Black Dog: Not just a bow-wow — a big wow

Black Dog by Caitlin Kittredge fantasy book reviewsBlack Dog by Caitlin Kittredge

Wow. Please fasten your seat belts and do not attempt to stand up until the book has come to a full and complete stop, because you are about to embark on the fast-paced, twisty-curvy, snarky-poignant thrill ride of Caitlin Kittredge’s Black Dog, Book One in THE HELLHOUND CHRONICLES.

Ava is a hellhound, indentured to a reaper, a demon who makes deals for people’s souls. When the time is right, Gary (yes, her reaper’s name is Gary) sends Ava to collect. While she can do this in human form, Ava can change to a hellish canine if necessary — and often does.

Ava is little more than a slave, and in the rigid hierarchy of hell, hellhounds are near the bottom. When a human necromancer persuades her to steal Gary’s Scythe, Ava reluctantly seizes a chance at freedom. In the best tradition of good urban fantasy, this plan goes horribly wrong, and things continue to go wrong and, er, wronger, while Ava, the necromancer Leo, and a “mark” whose soul Ava was sent to collect try to free themselves from Hell’s grasp and figure out what’s going on.

Ava has a secret. Hellhounds were once human; reapers find them at the point of death and offer them indentured servitude in exchange for a facsimile of human life again. Hellhounds might remember the moment of their deaths, but they do not remember their human life… except that Ava does. This difference about her is a crucial part of the book.

While the book rampages through fight scenes with undead zombies, a chase with a motorcycle-club pack of shapeshifters, shootouts, car crashes and standoffs, blowing through casinos, freeway exit diners, brothels and soup kitchens, Kittredge still makes time to show us Ava’s frame of mind. Ava grows as a character because she moves from someone who is beaten down and hopeless to a person who sees options and learns to hope. At a couple of points in the book, characters admonish each other to “grow a spine.” The story is not about Ava growing a spine; it’s about her discovering that she already has one.

Kittredge deftly juggles a full-throttle plot, the revelation and development of Ava’s character and the deepening relationship between Ava and the necromancer Leo. The pacing is perfect and the twists and turns are just complicated enough to make the story work. The book isn’t perfect; too many chapters end with some version of “the light faded and darkness swept in,” for Ava. I swear the woman has had more knockouts than an NFL player and a boxer combined. I began to think that Kittredge didn’t know any other way to end a chapter. In at least one place, the plot requires Ava to be stupid. All right, the Prometheus Society isn’t holding a chair for Ava, granted, but sometimes it’s just too obvious, and in this one spot, simply glaring.

Overall, though, the story jetted forward with such momentum that I swept over those flaws. There are also lovely moments of writing, as when Ava ransacks a place they’ve broken into, and reports that she is once again “the proud owner of a toothbrush.” Or descriptions like this:

He was old, face like a leather handbag…

And:

…Two cars caught him on the road outside Sparks and punched enough holes in the Caddy that you could have turned it on its end and called it a cheese grater. 

The book has graphic violence, including torture, R-rated language, and one smokin’-hot sex scene that is also graphic. Those weren’t drawbacks for me, but I want you to know. If you like Richard Kadrey’s SANDMAN SLIM series or Chuck Wendig’s MIRIAM BLACK stories, chances are very good you’ll enjoy Black Dog. If you are the kind of reader who finds comfort in capital-G Good defeating capital-B Bad, this might not satisfy you… but you might want to give it a try anyway, because it’s a wild ride.

The Hellhound Chronicles — (2014-2016) A fabulous dark urban fantasy series — think Kill Bill with demons and gangsters instead of martial arts—from the award-winning author of the Iron Codex trilogy and Vertigo comic Coffin Hill. Ava has spent the last hundred years as a hellhound, the indentured servant of a reaper who hunts errant souls and sends them to Hell. When a human necromancer convinces her to steal her reaper’s scythe, Ava incurs the wrath of the demon Lilith, her reaper’s boss. As punishment for her transgression, Lilith orders Ava to track down the last soul in her reaper’s ledger… or die trying. But after a hundred years of servitude, it’s time for payback. And Hell hath no fury like an avenging Ava…


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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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2 comments

  1. Oh, I have to read this. Thanks, Marion!

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