Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher: Pan Books
Publication date: 19 November 2015
Genre: Adult fantasy
Page count: 672 pages
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review.
CW: Attempted rape and wartime violence
Flintlock fantasy is a subgenre that I’m incredibly unfamiliar with. You can imagine how pleased I was when my fantasy book club picked Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky as our May read. This ended up being a great book to discuss because there was so much to unpack with the writing, but that’s not necessarily a good thing in terms of the actual book.
The first casualty of war is truth . . .
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.
One of the big problems that I noticed about Guns of the Dawn is that the worldbuilding is basically completely missing. It is clearly inspired by a number of different historical periods, particularly the Industrial Revolution and the Revolutionary War. We know that these two countries are at war with each other, we know why, but that’s about it in terms of culture. We become very familiar with Emily’s world, but that world is incredibly limited. We see her town, her crumbling genteel home, and the swampland that she eventually does battle on, but there’s not really much else. While I understand that we see the world through Emily’s eyes and she has a limited experience, I don’t think it did the book any favours. There’s a way to pull off a limited worldview, but I don’t think it really worked here, especially because there was so much potential for amazing world building.
Something that really irked me about this book is the use of rape, threat of rape, and general misplaced misogyny. The unnecessary use of rape in fantasy is one of my biggest fighting points about the genre, however that wasn’t really the case here. Instead, what I had a problem with was the situations in which that threat was used. If women are drafted into an army, there is absolutely the danger of rape, and this is addressed early on. This makes sense. However there are two situations in which our heroine is put into this dangerous situation. The first is almost comical because it is so poorly executed. It’s almost as though the author felt that he had to just get the attempted rape out of the way so he could move on with the story. The second use is much more frightening and realistic, but it’s all a bit mustache-twirly. I think that there were ways of incorporating the realistic threat without it being so poorly executed.
I can’t talk much about the misplaced misogyny in this book without spoilers, but I thought his use of misogyny as a heavy handed way to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys just didn’t work. There’s an element of ‘you can’t do things because you’re a woman!’ that is supposed to show who we’re not supposed to like and ‘I cannot hurt you, for you are a woman!’ that seems to show who we are supposed to like. Instead, everyone is just a misogynistic jerk and I don’t think the author achieves what he sets out to do.
Emily is our main character. She’s a fantastic female lead without the pitfalls that can sometimes come with a male author (sorry guys). I love that so little emphasis is placed on her looks, to the point that we don’t really know what she looks like. I found this approach to be a refreshing take on badass lady characters. While she does have some Mary Sue elements to her (particularly her incredible competence not only with a musket but on the battlefield as well), but I thought they really worked with the character Tchaikovsky created. She is the kind of character that Lila Bard should have been.
There are multitude of secondary characters in this book who are interesting, but don’t get the same careful treatment as Emily. The soldiers and other characters around her felt almost like window dressings. I’m most disappointed in the treatment of Tubal and Mallen, because they in particular had the potential to be absolutely phenomenal characters. While their interactions with Emily made them fun to read about, I don’t think there was enough substance — Mallen especially should have been such an incredible and unforgettable character. Others, like Tubal or Elise, don’t really get the proper treatment as the story progresses and I’m really disappointed by their impact on the story. I wont say more due to spoilers, but I’d be happy to chat about this particular point!
Finally, the love interest was so lackluster. The problem here is that I don’t think Tchaikovsky really commits to this being a great love or a momentary distraction. It’s fair enough that Emily herself doesn’t know, but her actions are confusing and muddled. I lean more toward the ‘momentary distraction’ argument due to some of her thoughts and reactions, but it really isn’t clear. Also, he’s SUPER boring. I like that it gets complex later on as other feelings from other people get thrown in, but I don’t think even the author knew where this one was going.
Overall, I liked Guns of the Dawn, but wasn’t particularly impressed by it. If I hadn’t read the phenomenal Children of Time prior to reading this, I probably wouldn’t be hugely tempted to pick up another of this author’s books. It’s a fast read, despite the impressive page count, very entertaining, and a great introduction to this subgenre of fantasy. But don’t go looking for another work like Children of Time with this book.
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Have you read Guns of the Dawn? What did you think? Have you read any of this author’s other books? Let me know!