(2015) Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor, £16.99 / Can $32.99, hrdbk, 658pp, ISBN 978-1-447-27267-0
Imagine Mr Darcy was called away to serve his country on The Somme and then Elizabeth Bennett was drafted to fight alongside him. That is pretty much what happens in this novel. Emily Marshwic is torn from her cosy chocolate box Jane Austen romantic idyllic semi-aristocratic life-style to be thrown into the no holds barred violence and horror of front-line warfare alongside the men. Unlike Tchaikovsky’s long running Shadows Of The Apt fantasy Decalogue, this promises to be a self-contained stand-alone novel.
Tchaikovsky has elements of every-war here. The conflict is caused when Emily’s country, the staunchly Royalist nation Lascanne declares war on its neighbour-state, Denland over its sudden revolutionary transition to Napoleon style Republicanism. Propaganda tells the people of Lascanne that they are winning the war but need to draft more and more men for yet another big push. With men conscripted from as young as fifteen, the women are left to run the home front, leaving Emily fretting for her serving brother until the next draft demands that the women also sign up, and she finds herself terribly unprepared and under-trained for Vietnam style swamp-warfare against a barely visible enemy.
There is little reference to the impact the war has on any nation other than Lascanne and Denland. It is as if they are the only countries on the planet and so much of their energy and economy is thrown into the fighting it is impossible to see how such a long protracted war can be maintained by either side.
The story draws on many standard war is hell / propaganda is lies tropes readers will recognize from stories ranging from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It gives the story a very old fashioned and familiar feel.
Tchaikovsky reminds us that his rather lengthy novel is fantasy than pseudo-historic fiction (with made up kingdoms) by adding the Warlocks as walking, talking human flame throwers. Most soldiers fight with medieval musket pistols. The warlocks seem to be there just to draw in Tchaikovsky’s established fans in the genre. They could easily be replaced by soldiers armed with flame throwers or heavy artillery. As the novel progresses and new weapons come into force, such magical powers are crushed anyway. Tchaikovsky is trying to draw parallels with how modern weaponry such as tanks and rifles rendered old fashioned cavalry and pike warfare obsolete. Denland and Lascanne come across as fictional European principality kingdoms on par with Ruritania.
Though touching on very familiar territory, Tchaikovsky tells his tale well, with well-rounded characters, and very well realized battle sequences. Tchaikovsky has been involved in historic battle re-enactment groups.
What is particularly interesting is the author’s take on gender and class. Emily finds her feminism threatened by her increasingly desperate survival needs, and coming to the soldiering world already dominated by the men who have established the rules and etiquette of the battlefields and camps. Her male drill sergeant is uncomfortable about swearing aggressively at women as he puts them through basic training. Emily finds her values, social standing, and general personality changing because of the war. Will she be the same woman at all if she survives the conflict is the central questioning theme of the work.
There are lots of flashbacks from the swamp-war to Emily’s life before the fighting, though the novel might work better with a linear chronological presentation.
The story is given from the point of view of the Royalists. We see little of the Denland republicans, and how they have mobilized into such an efficient fighting force so quickly after over-powering their king. There is no sense that the Lascannians have any doubts about their own monarchical rulers. Pre-war, Emily gets to dance with the handsome king, and clearly adores him. Both sides are firmly entrenched in their opposing ideologies, with Tchaikovsky clearly favouring the royalist perspective throughout. I’d like to see the same story told by the women of Denland.
The king is rather over-venerated. His touch seems to switch on the graduating Warlocks just as the touch of medieval monarchs supposedly healed scrofula.
We do get some interesting insights to the aftermath of war. The Lascanne the survivors return to will be very different to that they left, just as Bilbo saw the way life in the Shire changed after he returned from his adventures, and how post-World War One Europe was changed forever after Armistice Day.
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