BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Arrested and imprisoned for murder, Amiw spirit walker Sjenn carries abilities that make her a reluctant teacher to the southerner Captain Jarrett Fawle, who possesses the same abilities that set him apart from the rest of his people, and unwittingly make him a pawn for larger forces around him.
PROS: A strong, well written and original fantasy novel that is set in the frozen tundra of the north. Lowachee combines a strong story and characters to bring together a very good read.
CONS: At points, quite dense – readers will need to pay close attention to what’s going on, while some plot elements drop in and out, which disrupts the pacing a bit.
BOTTOM LINE: A compelling read that’s set in an interesting world and that raises interesting themes.
In 2003, my friend Sam passed me a book that he had come across recently, as we had a number of common tastes in science fiction and fantasy. The book was the debut novel by Karin Lowachee, titled Warchild, and it completely captivated me for its interesting and thought-provoking story. Shortly thereafter, I read the sequel novel, Burndive, and then Cagebird, enjoying all three books immensely, giving them the occasional reread while in college. Then Karin fell off the face of the planet, and I had thought that she had possibly changed careers or something, because from 2004 to 2010, I hadn’t seen a single thing from her.
That all changed with her latest novel, The Gaslight Dogs, which marks the end of her absence from the science fiction world (although, she has apparently written a short story or two), and a huge departure from her science fiction trilogy. Taking place in the frozen tundra of her world, The Gaslight Dogs is an interesting and well written fantasy novel that strays into philosophy, real-world colonial ethics and world history, with a bit of steam punk flair to add on to the story. The first in a planned trilogy, this novel provides a breath of fresh air to the fantasy genre, where European-style countryside and societies seem to overwhelmingly populate the literature. Lowachee has delved into the mythology and societies of the Intuits of Canada for inspiration. As a result, Gaslight Dogs feels wholly original and fairly minimal when it comes to a fantasy read.
Lowachee weaves together a very compelling story with this novel. With the murder of a Kabliw soldier, Sjennonirk, an Amiw spirit walker, is captured by the encroaching Southerners, detained for a specific ability that she possesses: the ability to separate part of her soul into a Dog, an animal representation of her soul: wild, uncontrollable and violent. Taken from captivity by General Fawle, he pairs her up with his son, Captain Jarrett Fawle, a recently returned from the frontier after an unusual encounter, and instructs her to teach him the ways of the Dog. Faced with an ongoing war with some of the natives of the region, the elder Fawle sees this unleashing of spirit as a potential weapon that can aid his soldiers and ultimately, himself.
Over the course of this story, Lowachee weaves together a complicated narrative as Sjenn and Jarrett find themselves at cultural and spiritual odds with their respective orders, with Sjenn reluctant to teach what she believes sacred and un-teachable, while Jarrett is unbelieving and resentful of being pulled off of the front lines for something he believes is a waste of time. Despite their issues, what they find is something far different than anyone was expecting.
In Lowachee’s prior books, Warchild, Burndive and Cagebird, there has been a strong effort towards story and characters, something that remains with Gaslight Dogs. The earlier books have tended towards strong characters that have generally worked towards or against authority, and this is the case with this novel, and remains one of the strong highlights of the book. A rich narrative has been put together here for the reader, one that weaves in a number of themes that make this a book worth reading.
One such dominant theme is the differences between two cultures, something that has a particular significance in the history of North America, with European immigration beginning around the 1500s and onwards, mixed with a sort of first contact. Here is no different, with the various races of Lowachee’s world: the natives and the invaders. There is a larger background to the immediate character story that will hopefully play out over the course of the trilogy, something that strongly mirrors real world examples of how the United States and Canada was eventually populated. There is a firm grasp here in this story, something that influences much of the character’s actions throughout the books.
The character arcs that take place in this story are another central element that really worked here. Sjenn’s story is one of immersion in a foreign culture, one where she’s expected to do the impossible: convey an ancestral belief to an outsider, while Jarrett’s story is one of resentment against his father, who puts his duty over his family. In both instances, there is a strong attention to detail and to the makeup of each character. Sjenn is a strong female protagonist, one who is deeply spiritual, judgmental and out of place, but also guided by her more wild instincts. Jarrett is much the same, headstrong, loyal and at points, deeply racist towards the natives, especially Sjenn and her culture, which makes for some interesting points throughout the book.
What works even better, I found, was that the fantastical elements of this book aren’t overwhelming. Indeed, Karin has taken a fine brush when it comes to her world’s magic, resulting in a fairly minimal amount of actual fantasy. The result is a book that operates in very plausible terms. The characters act like characters should, make rational decisions and exist in a world that is very grounded, but at the same time, very different from the one that we inhabit. These small strokes in the right place help the book immensely: it brings out the characters, the world and the actions in a realistic manner, allowing this novel to bridge the fantastic and real world. At points, I could have been reading an account of something that had happened in our past. Indeed, the only real magic in the story is the introduction of a character’s Dog, a spiritual construct of sorts that is guided by a character’s innermost spirit. Beyond that, they live and breathe normally.
While this approach might turn some off, I found that it really made the book worth reading, because it makes the book very relatable and thoughtful, becoming what books should always be: a very good story. Lowachee has gotten most of the proper elements together for an outstanding entry in the speculative fiction. At points, the book is a bit too dense, and I suspect that with a re-read, I’ll pick up on elements of the plot that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. Indeed, as this is a planned trilogy, I feel that there was quite a lot going on in the background that will be important later on. That works very well for a larger series, but taken on its own, it feels like some elements of the plot drop out and then reappear with too much time in between.
In the end, The Gaslight Dogs is a compelling read, one that raises some very interesting themes and questions for the reader, while set in an interesting world and acted out by a number of fairly interesting and different characters. This book is a step away from the norm of the genre, which really helps make it stand out among many.