The Gaslight Dogs
by Karin Lowachee
Cover Artist: Sam Weber
Review by Cathy Green
Orbit Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316021791
Date: 01 April 2010 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Sjennonirk is an ankago, a wise woman/medicine woman for the Aniw, an indigenous group roughly equivalent to the Inuit in our world. In the world created by Lowachee, the Aniw have relatively recently been in contact with the Ciracusans, called Kabliw by Sjenn's people, through traders introduced to them and vouched for by a priest, Father Bari. Unfortunately, the Ciracusans are at war with the Sairlanders from who they have broken off, and the trading expeditions soon turn into a permanent army camp that is there to protect the Aniw, which given our history, turns out exactly as well the reader might expect. When Sjenn's family is threatened by a soldier, she kills him and is taken prisoner and transported to a southern city, Nev Anyan to await trial.
In prison in the city and quite ill due to being unable to eat the food, Sjenn is made an offer she cannot refuse by General Fawle. Sjenn has a spirit animal, a dog, that can literally manifest itself (this is the case for other indigenous peoples in this world as well). General Fawle believes his son Captain Jarrett Fawle has in inner dog as well, and wants Sjenn to train him to control and release it. The General promises her that if she can do this she can go home. While Sjenn has now had enough experience with Ciracusans to doubt the sincerity of the promise, she has no other options and agrees.
Captain Jarrett has major father issues and is not happy about being pulled from the fort where he has been stationed to learn how to control his dog and is extremely abusive to Sjenn and the other indigenous man, Keeley, in his father's household. Sjenn meanwhile, is trying to cope with what little food she can eat and with the clothes they are making her wear. The Ciracusans are steamrolling over her culture, insisting that she suck it up and learn to eat their food and taking away her furs and boots and making her wear a dress and shoes, which, while not exactly like taking the sealskin of a selkie, has a pretty similar effect.
Complicating matters further is that other than Sjenn and the General, who want the experiment to succeed for radically different reasons, no one else thinks Sjenn should train Jarrett. The General dreams of an army of dog warriors to defeat the Sairlanders, but other indigenous people think that giving the Ciracusans this power is a bad idea, as does the Church, in this case the Church Militant, appearing in the form of Sister Oza, the chaplain at Jarrett's fort. And of course Jarrett thinks it is a bad idea and takes out his anger on Sjenn.
This is not a novel with the white guy coming in to be a savior of the native peoples. The Fawles are completely contemptuous of the indigenous peoples and the General only wants them around long enough to steal their powers. The Church thinks people like Sjenn are an abomination. Even the allegedly kindly priest Father Bari is not at all sympathetic to Sjenn's situation and cannot see that her killing of the soldier was pretty much self-defense and cannot understand why Sjenn and her people blame him for the coming of the soldiers even though he vouched for the Ciracusan traders.
Lowachee does a good job of world building in The Gaslight Dogs and does an excellent job of depicting Sjenn's alienation from Ciracusan society and the casual racism and dismissal of native culture of the Ciracusans. She also does a nice job of setting up the politics of the world. I would have a liked a bit more explanation of how the power to let out, control, and reabsorb the Dog worked, particularly since at least so far, Sjenn seems unable to reabsorb her Dog without outside assistance, while Jarrett does not have that problem. Given Sjenn's embrace of her inner Dog and Jarrett's hostility towards his, this struck me as a bit odd.
Also, the novel is very clearly the first of a series, because while the novel does reach a logical endpoint, it resolves virtually none of the major plot points. I found this a bit annoying as I had not realized that this was only the first book of a series or at least a duology. On the other hand, it's a real page-turner and I look forward to seeing what Lowachee does with the world she has set up in the next book.