Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee

The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee
Published: Orbit, 2010
Series: First of a trilogy

The Book:

“A recently established civilization, which has immigrated from from a foreign land, is facing war on two sides.  On one hand, they face the hostile aboriginal peoples of their new home.  On the other, they face the powerful civilization of their former homeland, Sairland.    
The aboriginal Aniw people of the far north have no interest in these wars, but the arrival of soldiers with guns make it clear that they have no choice. After an ill-fated act of violence, an Aniw spiritwalker, Sjennonirk, is taken into custody by these soldiers and imprisoned far from her home.

Sjennonirk’s story may have ended there, if a certain general had not been highly interested in the military potential of her powerful spiritwalker magic.  Now, her only possible path to freedom lies in teaching the general’s reluctant son, a soldier named Jarett Fawle, dangerous skills that will change both of their lives forever.” ~Allie

This is the December selection for the now-finished “2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club”, and the first of Lowachee’s novels that I’ve read.  It’s definitely the first novel of a series, though the rest of the series may or may not be forthcoming.  The personal character arcs of the two viewpoint characters do reach some resolution at the end of the novel, but it seems that the overall story is still only beginning.  

My Thoughts:

The world of Gaslight Dogs is fictional, but it reminds me strongly of dynamics between civilizations during the early movement of Europeans to the United States and Canada.  I enjoyed the fact that the novel did not show either the natives or the newcomers as purely good or evil. With Sjenn providing the viewpoint of Aniw culture and Jarret providing insight into the ‘invaders’, it was clear that both sides had their share of difficulties to face. I thought it was very interesting to see how their different cultural backgrounds shaped their interactions.  A lot of the book revolves around the relationship between Sjenn and Jarret, but it is more an uncertain alliance of necessity than anything approaching romance.  It was kind of refreshing to read a story about a man and a woman who do not fall in love.

One major aspect of the aboriginal cultures is their ‘spiritwalker’ magic, which is also the main fantasy element of the story.  Essentially, certain people have a ‘little spirit’ that lives within them.  This little spirit is a kind of ancestral god, and it can come out of the host human’s body in the form of a powerful ‘Dog’.  These Dogs are incredibly dangerous, and different aboriginal tribes have different techniques designed to keep them under control.  I thought it was a neat idea, but the frequent ritualistic calling and sending away of Dogs verged on feeling a little repetitive at times.  Jarret’s people’s former civilization, Sairland, also seemed to have some kind of magic, and there are hints that disagreements over it tie in to complicated religious politics.  This is delved into very little in Gaslight Dogs, but enough is shown to make me feel fairly certain that Jarret’s society’s religion and magic will play a larger role later in the trilogy. 

The writing in Gaslight Dogs was very effective at communicating physical sensation.  It was easy to imagine the winter cold, the summer heat, the grime of the frontier, and Sjenn’s hunger and physical discomfort.  However, I occasionally felt like there was some overuse of adjectives, which sometimes made the writing feel a little clunky.  The pacing also seemed a little uneven.  There wasn’t much action in the story, since most of the novel was focused on Sjenn and Jarret’s slowly developing partnership. The climactic scenes of the novel occurred with little buildup, making them seem a little abrupt and rushed next to the slow pace of the rest of the novel. 

Gaslight Dogs got off to a slow start, but I enjoyed getting to know the characters of Sjenn and Jarret.  The novel ended in a way I didn’t expect, but I can see in hindsight how much sense it makes in terms of the characters.  As a single novel, Gaslight Dogs did not feel dissatisfying.  There is a definite ending point, which concludes the character’s personal arcs, but it is obvious that there is a much larger story that is only beginning.  I believe it is still uncertain whether the second two novels will be written, but I think this is a story that certainly deserves continuation.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

Gaslight Dogs is an interesting story of ancient magic and a clash of cultures that seems similar to the clash between European immigrants and Native Americans.  Instead of showing either side as the ‘bad guys’, the novel provides a main character viewpoint from each side of the conflict.  I enjoyed watching the (very) slowly developing bond between spiritwalker Sjenn and soldier Jarret, possibly in part because they did not fall into any typical romantic patterns.  I had some complaint about construction, notably with the overuse of adjectives and the uneven pacing, but I thought Lowachee’s description of physical sensations was remarkably effective.  Overall, I think this is a story worth continuing, and I hope that Lowachee ends up publishing the rest of the trilogy!

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