I've been walking passed this book at Forbidden Planet for a while now and this time I finally picked it up. I am a big Adrian Tchaikovsky fan, I have read all of his Shadows of the Apt series and absolutely adore Children of Time, but this one never really grabbed me. Possibly because compared to his other stuff (generally heavy fantasy or sci-fi with an arthropod / arachnid twist), this book sounded, well, a little dull.
Turns out I should not have judged this book by its cover. I devoured it, to the extent that I started taking a full lunch break (usually I don't bother with a lunch break) to go to a cafe to read some more. This surprised me as it has very little of the main thing I usually look for in books...magic + worldbuilding! If I had to give this book a snappy description I would say: Band of Brothers meets Mulan meets Austen with a light dusting of fire magic. It is awesome.
I'll give you some basic plot to get us started (no spoilers), the nations of Lascanne and Denland have co-existed for years but this peace is ruined when the king of Denland is killed and Denland's peoples revolution spills across its borders into Lascanne. The Lascane army, despite being much more experienced is not having an easy time of it, so much so that eventually even their women are conscripted. We are talking 1800s warfare here - red jacketed soldiers touting muskets and sabers and flanked by the glorious cavalry. The story follows Emily who is 'well bred' and more accustomed to a life of pursuing female accomplishments (you see what I mean when I say there is an Austen vibe going on). She gets posted to the Levant front which is essentially a great stinking swamp / jungle (which reminded me of Bank of Brothers - The Pacific) and we follow along as she grows from a terrified girl who doesn't know how to hold a musket to a terrified soldier who charges into enemy lines and kills in order to try and keep her friends alive.
What I loved:
- The Main Character - Emily Marshwic (genteel lady who's family is a big fish in a small pond/town) is a great character, she is brave, strong willed and riddled with doubt and fear - exactly the PoV character you want to be following through a grisly war fought in the fetid swamp lands. She has a great character arc and you get to watch as she casts off her old way of life and becomes an utter badass.
- The supporting cast - I won't waste your time running through the other characters that I liked, but I will say that I thought each was very well drawn and Tchaikovsky really nailed the characted interactions. I believed in each of them.
The relentless action
The first line of the book hooked me straight away:
I killed my first man today...
In fact the first 10 pages plunge you into the fetid swamp for Emily's first patrol - needless to say it doesn't go well. Once Emily gets to the Levant front the action continues at breakneck pace for around 500 hundred pages, so much so that I got two thirds of the way through the book and realised that, actually, very little 'plot' had happened. Upon realising this I then found that I didn't care - I had been completely swept away on the day to day horror of the war. Each foray into the swamp fraught with gunfire and death, each night spent anticipating an attack. (You may note that I caveated this section with "once Emily gets to the front", it is true that there is around 150-200 pages of build up to this which at times dragged a little.)
Tchaikovsky really paints this world in full colour, I swear I could feel Emily's ridiculous red jacket clinging to my back and taste the choking organic air of the swamp. Here is a taster for you:
She took a moment to breathe, sucking in the thick, wet air. Her helm felt like lead. Her musket was weighty as a stone pillar in her hand. The heat rode on her shoulders like a fat man. Life beneath the canopy sweltered with a constant patience that knew nothing of the seasons. The swamp consumed itself, burned in the furnaces of rot and decay, and breathed out the stench and the steam of it.
The action scenes were also really well done - there was a great blend of physical action and stream of consciousness that really put me in the moment.
What fell flat
The magic (ish)
So there are Warlocks on the Levant front BUT the story is not about them. In fact, I read all 658 pages and I have no clue why they have magic or how it works (something to do with Lascanne's king apparently). As someone who favours hard magic systems, this is an odd feeling. However, in this instance I didn't mind too much - the magic wasn't important to the story (hence the 'ish' in the sub title). The reason I am picking out the magic as a negative is because I feel like I was duped a little by the blurb - I was expecting some cool blend of magic and military but what I got was military with a magic side salad. To be honest I almost would have prefered it if there was no magic at all (though maybe I would never have picked the book up if that was the case). For example there a duel between Warlocks which probably would have been awesome if I had some context for how they were throwing huge fireballs around, but as I had no clue I didn't really care.
The lead time
As I mentioned above there was a significant lead time to this book. I didn't find it too bad, but I suspect that some people get bored and give up before reaching the war. I would recommend sticking with it. This section of the book was broken up by the extracts at the start of each chapter, each featured part of a letter from Emily detailing what was happening at the front. These teaser trailers helped to keep me engaged.
To sum up
All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I recommend that you read it. I blitzed through it and had a fun time doing so. I did find the twist / ending a bit obvious, however, it's not like I signed up for a clever thriller... I think that this one falls into the 'ripping good yarn category'. I do also like the fact that it is a stand alone book - it is quite liberating not having to sign up to a trilogy (or ten book series, I'm looking at you Sanderson!).