The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee
Karin Lowachee, who has written three highly acclaimed SF novels, released her first fantasy novel, The Gaslight Dogs, in April 2010 — and it’s another good one. The novel has two memorable main characters, Sjennonirk (or Sjenn for short) and Jarrett, 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 gaslit city of Nev Anyan. Jarrett is a captain in the Ciracusan army — and the son of a powerful general — who returns on leave to the same city after a fearful encounter with Qoyotariz, a warrior of one of the many tribes Ciracusa is battling.
This is a strong, emotionally gripping novel that deserves much more attention than it received when it first came out. 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. I actually ended up reading them 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, and 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 hit you long after reading them.
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. Even though there is no indication of it on the book’s cover (featuring a beautiful illustration by Sam Weber), this is actually the first book in a planned trilogy, but rest assured: the ending, while open, is extremely poignant and more than satisfying, so the novel works very well as a standalone.
The most pressing question, after finishing the novel, is the true nature of the “little spirits.” At first they may appear to be standard animal familiars or guiding spirits, but you’ll quickly realize that there’s a lot more going on here. The novel’s characters, powerful prose and well-realized world would be enough to have me run to the bookstore for the sequel, but my main motivation will be finding out more about these mysterious spirits. Regardless, The Gaslight Dogs is an excellent fantasy novel, and highly recommended to anyone looking for an original and emotionally gripping story.
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