Anyone familiar with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt books will already know that he has a knack for bringing whole fantasy worlds to life, and so it goes with Guns of the Dawn, his first standalone historical fantasy, albeit in a completely different fantastical time and place.
A fantasy epic of traditional proportions –a whopping 1½ inches thick– this is an excellent tale in which a doomed war is made very real, very personal, and very tragic. The war is a phoney one in the sense that it’s a cause possibly already lost, yet this tale follows the adventures of Emily Marshwic, a privileged, well-off ‘lady of society’ who is called up to fight for her country when a shortage of men means families are required to send their women to the frontline ‘for the cause’.
In this brutal environment: the claustrophobic swamps, the closet soldier lifestyle, the circus of war itself and the terrifyingly constant risk of death are all brought well and truly to the fore. Following Emily’s rise through the ranks and her convoluted relationships with fellow fighters and lovers (including the ongoing intimate exchange of letters with the complex but self-aggrandising Mr Northway who is ostensibly ‘holding the fort back home’), we are forced to respect both her and her many wartime associates as they battle in this sweat-soaked, grimy and miserable environment. Indeed, you can feel every spit in the face, every mud squelch, every strike of flint on stone or flesh, and I came away on many occasions feeling exhausted and bedraggled myself, a sure sign that the story being played out in my head was hitting all the right places, so to speak. And this is by no means a slur on the writing, but reading between the lines left me drained, excited and depressed in equal measure – it really is a thoroughly immersive read.
So, a real doorstop of a book this may be, but it’s also an excellent one, and that in spite of making for uncomfortable reading at times due entirely to my constant need to scratch the back of my neck just to be sure there weren’t any stray ticks or other flying bugs taking a snack out of me while I read…
A vividly descriptive book this, blood- sweat- and misery-soaked, but solid reading all the same, so consider yourself warned.