Review: Karin Lowachee's The Gaslight Dogs

In the summer of 2002, my friend Sam Gallagher passed me a copy of a book that he had just read, Warchild, by Karin Lowachee, which I read through quickly, and really enjoyed - I blew through the next two books in the trilogy, Burndive and Cagebird, both of which were fun reads, but nothing that really inspired me like the first one. I ended up buying a couple of copies of the book, passing one along to a college friend who shared a mutual interest in science fiction books. Then, Karin fell off the map, and for a while, I wondered if the Warchild trilogy had been a fluke. It had won a number of nominations, and it would have seemed that Lowachee was going to become one of those bigger names in the Science Fiction genre.

Karin is back this year, after a multiple year break, with The Gaslight Dogs, a fantasy/historical novel that is the first of a proposed trilogy set in an interesting new world. Captured after murdering a Kabwi soldier, a spiritwalker named Sjennonirk is compelled to teach her people's abilities to an officer in the southern people's army - Captain Jarrett Fawle, the son of a prominent general. The Fawle family has some secrets, and as events transpire, the younger Fawle carries the same abilities that Sjenn carries: the ability to contain part of one's more wild side or spirit into a physical manifestation - The Dog.

Over the course of this story, Sjenn, the reluctant prisoner and teacher demonstrates and teaches Jarrett about these specific abilities, something that his father intends to wield as a sort of weapon within his army. Over the course of the story comes with it a twisted plot of familial history and drama, multi-cultural issues and the central issue of the responsibilities of power. Lowachee puts together an interesting tale that is in need of its follow up novels, with a compelling world and characters to go along with it.

We've seen both with Lowachee's books: a strong sense for building worlds permeated her Warchild novels, creating a plausible space culture, in all of its different facets. The same carries over very well with the change of genre here, where Inuit culture and the historical conquest of the North American continent really informs the world that has been set up. If anything, the novel provides a great change in venue away from the typical European settings in which most fantasy novels seem to be laid down in. Lowachee deserves praise for adapting the historical elements of real life into her fictional novel so seamlessly.

One of the main elements that really stands out for me is just how stripped down and stark this novel feels for a sort of speculative fiction entry: Karin uses her magic sparingly, pushing to the roots of what are likely mythological or other stories in the real world, but leaving the magic for specific instances: The Calling of the Dog, for example, is one of the few instances in which magic or supernatural forces are at work here, and honestly, the book works much better for those efforts: it feels, as a whole, far more realistic.

The sparse use of magic provides the backdrop for some of the more pressing matters in the book: the characters. Sjenn, General and Captain Fawle and the numerous supporting characters that appear throughout the book, each with their own motivations and objectives, which play out over the book. Sjenn is attempting to figure out her surroundings and get back to her people (although only slightly, which confused me a little), Jarrett is torn between his duty between his family and military duties, while General Fawle seems to be bent on acquiring power, no matter what is in his way.

There’s clearly a good sense here that characters really make the story here, and for the most part, that’s true. There were times when character reactions felt a bit forced (Jarrett’s drinking/rebelling against his father) and character actions were a bit unclear, and there were points where a character simply vanished for most of the book. A glossary / character list would have been a bit helpful, but those are superficial matters.

The Gaslight Dogs represents a solid comeback for Lowachee and her fantastic prose. It’s been a very long wait indeed for her books, but not only was it worth it, it was worth it to see that she didn’t try and do something over again, testing new ground and stories, which makes me more interested in a follow up novel.