Under the Radar

Under the Radar: The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee

When we came up with the idea for Under the Radar, a column that tries to highlight books that for some reason didn’t get as much attention as (we feel) they deserved, there were three books that immediately popped into my mind. The first one I’ve already reviewed: The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. The second one I’m keeping under wraps for now, mainly because I have no idea how to write about it yet. And the third one is Karin Lowachee’s excellent fantasy novel The Gaslight Dogs.

When Lowachee released The Gaslight Dogs in April 2010, she had already published a trilogy of highly acclaimed SF novels (Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird). Even though there was no indication of this on the novel’s cover or, as far as I can tell, anywhere else in the book, The Gaslight Dogs was actually the opening volume in a trilogy. The author since confirmed with me that the new series was pitched as a trilogy, but that the publisher only contracted for one book.

And sadly, as they say, that was all she wrote. (In that series, at least. Lowachee has continued to write short stories, including one in the upcoming War Stories anthology.)

It’s easy to speculate about reasons why any publisher would contract for only one book in a proposed trilogy. This wasn’t the first time it happened, and it probably won’t be the last. Still, there’s something unfair about it—unfair to both the author and the readership. Yes, publishers must generate profit to survive, but there are also general market forces that make, say, a military SF trilogy by a male author a much safer bet than a genre-bending fantasy trilogy by a female author, especially one dealing with post-colonial issues in a unique and challenging context.

And well, hence the need for a column like Under the Radar, right? When I originally reviewed this novel in 2010, just a few months after its release, I called it “a strong, emotionally gripping novel that deserves much more attention than it received when it first came out.” By now, I’ve frequently mentioned to friends that, if I had the money, The Gaslight Dogs is the kind of book I’d launch a publishing company for, just so the sequels would see the light.

But anyway, about the actual novel. The Gaslight Dogs features two memorable main characters, Sjennonirk (or Sjenn for short) and Jarrett Fawle, as well as several well-drawn side characters. Sjenn is the young spiritwalker of her Anwi (think: Inuit) tribe, who finds herself taken captive by the Ciracusan army and transported from the frozen north to the gas lit city of Nev Anyan. Jarrett is a captain in the Ciracusan (think: colonial era United States) military. He’s also the son of a powerful general who treats him more as a subordinate than as a son. Jarrett returns on leave to Nev Anyan after a fearful encounter with Qoyotariz, a warrior of one of the many abo (read: Native American) tribes Ciracusa is battling.

Karin Lowachee’s prose is powerful and often uniquely styled. Be warned: you won’t find much exposition here, and as a result the first few chapters can be a bit confusing as the new vocabulary and names trickle into the story. During my first reading, I ended up going over those first few chapters twice, partly to connect the dots on some world-building details that are implied rather than explained, and partly to enjoy the beautiful prose and Lowachee’s often surprising word choices and similes. Some books can be read quickly, and some need to be savored and enjoyed slowly; The Gaslight Dogs is most definitely an example of the latter.

Also impressive is the way Karin Lowachee quickly and deftly adds depth to her characters. Within the first pages of their respective chapters, you’ll have a solid idea of who Sjenn and Jarrett are. As the book progresses, they are placed in emotionally wrenching situations that add layer upon layer to their personalities. However, the emotion in this novel is often understated: certain scenes contain powerful but almost silent clashes of worldviews and personalities, and their true impact may not strike you initially and only hit you long after reading them. (The tattoo scene, for example, is one of the most powerful instances of identity erasure I’ve ever read.)

The Gaslight Dogs’ fantasy world is fascinating, but not everything is explained in this first novel. There are many hints at a complex history that’s impacting the story in ways we may not yet understand. The most pressing question at the end of The Gaslight Dogs is probably the true nature of the “little spirits.” At first they may appear to be your standard fantasy animal familiars or guiding spirits, but you’ll very quickly realize that there’s a lot more going on here. (Finding out what’s actually behind all of this is a big part of my desire to somehow see the sequels to this novel published.)

Another big part of this is the complex history Lowachee builds up, with Ciracusa sort of stuck in the middle of a post-colonial continuum. For the indigenous tribes, they’re the invaders taking their lands. (Those tribes are, themselves, highly diverse, and some of them cooperate with the invaders while others fight them to the death.) For Sairland, the Ciracusans’ old colonial masters, Ciracusa is a wayward colony it’s trying to bring back under control. And for poor Sjenn, the Aniw girl who is dragged off to the mainland so the Ciracusans can learn her magic, all of them are practically aliens. Just contrasting the various names some of these factions uses to refer to the others is an exercise in understanding culture shock and assimilation from the point of view of subaltern cultures.

The Gaslight Dogs packs an enormous amount of depth into barely 340 pages. The novel’s characters, powerful prose and well-realized world are stunning. The atmosphere, for want of a better word, is simply unique: you can see the historical parallels, but by adding fantasy elements and, more importantly, offering different perspectives, Lowachee does much more than just retell history. The novel’s conclusion is poignant and, upon rereading, just open-ended enough to make me really, really annoyed that we never got to see a sequel.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.


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