I’m not gonna lie – I strongly considered not reading this book. It came highly recommended by several sources, but also, it seemed like it might be one of the many books where the dog dies, and I didn’t want to read that at all. I love dogs, I don’t want to read about them dying, and that’s that. Good news, though: the dog does not die in this book. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it’s one that I wanted before I read the book, and I think you might too.
An Oath of Dogs takes place on the colonized moon of Huginn, a world teeming with valuable horsehair trees, with logging camps and mills abounding in the settled regions of the moon. The moon is partially colonized by Songheuser, an intergalactic megacorp, and partially by the Believers of the Word Made Flesh, a religious sect comparable to the Amish in terms of their relationship to technology, and who take a very literalist view of the scripture. Kate Standish, survivor of a terrible accident on a faraway space station, has arrived with her dog Hattie in tow, ready to serve as the assistant communications director for Canaan Lake. Except the communications director has died under suspicious circumstances, and Standish seems to be the only person interested in finding out more.
One of the first signs that something is wrong is how people react to Hattie’s presence when they arrive in Canaan Lake. They are wary, they are alarmed, and they insist that Standish not leave her out at night. It soon turns out that Huginn has a terrible problem with dogs brought by previous colonists – they become semi-sentient, attacking the settlers, digging up graves, and acting otherwise feral. What’s more, no one has any idea why this is happening. Among the things left behind by her former boss, Standish finds a diary belonging to Hepzibah Williams, one of the very first Believer colonists to settle this world.
The diary entries move in parallel with the present-day (well, far future) plot of the book – events are revealed in tandem and information is parceled out at exactly the right times. The suspense and tension in this book is maintained incredibly well. It starts out fairly high key, and continues to rise until the very, very end of the book when everything comes together in a deeply satisfying conclusion, answering your questions and making you feel serious compassion for people in both halves of this story. The ending ties things together in an unexpected way while still making complete sense – you’re never really blindsided by any of the revelations, but you are (or at least, I was) still surprised by how all the moving pieces fit together.
Kate Standish is a great protagonist and viewpoint character, as well. She is a very… complete view of a person, which is something that I feel is lacking in a lot of books. She had lingering PTSD from her experience on the space station, and she relies heavily on Hattie as a therapy animal. She likes to drink and fuck to distract herself from her problems. She can’t avoid sticking her nose in where she probably shouldn’t, for better or for worse. She plays well off the other characters, and we see her reactions to Hepzibah’s diary as well. Character interactions drive this story as much as anything, and that’s great.
The concept of this book ties in closely with the worldbuilding, I’d say – the forest moon of Huginn very much makes the book what it is; it would be a very different story in another setting. The future here – the megacorps, the space travel in cryo, the colonization, the space stations – it’s all very well-established in very little time, which I appreciate. In retrospect, this book is kind of what I wanted from The Vorrh: a somewhat trippy, psychedelic mystery set in a big, weird forest. I did not get that from The Vorrh, but I sure as hell got it here.
In many ways, I’m reminded of Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, another far future space mystery that I read earlier this year. Both are truly excellent books, and they both are masterworks of sci-fi mystery. I am consistently impressed by mystery authors (I find mystery very hard to write, for my own part), and even moreso here. This is a perfectly paced, beautifully spooky mystery, with all the trappings of the best whodunits and the best planetary science fiction (even if it’s on a moon and not a planet, as we are reminded several times in the narrative).
I think I’ve said a few times this year that science fiction and fantasy (and really all genre fiction, but these are the two I know best) have leveled up significantly in the past couple of years. Every new book I read seems to set the bar a little higher, and somehow the next release always seems to top it. It’s kind of amazing, and I’m so happy to be living in a golden age of SFF. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to be completely unable to decide which of several excellent sci-fi books I’ve read this year is my favorite. But needless to say, Wendy N Wagner is one of the authors bringing the genre to the next level, and I can’t wait to read more from her.