Review: Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee

Gaslight Dogs is many things. It is definitely genre fiction. It is definitely speculative fiction, and all the hard stuff that it entails—a social commentary, an imaginative piece of work, a secondary world that has uncomfortable parallels with ours, and a ripping good story besides.

In Chimamanda Adichie’s talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” she notes:

“The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story.”

In Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee starts the story with not the arrival of the Ciracusans—their representative, Father Bari, has been there many times already, exchanging stories and commodities with the Aniw for years. Rather, it starts with the arrival of the Ciracusan Army and their guns, that Father Bari cannot help prevent, nor can he explain.

It starts with the story of Sjennonirk, an Aniw girl who is an ankago, directly descended from the spirit elders that guide her people. It is easy to see within the first few pages where the Aniw are and who they are based on—although the geography is fictional, the Aniw live up North, like the Inuits. Contact with the Ciracusans begins with trade, and later changes into hostility as they kidnap Sjenn and bring her to a city in the South, where she is taken in by General Fawle, who makes her do something she never thought possible: teach his son, Captain Jarret Fawle, how to make manifest the Dog, the little spirit that lives within all descendants of the spirit elders, assisted by Keeley, a Wishishian scout who has gone back and forth between his native home and Kabliw (Ciracusan) life.

Sjenn’s struggle to adapt to life in the Kabliw city of Nev Anyan, the culture shock she faces in food, clothing, mannerisms, is starkly portrayed, as Karin Lowachee holds nothing back in showing Sjenn’s discomfort: “The form was wrong in its pattern and cut, in its lack of fur or soft skins. These weren’t Aniw lines, or Aniw texture. She couldn’t stop tugging at the sleeves and the ribbon cinching her waist. She plucked and writhed in the constriction all the way back down the steps…” (98). She has trouble eating the food, and refuses to eat anything more than biscuits, dipping them in her soup, rather than eat the cooked meat. But Lowachee presents this without making a huge fuss about it—it is a sign that Sjenn is different from the others in her current surroundings, but written from Sjenn’s perspective, so it doesn’t scream Otherness. Sjenn’s longing for her home is never far away, her concern growing as she realizes there is more to General Fawle’s plans besides his forcing her to teach Jarrett the way of the ankago.

Jarrett Fawle has some similar problems: having been assaulted and left a survivor in the wilderness that his outpost on the Frontier guards, he struggles to deal with the nightmares that result from the assault that is vaguely sexual (btw, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month), and returns to Nev Anyan for his father to order him to learn the magic of the people who he has been fighting all this while. His problems are compounded when Sjenn discovers that he does, indeed, possess a Dog within him, and he vacillates between calmly and rationally denying the existence of this magic, to wild confusion and anger at this power he possesses.

In the background, but no less important to the story, General Fawle lurks, driven by his war on two fronts: against Sairland, where the Ciracusans came from, and against the aboriginal tribes of the land that the Ciracusans are trying to make their home upon; Keeley, who serves General Fawle with questionable loyalty and is another window for Sjenn to see what goes on between their peoples and the Ciracusans; Sister Oza, representative of the Church, keeping an eye on what happens in order to prevent sacrilege by the Army. Other side characters are drawn as wary, fearful as people would be when dealing with power and circumstances that they don’t understand.

Lowachee moves in between the perspectives of these two protagonists smoothly, but clearly—in Sjenn’s perspective, the Ciracusans are called Kabliw; in Jarrett’s perspective, the natives are called abos. The voices are distinct, although not so different that the shift is jarring.

The moral complexities of imperialism is sympathetically portrayed: the soldiers are following orders the best they can and protecting citizen Ciracusans under threat from abos*; the Church has its own moral code which clashes with the methods of the Army’s leaders, the Patronael; the various Aniw native tribes, each with their own name (Wishishian, Soreganee, Pite, Morogo) fight back against the invasion of their land by Kabliw who threaten to displace them; Jarrett chafes at being the unwitting and unwilling pawn of the Patronael’s plans; Keebley, watching and observing, tries to stop what’s happening in whatever small way he can, neither hating nor loving; Sjenn tries to make sense of it all, while fighting to teach Jarrett how to command his Dog, knowing that her life and chances of returning home hinges on teaching the Kabliw what little she can impart of her spiritwalking skills to give them an edge in the war.

A little before the ending, I was jarred by what appeared to be sudden shift in the story, and realized that this fantastic book is merely a setup for more to come! (At this point, I got mad at Ay-Leen for sending me this first book in a series, flailed and wailed at not being able to find out what happens next after this extremely exciting denouement, and tweeted my frustration for about an hour while everybody else laughed at me.)

As I’m not Native/Aboriginal/First Nations, it’s hard for me to make a complete judgment on how culturally sensitive this book is to actual history, so I would very much appreciate reading a review from that perspective. However, for all my flailing, I find this to be an excellent start to what looks to be an intriguing series.

For more information on Karin Lowachee, check out her website:
Beyond Victoriana also has an interview with her: Interview with Karin Lowachee, author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS
* Note that “abo” is short for “aboriginal” and is a pejorative in Australia. Karin Lowachee addresses this in the BV interview, so make sure you check it out.

Jaymee Goh has too many more books to wade through, too much stuff to pack for her move, and many more analyses to write at Silver Goggles, her steampunk postcolonialist blog. However! She is indeed returning to school this fall, yay!


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