There's a phrase that gets thrown around a lot when something is pleasing, comfortable, and engaging, but doesn't change the very face of literature itself: It was good but it didn't reinvent the wheel.
This phrase causes my heart to pound in my temples, poking at my righteousness as if I were a sleeping bear under a beehive. It equates that a work of fiction isn't worthy of your attention unless it actively challenges the conventions of narrative and story and whatever other high-falutin' college-textbook literary device you want to use. But I would argue that a story is worthy if it makes you smile, if it makes you think, and, ultimately, makes you feel satisfied as you turn the last page, despite whatever bumps in the road there were.
So we come to Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky, his first novel published since finishing the imaginative and complex Shadows of the Apt series. Guns of the Dawn tested my patience at times, made me flip through the pages with a dedicated focus to find out what happened, and, eventually, made me close the book with a satisfied smile, having reached an earned, if somewhat predictable, conclusion. Tchaikovsky may not have reinvented the wheel in this novel, but he cast it in new light, painted it with fresh colors, and had me crane my head at new angles, making me appreciate all the craft he had put into it.
Denland and Lascanne are sibling nations, each propping the other up under successful monarchies—until, so the Lascani people learn, the Denlander king is murdered, his government overthrown, and war declared on Lascanne. The dogs of the new Denlander Parliament, it seems, cannot gain legitimacy as a ruling body while a successful monarchy still operates next door. So Lascanne sends its sons to fight for their country. And then its husbands and fathers. And then, as the body count grows and the war gains steam, so, too, in an unprecedented move, its women.
Here we're introduced to our heroine, Emily Marshwic, a gentle lady of good name, who, after learning of the death of her brother at the front, takes it upon herself to do her duty, and go fight for Lascanne once the draft for women comes in. It may, then, sound like the novel starts off with a bang, but this turn in the story doesn't happen until about two hundred pages in. There is a brief bit of prologue in the swamps of the front, with Emily shooting through mist and murky waters, but the first third of the book is centered on Emily's life leading up to her decision to join the conscription.
To be honest, I was torn: I didn't want a brief taste of war, only to slow down to a sluggish pace as Emily navigates the politics of wartime high society. I was upset to press pause on the opening action, to spend two hundred pages learning every small detail about Emily. And yet, having finished the novel, I can see why Tchaikovsky chose this approach. To truly know the weight of Emily's actions in the army, the reader needs to know her heart as it was, to appreciate how it changes when swirling with gunsmoke and blood; we had to understand the world she came from, so we could see both how it changed, and how she changed to survive it.
In that regard, the characterization in this novel is of a solid quality, and, while some characters lacked nuance, I found myself coming to know and care for everyone I met. Regardless of their archetype—from the prissy, younger, vain sister, to the mysterious, brooding, soldier-gone-native—Tchaikovsky imbues them with great personality and life. He never really breaks these characters out of the archetypes they embody, save for Emily in her role as soldier, and her nemesis Mr. Northway in his role as enemy-turned-friend; and yet in no way did this make the rest of the cast "bad" characters.
Emily is, of course, a delight to read about, her nobility and practicality lending themselves greatly to her fledgling career as a soldier: watching her having to adapt to the war around her, how quickly she has to change to live, was both fascinating and dreadful. Indeed, if the characterization never breaks out and shines beyond the central character, then credit must go to the prose that Tchaikovsky employs; it is absolutely one of the strongest parts of the novel. After a few chapters, while I was growing wary about where the story was headed, I actually grew more confident that wherever it did go, it would get there in a masterful way. Regardless of the path it took through the thickets, the vehicle of the novel was a sturdy, well-oiled machine. Tchaikovsky's prose is elegant, dynamic, smart, and absolutely in keeping with the Victorian aesthetic of the novel—while still remaining its own beast, full of lush details, insightful inner thoughts, and vicious battles.
There is, too, romance: and, if you'll please forgive the wordplay, this was a particular aspect of the novel with which I became enamored. While I was at first a little surprised, it was a wholly novel experience to find so much romance within a war narrative. Emily, as a young woman of good birth, is expected to court and be courted within her town; while those hopes are dashed with her joining the war effort, the romantic thread is not lost entirely as she pursues a fellow soldier in the army. The drama comes when she makes it home, and has to navigate the romance she left behind, and the sense of security found with another during wartime. Paired with Tchaikovsky's immensely satisfying prose and delicate, narrative touch, these romance elements didn't detract from the novel's martial focus, but rather became another high stake in an already stressful and precarious narrative—a stake I didn't want to see added to the many losses Emily experiences throughout the novel.
Finally, I loved the way in which Tchaikovsky studies the aftermath of the war, and, more specifically, the haunting that can occur when combatants return home. Phantom limbs and phantom friends pervade the world of Tchaikovsky's post-war world, and despite who won and who lost, the shaking of your hands at an ordinary task, or the way blood rushes into your ears and you lose your focus at a loud sound, is captured gracefully.
Tchaikovsky has crafted a very strong, well-written, and compelling book. It doesn't "reinvent the wheel"—and nor does it have to. It stands on its own two feet, as a war narrative with a hefty dollop of refreshing romance, as a social examination of cultures clashing, and as a depiction of the psychological toll of returning to a land you never thought you'd see again, utterly changed. While the turns the characters take feel somewhat familiar—learning the truth of the war, finding love in unexpected places, becoming a soldier—they're never described or embodied in ways that detract from the overall enjoyment of the piece.
New wheel or otherwise, I am happy to have read this satisfying novel, the first standalone from Tchaikovsky in some time—and perhaps therefore a great opportunity to catch up and dive into his other work; for readers who were unsure about starting his longer series of novels, Tchaikovsky has proven himself more than worthy of exploration with Guns of the Dawn.
Martin Cahill works publicity by day, bartends by night, and writes in between. When he’s not slinging words at Strange Horizons, he’s contributing to Book Riot, and blogging at his own website, usually about books and/or beer. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, he can be found on Twitter @McflyCahill90.