This is my first full-length Tchaikovsky novel, and I have to say I am extremely pleasantly surprised with how good this is. Mea culpa, I like weird books. This is a weird book. The author had a simply genius idea of fusing together a Regency Era Comedy of Manners story (ala Jane Austen) with a Regency Era Military Fiction story, with some magic thrown in for good measure. The combination of the two works surprisingly well- I saw it described (humorously) as ‘Pride and Prejudice meets Apocalypse Now.’ This was one of the best books I’ve read in a while, if not ever. It was not perfect, however. Let’s get started.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- Military Fantasy, Napoleonic
- Flintlock Fantasy
- Jane Austen Fantasy/Regency Era Fantasy
- Alternate History Vibes (but it doesn’t take place on earth)
- Badass Female Protagonist
- Emily’s a tough fighter, while still being very ladylike as well as kind
- Adult, but I think anyone 16+ can read this
- There is attempted sexual assault.
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ BIASES STATED
I am very much so in this book’s target audience. You can go through my list of reviews, and find that I’ve read a LOT of Military Fantasy, Flintlock Fantasy, and even some Regency Era Fantasy story. It is no surprise that I liked this book. Further, I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator REALLY knocked it out of the park. This book is fun, clever, and well-written.
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4.5/5 Stars)
(I default to giving good books 3 stars. To get more than that, a book has to earn it.)
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Similar setting, storytelling style)
- The Glamorist Histories (Similar setting, characters, storytelling style)
- ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’ (Similar setting, storytelling style)
- ‘His Majesty’s Dragon’ (Similar Setting/storytelling)
- ‘Master and Commander’
- ‘Shadow Campaigns’
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This book’s concept is: “A Jane Austen protagonist must join the military to fight against (Fake) Germany in a hideously unpleasant swampland. She has to deal with despicable male suitors, her family’s poverty, aboriginal demi-humans, and the bullets of her terrible republican enemies who want to bring freedom to her kingdom.”
This concept is fantastically well executed upon. Frankly, the idea to combine a Regency-era military novel with a Regency-era comedy of manners is simply genius. When put together, they flowed together naturally. Again, I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator did an excellent job of bringing it all together.
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
Emily is the star of this show. She is the middle daughter of three, in an impoverished minor noble family. When her good and honorable nation goes to war, she takes it upon herself to act as a community leader, using what little food and wealth she has access to to help feed and clothe the common people of her township during the tough times caused by the war. Posed against her is Mr. Northway- the evil mayor of her village who was long the enemy of her family. Emily takes it upon herself to berate Northway into feeding the poor, while Northway responds by making fun of her for her mercy and kindness. They had a great dynamic.
When the war takes a turn for the worst, her nation becomes so desperate for soldiers that they recruit all the young men to fight. Then all the old men. And finally they start recruiting the women. Emily reluctantly joins the war, learning to fight like her ancestors in the name of the king. She ventures to distant, bug infested swamps, hoping to end the war before it has the chance to get much worse at home for her family and friends.
Emily begins the book going to balls and dances like any other noblewoman, but she takes her responsibility as the daughter of the local country squire seriously. She gives away her wealth as charity to those less fortunate, and supports important local causes even though the only way she can do so is haranguing her sworn enemy Northway. When she transitions into becoming a soldier, her upstanding nature naturally transfers into becoming a skilled soldier and officer. She is not a grimdark hero, who is only interested in taking care of herself; she honestly cares about those around her, and wants what’s best.
The side characters are well done. Alice is Emily’s ditzy younger sister who’s obsessed with going to society functions, wearing pretty dresses, and meeting cute guys- whenever she’s ‘on screen’ I simultaneously love her and hate her. Northway is the self-serving mayor of her hometown, who secretly has a heart of gold. I could keep going, but there are many more memorable side characters who were equally full of nuance and fun. They weren’t as excellent as Emily, but I largely enjoyed them.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
The pacing in this story is hard to describe. If you dislike comedies-of-manners, then the first 200pages or so would be very boring to you. If you enjoy them, they would be very quickly paced. I personally enjoyed them.
The middle of the story was a protracted sequence of fighting and characterization in the swamps. I enjoyed this sequence, but honestly it was a bit bloated. The bit about the demi-human ‘aboriginals’ felt a bit random, and I’m not sure it entirely paid itself off.
