The Gaslight Dogs is the newest novel by Karin Lowachee, author of a science fiction trilogy comprised of Warchild, Burndive and Cagebird. According to the author’s forum and a Twitter comment she made, there are two sequels to The Gaslight Dogs planned, although it sounds as if they are not yet under contract. This novel definitely feels incomplete on its own since there are still a lot of unanswered questions upon reaching the end – it seems like a first novel in a series that is setting up future installments.
Sjennonirk, a spiritwalker of the Aniw people, is uneasy by the arrival of traders when they come armed. Her fears come true when she is awakened in the middle of the night by a man standing over her with a gun. Before she realizes what is happening, Sjenn kills the man at the urging of the inner spirit she refers to as her Dog. Although Sjenn flees, she is captured and held in a prison ship where she is visited by Father Bari, a priest she had considered a friend until she began to blame him for the presence of the foreigners. Once again, Sjenn’s Dog takes over, but this time it emerges as a wolf and tears Father Bari to shreds, leaving Sjenn’s human body unconscious upon the floor. This canine cannot be killed, and the men on the ship do not know how to get rid of it.
However, General Fawle believes he may know of a way to banish the wolf. He’s been reading Father Bari’s journal and has come to the conclusion that the girl and the animal are the same being. For some reason, he is convinced his son Captain Jarrett Fawle will be able to return the girl to her body if he studies the priest’s writings. Although Jarrett is skeptical, he is successful and his father strikes a bargain with the girl – he’ll keep her out of the prison if she will teach his son about her Dog.
After hearing how excellent Karin Lowachee’s other books were, I was excited to read this one but I ended up somewhat disappointed. The Gaslight Dogs was by no means a bad book as it did have some great writing and an intriguing world mythology. However, it was difficult to get into, partially because there were a lot of names that were difficult to pronounce and also because so many terms were dropped without explanation close to the beginning. This may have been just me, though, because this was one of the books I read when I was sick so my brain was probably not quite all there (the confusing part, that is – names like ‘Sjennonirk’ certainly don’t roll off the tongue for a lot of us). Even later, it did move very slowly at times – it would start to pick up, then it would slow down again for awhile before getting interesting again.
There are two main characters, a soldier named Jarrett and an Aniw spiritwalker named Sjennonirk. As a young woman from a culture based on the Inuit, Sjennonirk is the more fascinating of the two but she is also not as sympathetic as Jarrett. Her perspective is more distant, and although she wants to go home and has a strong drive to protect her people, she’s not as easy to relate to as Jarrett. He can be cynical and has a rocky relationship with his father, who is his superior in the armed forces and is not particularly pleasant toward his son. Although it turns out Jarrett has some unusual issues as well, more of his problems are everyday occurrences for ordinary people than Sjenn’s, as her main problems are more extreme – being imprisoned and having an ancestral spirit that takes over for her and murders people, for instance. In general, I found Jarrett’s point of view sections more absorbing than Sjenn’s and thought his character was easier to connect with, although I can’t say I was extremely attached to either main protagonist.
In spite of the fact that the two main protagonists are a man and a woman, there is no romance. As much as I enjoy a good romantic subplot, it is refreshing to see a male/female relationship in a book that doesn’t head in the direction one might expect it to.
The setting is not a medieval fantasy world and the mythology was inspired by the Inuit of Canada. The Aniw seem to be similar to the Inuit and have a similar culture. If not for the priesthood of the Seven Deities and the existence of little spirits, it could almost seem like the far north of the world at an earlier time. These are some intriguing concepts, and I hope more will be revealed about both in future installments.
The writing was solid with some decent dialogue and character development through conversations:
“Rough patrol?” the father prompted.
It made him laugh. Not the most logical reaction in a holy house after the week he had endured. His voice sounded hollow as it rose to the pointed ceiling. The rafters tittered back, some hill mouse scampering in the dusk. Jarrett glanced up toward the unseen rodent with his gun — that wasn’t logical in a holy house either, but he didn’t care. Fatigue ran respectful concern into the ground, even as the priest’s eyes tracked the weapon warily.
“The abos are like those furry things,” Jarrett declared. He was drunk on sleeplessness.
“Well,” he said, “Do you ever understand the intentions of a mouse? Occasionally they slip into your bed and bite your toes.”
“Surely the warbands do more than bite your toes.”
“No. No they don’t.” He leaned forward, arms on the back of the father’s pew, gun pointed down between them. “Have you ever seen a man try to walk without toes? Don’t underestimate the intelligence of a mouse. The little furry bastard can bring down an army just by nibbling away at its toes.” [pp. 16 – 17]
The series has a lot of potential, but on its own it’s difficult to judge The Gaslight Dogs since it feels like so much of the story is still left to be told. It’s well written and there were some good moments with the characters, but it feels as though it’s setting up its sequels with a lot of slow pacing until closer to the end.
My Rating: 6/10
Where I got my reading copy: It is a review copy from the publisher.