there’s a bit where, a few hours after being beaten half to death, she hears something rude about her king and immediately lunges over the table to claw at the face of the man who said it. Patriotism!

Her supporting characters are great too. Back home, there’s Mr. Northway, the unscrupulous, cynical mayor who constantly clashes with Emily and yet “will never lie to her” (be still, my heart!). At the front, Emily joins the Survivor’s Club (if you’re killed, you get kicked out). Among others, this includes her reserved brother-in-law, who comes to rely on her as much as she on him; one of the king’s warlocks, charming and very devoted to the crown; and a slightly eccentric scout who’s very in-tune with the swamp and its original non-human inhabitants. Unfortunately, most of the other female soldiers don’t play as big a role, but special shout-out to the very badass Sergeant Marie Angelline, cheerful and with a great voice for shouting orders.

I only have two small quibbles with the book. One is that the setting and magic system is relatively precursory. Emily doesn’t know much about magic and we don’t really get to know more — the warlocks’ magic is tied to royal blood, somehow, maybe, and they mainly have fire powers but also some other powers? I’m not much into worldbuilding myself it didn’t really bother me, but a tad more insight would have been nice. My other problem was that… well, sexual harassment of soldiers (particularly female soldiers) by their compatriots was and remains an undeniable issue. But one scene in particular felt jarring to me and dampened my enjoyment for a bit. For anybody who’d like more info about this particular element before starting a book, highlight here: Emily is almost raped twice, but she manages to fight off her attackers both times.

Nevertheless, altogether I found Guns of the Dawn to be rollicking good fun: exciting, squee-worthy, and just a fantastic combination of Manners and Tense, Bloody War. I particularly recommend this book for:

  • Fans of flintlock
  • Fans of Fantasy of Manners… with a bit more blood than usual
  • People looking for heroines who you go, “Oh shit, she actually did that!” at
  • Fans of exciting battle sequences in a difficult terrain
  • People looking for a slightly more closer-to-our-world look at female soldiers
  • People looking for a fun romantic side-plot
  • Fans of… swamp settings?

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