The blurb for The Gaslight Dogs makes it sound as if it is going to be another case of “white Guy learns native ways and saves the day,” but this is not the case. This would normally be fine with me, except that the story is also “people who hate each other an awful lot flop around and don’t do much of anything.” I am not a fan of this kind of story, but the world building was interesting so I continued reading it.
The background of the story is very much like the American Indian Wars of the 1800s. The Circacusans are at war with several aborigine tribes, while also being allied to a few others. The aborigines use various kinds of magic, and a general is scheming to acquire this power, though the Circacusan religion and Circacusan law believe magic is evil. The general manages to get his hands on a “spiritwalker” from a tribe that is vaguely reminiscent of the Inuit, and railroads her into teaching his son. His son is an officer in the army. The son wants nothing to do with his father, or with magic (though he does appear to have a talent for it). However, since his father is apparently his superior officer, he has no choice but to obey. Meanwhile, the Church would like to put an end to the general’s experiments, and a spiritwalker of an enemy tribe has acquired an obsession for the general’s son.
There are some moments of adventure and conversation, but I found I had very little empathy for any of the characters. (I did feel more sympathy for Sjennonirk than for the general’s son, but not a lot more.) No one seems to have agency, and nothing really happens, and no one makes any clear choices, they just flail about, unable to do more than react to the situation they find themselves in. (I am not a big fan of this kind of non-action.) The interactions between the characters are incredibly tense and nearly hostile at all times–there is no communication, and no attempts at understanding. I’m glad the writer didn’t go in the direction of “romance” for these two characters, but the constant hostility and lack of communication made for an unpleasant, uninteresting read.
While the world building was interesting, we are hampered by Sjennonirk’s lack of knowledge of the wider world, and the insularism of the general’s son. As a result, we do not get to really appreciate or understand the world and the specific reasons why magic is illegal and considered evil, and the few hints that might tell us why are not particularly useful to us because of the source. (A priestess coded as untrustworthy and dangerous by the plot. Actually, “untrustworthy and dangerous” fits most of the main characters involved with this story.)
The story doesn’t really go anywhere interesting, I didn’t like the characters, and it has an open ending. (I have no idea if there might be a sequel in the works or not, however.) Despite the problems I had with the book, it’s a very readable book. I might possibly read a sequel if one appears, if only to see if any of the situations created by the events of the book are resolved.