A review of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel of war and magic
A gorgeous, quietly feminist book that really examines the hypocrisies of war. Also, a page-turning read that brings together Austenian romance with battlefield descriptions so gory they’d make Stendhal clap.
The story stars Emily Marshwic, a gentlewoman who is drafted to fight for her homeland, Lascanne, against the neighboring nation of Denland. The Women’s Draft, first of its kind in the nation’s history, is an early sign that the war is not going well for Emily’s side. It also introduces one of my favorite themes in this book: that women are as fit (or unfit) for battle as men are.
One moment Emily’s in the kitchen of her family estate, fighting with her annoying blonde sister in a pitch-perfect scene of sisterly competition, the next she’s sleeping in the woods and shitting in a latrine. Despite this absurd shift in context, Emily turns out to be a good soldier. Her company is dispatched to the swampy Levant front, a landscape littered with snakes the size of wine barrels, where Emily must rally her troops and inspire their confidence, even while her own certainties about war fall apart.
Tchaikovsky doesn’t just send Emily to war — he inverts the standard narratives of patriotism and duty.
“For a soldier fighting at the front, the inexorable tides of history were as unalterable as the weather,” Emily muses during her basic training, already setting up a recurring theme: in something as massive as a war, what influence can any one person have?
Emily’s journey becomes a case study in answering this question.
She finds herself in battles that are beautiful and horrible: senseless, messy struggles to kill or be killed. The landscape is alternately menacing and beautiful: the swamps themselves could easily be billed as one of the novel’s secondary characters. But the true story here is about Emily’s relationships: the comrades she slowly comes to know and love. Faced with the enemy’s muskets, Emily finds herself discovering what binds us together and what we choose to defend. It’s not what the leaders would have you believe.
There’s a bit of romance, which Tchaikovsky draws with impressive delicacy. I have rarely read a book in which any man wrote about a woman’s internal life — particularly attraction and love — in a way that I related to so much. Emily’s heart is in multiple places. While the romantic characters were not my favorites (that honor goes to Emily’s colleague Mallen, a scholar-turned-guide who’s made the swamp his home), they hold up well enough to animate a surprisingly high-stakes love story.
I don’t really like how this love story turns out, unfortunately, but that’s not really the author’s fault.
If I have one quibble with this novel, it’s with the “indigenes”. The Denlanders and the Lascannes share the swamp with its original inhabitants, whom they call the indigenes.
Physically, the indigenes are depicted as fairies or other spirits, but the attitude that Emily et al take towards them is decidedly colonial. Terms like “savage” pepper the text, as do epithets and descriptions that are almost painfully demeaning. At one point, Emily literally stumbles upon a magnificently ruined indigene city in the middle of the swamps. Discovering a magnificently ruined indigenous city while trekking through the jungle is a particularly European fantasy, as is refusing to believe that said city was built by indigenous people in the first place. Both of these situations happen in this book, but Tchaikovsky treats them as some kind of fact rather than a collective European delusion.
It feels like the indigenes are inserted for atmospheric flavor, to demonstrate yet one more way in which the world of the swamps diverges from the “civilized” countryside of Emily’s upbringing. And while it seems like the treatment of the indigenes is meant to highlight the characters’ inadequacies, the fact that the indigenes themselves have no voice in the story — much less nuance or individual character — starts to feel like repeating the mistakes of colonialism. Either present the indigenes in some entirely different context or give them some agency. In a novel as emphatically feminist as this one, I’m sad that Tchaikovsky defaulted to such a thoughtless use of a painful trope.