So, last year when I discovered this author I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought he was going to be a Sci Fi author considering I started with his hardcore SciFi stories — but the more I read of his work the more I realized how diverse his collection was, and I fell even more in love. This story is unlike anything else of his I’ve read and once again, I loved it. It’s definitely not SciFi, it’s closer to an alternate historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical.
The beginning is slow. If I’m going to be frank, I probably would have set it down had I not already loved several books by this author. I kept telling myself there must be a reason for such a slow build up. There definitely was, without this big character-building foundation the book wouldn’t have hit as hard in the end. Watching Emily’s growth from a moderately wealthy noble class lady to a soldier is fascinating and believable. It takes about 700 pages to do a character arc like that justice, rather than rushing it and making it seem undeveloped.
So, there’s a war going on, and there have been several drafts that get more extreme with each iteration. Emily’s brother has been sent off to war, in a draft that took every single man from age 15 to 50 to fight in the war…. not long after, though, an even more stunning proclamation goes out. One woman from each household now also has been drafted, and instead of sending a servant in her place like the majority of the the nobility, Emily goes herself.
The war they’re fighting is against a nation that was once an ally, but they have thrown off their monarchy and installed a republic instead. Well, Emily’s country is still a monarchy and they perceive this new government as a threat. There’s a lot of propaganda propping up the king and so the war trudges on. This is definitely meant to resemble the 1700s. Muskets, cannons, oil lamps, early versions of trains, all the stuff you think of when you think 1700s tech is basically what Emily’s world looks like. The mannerisms, the social structure, the governance is also very similar to our own 1700s history. However, she’s not from “America” or “Britain” but a country unto this world, just mirroring ours heavily. However, there are “swamp people” who are human-ish, but not really human who rule the marshy landscapes that the two sides are fighting in. They’re neutral and help out both sides with food, navigations, and other things. There’s also the wizards, the King is able to bestow his fire magic on anyone he brands as worthy, and they can then also wield fire. There are two wizards are focused on in this story, one of which is chill, the other is a giant asshole with fireballs.
At the start of the story Emily is living with her three sisters on their estate. Their mother died giving birth to their brother, and their father killed himself a while ago. The three sisters are all very different, and my fucking god do I hate Alice, the youngest sister. She’s impulsive, selfish, arrogant, and airheaded, not a brain cell to be found. Being obsessed with balls and fluff and dresses and being a socialite is annoying to me, but w/e as long as the character has some other character traits it’s tolerable, but she’s just the worst. She treats her older sisters like shit, saying really scathing and hurtful comments and then running away when her sister reacts badly to them, putting everyone at the estate at risk. Thankfully, Alice gets left behind when Emily heads out to war, which is like 70% of the book.
There’s a decent amount of battle strategy and battle scenes once Emily gets out into the thick of it, all of which I found compelling. I’m a military fantasy kind of person and I love books like Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names. So, your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy that kind of stuff, but I found it to be compelling both because of the plotting but also because I found the characters so engaging that I was sucked into each scene. I think what I love most is that this does not follow the plot points you’d expect, I thought the ending would go one way, and it just doesn’t. The way the book ended I thought was just great, I was very nervous because I didn’t see a book 2 in this series, indicating it’s a stand alone since it was written in 2015, and I couldn’t imagine a way in which everything would be wrapped up in a satisfying way, but I think it did, personally. In the very last page it all comes together and ends. JFC, lol.
I listened to the audiobook, as is typical for me, and the narrator here is amazing. At one point there is a drunken priest who reads off the names of the dead, and she had to do a “slurred speech” for several paragraphs and she was legit great. She legit sounded drunk without overdoing it too much.
There was comradery and humor in this which kept things from getting oppressively dark, and even had me smiling from time to time. There are deeply running friendships, complicated relationships, torn motivations, all with a touch of the hopeful to keep it all from being too much. War is a depressing topic and I think it was handled pretty well, especially the surreal and otherness feeling that soldiers often feel when returning home from war. I think the after-war feelings that Emily had were really well depicted. My one complaint throughout this entire thing was the love triangle. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a love triangle, and sadly, this was no different for me. I just don’t like them.
Overall, this was just stunning, though. I highly, highly recommend this to anyone who wants a different kind of soldier’s perspective, flintlock fantasy, military fantasy, alternate histories and engaging female characters.
- Plot: 13/15
- Characters: 14/15
- World Building: 12/15
- Writing: 13/15
- Pacing: 12/15
- Originality: 12/15
- Enjoyment: 9/10
Final Score: 85/100