Attack of the Polly Olivers

To help celebrate the forthcoming release of Guns of the Dawn - an action-packed pseudo-historical fiction novel (Out 12th February in ebook and hardback), Adrian Tchaikovsky has kindly agreed to write a few words.

So Guns of the Dawn is the story of a woman who joins the army, in a fantasy world that has a fair amount to do with the Regency/Napoleonic period (1), and that means it comes with a definite pedigree.

'Sweet Polly Oliver' is a folk song from a bit after the period, and it sets the standard axioms: Polly Oliver runs away to the war after her true love, disguised as a (male) soldier, does well enough for herself, and finds and saves her lover (whereupon she presumably gives up on all this cross dressing malarkey and settles down to have children, though to its credit the song doesn’t actually say that.)

Women going to war is something that genre fiction has every opportunity to do very well, and Polly Oliver is only one way to take up the tale. A maid goes to war in man’s apparel, and perhaps there's a lover or a brother, or some man – but perhaps not. We have Eowyn from Lord of the Rings who doesn’t want to be left behind. Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment is all about turning this trope upside down and inside out, of course, explicitly launching itself from the folk song by sending its Polly looking for her brother. Then there’s Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names, a recent but very welcome discovery for me (2), a book not about the heroine’s life of disguise, but enormously enriched by it. And of course we have Bob from Blackadder Goes Forth, a link between martial Polly Oliver and the Shakespearean cross-dressing of the second series. And Martin’s Brienne of Tarth? Not a Polly Oliver exactly, but a woman very much inhabiting a man’s garb and role (and kicking ass in it).

It might seem like the sole province of fantasists, to have their heroine get away with such an unlikely deception. Except, of course, history records women doing just that. Deborah Sampson and Margaret Corbin fought in the American Revolutionary War, Eleonore Prochaska in the Napoleonic. In fact, I refer you to Wikipedia’s “List of Wartime Cross-Dressers”. And these are just the ones who got found out.

In Shadows of the Apt there are plenty of women soldiers, but that’s because, the Wasps aside, they’re an egalitarian lot and most of the kinden don’t draw the distinction– again, there’s no reason not to play it that way, in fantasy (3). Even amongst the Wasps there’s Garvan/Gesa the intelligence officer from The Air War, who would rather murder her own agents than have her disguise found out. At the same time, we have the female Fly bombardiers of the Aviation Corps, who are then succeeded by women like Bergild, openly female and openly an officer, because the Wasp Aviation Corps is simply not in a position to be choosy. This mirrors the position in Novak’s Temeraire series, where the bulk of the military is male, but you don’t waste someone who can bring a dragon to the battlefield. See also the incomparable Ballad of Halo Jones’s third act (4) – almost all the soldiers we meet are women.

And sometimes the women are on top. I rate Mary Gentle's Ash as one of the very finest of fantasy novels, ever, and more recently there's Mr Abercrombie’s excellent Best Served Cold, two women mercenary captains in a world run mostly by men, both of them complex and rounded characters made equally of strengths and flaws.

Or, well… when discussing this topic with my peers, Sophia MacDougall directed me to the story 'Wings of the Morning' in Sarah Rees Brennan's collection Monstrous Affections: a world where the women fight and the men absolutely do not, and where a poor lad must dress in a woman’s warlike attire, if he wants to follow his love.

So, where does Emily Marshwic of Guns of the Dawn fit, then? Hers is a world where men enlist or volunteer or get drafted, and women don't. They stay at home and fret and wait and wonder if they can trust the comforting opinions of the newspaper on just when the war will be done. But Emily's war is not going well, and the drafts and the recruiting sergeants have squeezed the country dry without securing a victory. So comes the Women's Draft, and Emily marches to the Levant Front shoulder to shoulder with her sisters: tradeswomen and domestics and travellers who have been taken up and put into uniform and given guns. No Polly Olivering for her – she must face the fray with her own name and face. For, as Sergeant Demaine tells his new recruits, "A gun makes killers of us all, ladies. It will make the slightest of you as deadly as the biggest, strongest man, and you will never have to pit yourselves against him, to strike and avoid his blows and land your own. All you have to do is pull the trigger and he will be dead."

  • (1) Though also some of the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Because there are reasons I write fantasy.
  • (2) And thankfully some time after I actually wrote Guns. That Winter Ihernglass and Emily Marshwic will never meet to compare notes is a terrible shame. I first read the Pratchett almost immediately after finishing the first rough draft of Guns, then Woman’s War, back around 2004. It gave me a nasty start before it became clear the books were going in very different directions.
  • (3) World of Warcraft has a very open-handed approach to Horde and Alliance soldiers, generating them equally of either gender. It’s a nice little touch in the game.
  • (4) Not the place for it, but if you haven’t ever read this, I cannot stress just how fantastic Alan Moore’s Halo Jones is.