This book was provided to my by the author at no cost.
The main problem, for me, with Guns of the Dawn is that I thought I was getting a book based on the French Revolution, with a bit of magic. So I was expecting it to actually be about the French side, and I was excited to try and find familiar faces or at least familiar issues. However, that is not what I got. The extent to which this is based on the French Revolution is that Denland has had a revolution, and now has no king, and is at war with one of its neighbours. The Goodreads outline tells me that it’s pseudo-Napoleonic, and the era feels about right for that, but still there’s nothing obvious to connect them except the regicide bit and the war-with-neighbours bit (I’m not a Napoleonic Wars expert, so I’d be interested to hear from others who see closer resemblances). I freely admit this is a problem with my expectations and not a problem with the book, but it did colour my reading of it a lot and – well, that’s just the reality.
In attitude, this novel feels far more closely aligned with World War 1, reflecting its having been written (I presume) and published around the centenary anniversary. There’s a lot about the futility of war, and the horrendous conditions where most of the action takes place has thunderous echoes of trench warfare (and of jungle warfare too, from later wars). There’s also issues of new technology, mimicking some of the developments of WW1 (and the recount of a cavalry charge being mown down by artillery parallels the story often told about Poland and the Germans in WW2).
The book opens with the protagonist, Emily, in her first battle in an area known as the Levant. After that, the first third is mostly about Emily’s life before being called up as a soldier, and I guess it’s a story of manners: the family are gentry but poor, there’s three sisters and only one married and no parents; there’s a jumped-up, venal bureaucrat and problems with how to keep the estate going while the men are gradually drained off to go fight Denland. This section felt too long by about half. I understand that Tchaikovsky is trying to show how genteel and simultaneously how resourceful Emily is, but it really just dragged on and without the knowledge that she was soon going to be fighting, and that then something different would happen, I may have stopped. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with that sort of book when I know what I’m in for. But the title doesn’t give any clue that one third of the book will be Austen-esque, and neither does the blurb. And even if I did anticipate it – Too. Long.
Most of the rest of the story is a fairly relentless meditation on the unpleasantness of war. Lots of people die. There are terrifying battles where finding the enemy and negotiating the ever-shifting swamp are equally difficult. There’s some of the difficulties you’d expect from having women in a man’s army. Tchaikovsky also includes those moments of camaraderie that every war-story needs, both for verisimilitude and to break up the unrelenting horror. Again, I found this part of the story too long. There was too much floundering in the swamp, too much focus on problems in the camp. It ended up losing some of its impact because I got impatient.
Is the book well written? Yes, the prose is entirely readable – after all, I read something like 650 pages (ebook) even though I wasn’t entirely convinced by the whole set up. Are some of my issues with the book entirely my own and not the book’s? Indubitably. But I still think it would have been better if it had been cut by a third.