I just finished “Guns of the Dawn,” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and liked it a great deal. The best way to summarize it is “Elizabeth Bennett goes to war”: A heroine in a fictional world that has a similar social structure to early 1800s England goes to war — the social structure is different enough that, once the fighting-age men are all drafted, some women are drafted, too, and for real combat. The tone is of course much darker than Jane Austen, or even than Naomi Novik’s superb Temeraire series (that’s “Horatio Hornblower, with dragons”). But the social setting, the language and the deep attention to characters’ inner lives rather than their physical adventures are Austenesque.
There’s some fantasy to the book — enough to be integral to the story — but (unlike in the Temeraire books) it’s distinctly a secondary feature. The reward is in the characters and in the details of the writing, not in the fantasy world-building.
I also very much enjoyed the protagonist being a woman. Readers of the blog will know that this isn’t for some grand ideological reasons; I just like female characters, and Tchaikovsky’s Emily Marshwic is exceptionally well-crafted. There have been some very interesting female leads in recent fantasy fiction that I’ve read, as in Daniel O’Malley’s Checquy series — “The Rook” and “Stiletto” — and Charles Stross’s “Family Trade/Merchant Princes” series; but “Guns of the Dawn” is better written than the Family Trade books and emotionally richer than the Checquy books. (Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” series, one of which has a woman as a lead, is much better executed than “Family Trade”; but I enjoyed “Family Trade” enough to read through the books, which get better as Stross matures as a writer.)
There are also some excellent woman fantasy writers who have written first-rate stories with male leads. I particularly like Novik’s “Temeraire” series, Martha Wells’s “Raksura” series, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Vorkosigan” books and “Chalion” books have their moments, though I think Bujold tends to paint her characters as rather too wise and wonderful. Yet, unsurprisingly, I’ve always found that the sex of the authors isn’t terribly relevant to the story — live long enough, with your eyes and heart open, and you can get to understand and care about the opposite sex and not just your own, at least as well as anyone can understand anyone — but the sex of the characters is often relevant indeed, especially when the books are set in societies with generally sharply defined sex roles. (I would love it, for instance, if Novik wrote a “Temeraire” novel from the perspective of her most interesting female character, Jane Roland, though I can see why, after nine books, Novik might be tired of that world.)
In any event, try “Guns of the Dawn”; I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.