I enjoyed the structural techniques used by the author. The book began with a battle in the swamp, where Emily fought the Denlanders. But then the book doubled back several months to the real beginning of the book at the beginning of the war, back before Emily became a soldier. This is a very clever technique, because it sets up reader expectations that this will be a military fantasy. Do you remember how I said that the first 200 pages were all comedy-of-manners? By having the book begin with combat, that combat serves as a promise to the reader that if they bare through the ‘manners,’ they’ll get to the military.
This non-linear storytelling repeated in the middle of the story as well, when the author doubled back between fight scenes and before the fight scenes.
I think this book can be described with either the 3 act format, or the 5 act format.
- Before the swamp
- During the swamp
- After the swamp/after the war
The 5 act format seems more useful as a structure, however.
- Before being drafted
- After being drafted, but before the swamp
- The swamp, up until Emily is captured
- The swamp, after Emily is captured
- After the war
Using the 5 act format as a guide, I think act 2 was a bit long in the tooth, as was act 3. I might have trimmed things up there. Acts 1 & 5 were my favorites, while act 3 was my least favorite. Act three in particular felt fluffy.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
The genre-fusion plot was really well done. As stated, the book began as the low-stakes story of a humble girl of low nobility, going to dances, donating money, and doing her best to help her community.
It transitions into a military story of the Napoleonic bent, where armies clash and struggle over marshlands- and young Emily is caught in the worst of it. She’s drafted into the army, where she becomes a leader by necessity.
Finally, upon the war’s conclusion, the two genres re-fuse together. Emily reverts back to being a humble girl of the lower nobility, but still dealing with the trauma of war. The war’s over, but even so the war isn’t really over in the darkness of her heart. She has PTSD.
I particularly loved the resolution of the story. I’ve read some reviews, and people complained that the book just kind of ended after the climax. That ending is rather abrupt. As in, really abrupt. I normally complain about books with insufficient denouement. However, the more that I think about it, I’m not sure how else the story could end. No denouement could improve the quality of the book.
To explain my thinking, the main plot of the book ended when the war ended at the end of act 2 in the swamp (or the end of act 4 in the five act format); so in a sense, the entirety of act 3 (or act 5 in the five act format) was denouement, resolving side plots. The abrupt ending was the resolution of the final side plot at the end of act 5. In context, I think the ending worked well. (Sorry, this is hard to talk about without spoilers.)
I do think the plot could have been slightly improved. The main plotline was ‘Republicans vs Monarchists.’ The book needed to have a sympathetic republican character in the first half of the book, preferably back when Emily was still a civilian. The seed for the climax needs to be sown at the beginning of the book; as it stands, that seed is only sown at the midpoint climax when Emily is taken captive by the enemy republicans.
The book’s stakes are well done, as was the tension.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
I feel like I’m saying the same thing again and again. The book’s tone was very ‘comedy of manners’ inspired, while the fighting was Regency Era Military Fiction inspired. I felt that the author successfully channeled these styles into the text.
The book’s themes of underhanded dealing, surviving setbacks and defeat, and the loss of innocence in warfare were well implemented, being woven into the story throughout the multiple plotlines and character arcs.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
I feel like I’m saying the same thing again and again. This book successfully channeled the Regency Era back into fiction- even though this doesn’t take place on Earth.
If I had one complaint, though, it would be that we never got the origin story behind the ‘magic system.’ I don’t want or need to know how the ‘magic system’ behind the pyromancer warlocks works, but I would like to know how the kings got ‘holy blood.’ Are these people descendants of a god, or something? Even one or two sentences would have been enough to scratch my curiosity itch.
As stated above, the audiobook narrator really knocked this one out of the park. I have the feeling she has pre-experience with the genre of Regency Era stories, because she really brought it to life in a fantastic way.
As an aspiring author, I try to derive lessons from the books I read. Here’s what I learned from this one:
- If you have a midpoint twist which changes the tenor of the book’s plot and dramatically recontextualizes the book’s characterization, foreshadow it in act 1.
While this book is not a full five stars (again, it was a bit bloated towards the middle), I do think this book is very good. I think I’m going to put it in the top 20 list of all the books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read 1000+ books. If the whole ‘regency romance/military story’ thing sounds interesting to you, read this.
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