Easing a reader into a fictional world can be like coaxing a timid swimmer into an outdoor pool. Sometimes the water’s chilly. The key to successfully introducing a vast new world is verisimilitude. A writer must capture the truth of a place using characters and details that are plainly untrue.
In The Gaslight Dogs, award-winning author Karin Lowachee makes excellent use of details and character to craft a fictional world that serves as an uncomfortable echo of the conflicts and complexities between European colonists and native American peoples. The setting and details are pure fantasy fiction, lacking only a handy post-title page map of the lands. But Lowachee’s world is trying to tap into a much deeper truth.
The novel opens with Sjennonirk, a spiritual guide of the Aniw, who live on the snow and tundra beyond the tree line. Significantly, the Aniw refer to the tree line as the “Hackles of the Dog” and consider it a boundary they should not cross. As her people’s spirit guide or “ankago,” Sjenn communes with an inner spirit she refers to as a “dog.” It’s a tangible entity that she can summon into reality, though this leaves her in a comatose state.
Only a brief chapter is spent in Sjenn’s homeland, yet Lowachee’s choice of detail, combined with a harrowing closing scene, create a vivid image of her home and people, in particular the precariousness of their situation. She watches from a distance as men from the South unload long wooden crates filled with guns. A priest stands by apologetically. It all doesn’t bode well for the Aniw, as it didn’t for the other members of the Pagani Nation.
The southern men are soldiers of the Ciracusan army. The Ciracusa are settlers, a pre-industrial people “exiled” from a distant nation called the Sairland some 200 years before the novel’s opening. They’ve been battling a lengthy naval war against their overseas fatherland while also warring against four of the six tribes of the Pangani Nation in which they have “settled.”
A violent act of self-defence lands Sjenn in one of the Ciracusan ships travelling south to what seems an inevitable prison sentence. Unexpectedly, her dog emerges on the ship. Its actions compound the violence greatly, while also attracting the attention of General Fawle.
The general seems more familiar with the spirit summoning process than one would expect from a “Boot Person.” He brings his son, Captain Jarrett, to the prison where Sjenn is being held and, gradually, reveals that he expects his son to learn how to summon his own dog, with Sjenn as a reluctant, and essentially captive, teacher.
The balance of the novel is rooted in Jarrett’s perspective and much of it is spent on his very grudging training sessions with Sjenn with assistance from a Whishishian guide named Keeley who has an unexplained connection to his father the general. Presumably, the general sees a military advantage to harnessing a dog of his own but his motivations are inscrutable and, as far as Jarrett is concerned, unquestionable.
Jarrett doesn’t trust Sjenn or any other “abo.” He can’t even comfortably sleep under the same roof as one. Yet he’s equally hostile to his father, who he reflects could never parent, only “domineer.” Their relationship, Lowachee makes clear, is a sad reflection of their bellicose surroundings. “If the world gave war, so could it give such a father.”
This dark but fascinating world inevitably touches on some volatile subjects. Lowachee briefly references residential schools, though even the war-hardened Ciracusans soon disbanded theirs. More generally, she’s exploring the complex, often calamitous, mingling of colonist and native cultures.
The unexpected consequences of this mingling is reflected partly in the “dog” spirits that exist in the Aniw and the other Pagani peoples. The stereotype of animal spirits would suggest they hearken to a higher wisdom but that doesn’t hold true here. The “dogs” are more demonic, expressing an atavistic rage that even the gentle Sjenn is powerless to deny. They seem a volatile fit for Jarrett who, when not safely garrisoned with his soldiers, seems to be a perpetual mess of rage and alcohol.
Being forced to live with Sjenn and Keeley compounds his frustrations. Jarrett is repelled by the thought of submitting to an abo’s mystical training yet, as a captain of the Ciracusan army, he can’t refuse the orders of a general. Sjenn is as unsettled by Jarrett’s dog as he is and doesn’t really know how to train him anyway. Too much of the novel is spent locked in this frustrating dynamic. When the story finally moves forward, its climax appears suddenly and unfolds toward a grim ending for one of its characters while leaving the other at loose ends.
According to Lowachee’s website, the novel is the first in a series exploring this world, yet there haven’t been any since its publication six years ago. If taken as the first in a series, The Gaslight Dogs is an intriguing opening to a world that begs to be further explored. As a stand-alone novel, it’s frustrating and ultimately feels incomplete.
Wes Smiderle is a science fiction writer, former reporter, and editor based in Ottawa.