Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 55 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

I killed my first man today…

That’s the first sentence of Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

If I had read a description of Guns of the Dawn, I probably wouldn’t have read the book. So I’m pretty glad I never bothered to do that. It came highly recommended by some friends, so I bought it and dug in without seeing anything more than the cover.

This is a book about war. Not my favourite topic. It also has a very regency novel vibe to it — another thing that doesn’t tend to strike my fancy. If those things are up your alley, I urge you to run, do not walk, and nab this book because you’ll probably like it even more than I did.

It follows Emily Marshwic during and before she is drafted and sent to the awful, swampy front lines of a war between her country, Lascanne, and its neighbour, Denland. Lascanne has run out of men to send, and while it is quite unthinkable, the king has begun drafting women to be soldiers.

As I mentioned, this novel, while in a fantasy country where the king can anoint warlocks to shoot fire from their hands in service of their nation, feels very much like a regency novel. The trappings of society are of great importance to Emily and her sisters. They live in a large house on an estate. The Marshwic name is noble and well-respected, for all that the family has fallen in stature after the suicide of Emily’s father — a fate he was driven to by the deplorable Mr. Northway, who became the mayor-governor when it should have been Emily’s father. Skirmishes of words with Mr. Northway are the only battles Emily is familiar with before she “takes the red” and becomes an ensign in the King’s army.

The book chronicles her life both at home and on the front lines, by starting each chapter with Emily’s letters from the front. The rest of most chapters take us through her life, starting well before the draft, covering her training, and then we watch her grapple with what it means to be a soldier, a woman soldier, and a woman.

While this book’s topics may not be my usual fare, I’m very glad I read it. This is most definitely a book about war, but it in no way glorifies war. It examines war through a variety of lenses and comes to very reasonable and realistic conclusions about it. The characters are well-drawn and likeable. And most importantly, Emily’s inner life and struggles are compelling and relatable.

If any of these elements sounds like your thing, I will again exhort you check it out because I expect you’ll be glad you did.