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The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee

Cover art by Sam Weber

Published by Orbit Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Every now and then a hasty reading of a cover blurb will result in a humorous misunderstanding. In the case of this book, I misread the name Ciracusan as Circassian (the name of one of the many nationalities of the Caucasus mountains). As a result, I started reading this novel with the odd idea that I was reading the story of an alternate history in which Russians were interacting with the peoples of the Alaskan arctic -- perhaps a mass migration of Russians to the New World along the lines of Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or maybe just a world in which the Russians kept their North American holdings, rather like Stoney Compton's Russian Amerika.

Except as soon as I got into the book, I realized that I'd misread it, and the characters had nothing whatsoever to do with the Circassians or any other minority nationality of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Instead, Ciracusa occupies a historical and narrative place similar to that of the USA in our own world, although their history is much simplified compared to our own -- instead of the wide variety of motivations that led settlers to come to the various colonies that would ultimately become the USA, we have a single group of people all seeking religious freedom. They worship the Seven Deities, a small pantheon of gods and goddesses that differs in some way from the traditional pantheons of the lands they left behind, and whose worship is led by priests addressed as Father in the manner of Catholic priests (although it is never clear whether they are celibate).

The result is a fantasy world that allows the author to explore the relationships of the Inuit to the English-speaking Americans without the specifics of historical events, and with the addition of magic to what is otherwise pretty much the technology and society of the Gilded Age (thus the reference to the gaslight era in the title).

Among the Aniw, some people have the ability to release their Little Spirit from within themselves to take the form of a dog. Not a fluffy lapdog, but a big, strong one like the sort that pull their sleds across the snow. That is Sjen's ability, and it becomes her nightmare when one of the Kabliw, as her people call the southerners who enter their lands, forces his way into her family's home. To her, killing him is a clear act of self-defense, both for her individually and for her entire family.

But to the Ciracusans, it's an act of murder, and a particularly frightening one because it involved that Little Spirit taking its canine form. The Ciracusans have a deep dread of such magics, which they regard as contrary to the doctrines of their Seven Deities. So Sjen's arrested and hauled aboard a ship that takes her away from her people, off to the Ciracusan city of Nev Anyan.

There her life is put straight on a collision course with that of young Jarrett Fawle. A captain in the Ciracusan army, he's the son of a powerful and ambitious general. He's also the son of a woman of one of the other tribal peoples of the north, and as such is considered somewhat marked out by the other officers. His father deliberately set up this match in hopes of having a son who would have the magical powers of the northern peoples because he believed that he could thus have those powers at his command.

The plan seems simple on the surface -- Jarrett is to learn how Sjen controls her dog, and in return for teaching him to summon his own Little Spirit and control it, Sjen will regain her freedom. However, things always turn out to be more complicated than they seem. Before they can even begin, Sjen must be brought safely back out of the semi-catatonic state she has slipped into when she lost control of her dog and it began to function in an increasingly autonomous fashion.

Even then, Jarrett finds it harder than he expects to gain control over his own Little Spirit -- and the things he has to do in order to do so mark him permanently as Other in ways that his fellow Ciracusans find barbaric and distasteful. And then he finds that he's opened a door that he cannot re-close so easily, forcing him onto a path that he does not want to take.

It's a fascinating novel of cross-cultural contact and self-discovery. Although there's a glimmer of hope at the ending, there's also a definite sense that both characters have endured irreparable loss and will never again be able to go back to the lives they have left behind. On one hand, it would be interesting to see further stories set in this world, but on the other, this novel is fully satisfying on its own.

Review posted October 31, 2010.

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