Review: Dogs of War

A few weeks back, Adrian Tchaikovsky held a contest to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Shadows of the Apt. Fans were invited to email in with concepts for kinden that weren’t in the books, and those he liked would win autographed copies of some of his non-Apt books.

Cover art for Dogs of War by Adrian TchaikovskyMy pitch was for Daddy Longlegs-kinden. Given daddy longlegs are creatures which are often mistaken for spiders, my concept was that Longlegs-kinden would superficially resemble Spider-kinden. My thought was perhaps Longlegs are the same as Spiders, except they’re Apt, and as a result have been banished from the Spiderlands and scrubbed from history as a shameful secret.

Apparently, Mr. Tchaikovsky liked my idea, because shortly thereafter I received a package from him containing an autographed copy of a sci-fi novel of his called Dogs of War.

It’s the story of Rex, a genetically engineered “Bioform” soldier. Based on canine DNA, Rex is a massive, highly intelligent (for a dog) super-soldier created as a weapon of terror and destruction. But at the end of the day, all he wants is to be a Good Dog.

Rex fights alongside other Bioforms, including Honey, a bear whose frightening intelligence vastly outstrips anything her creators ever intended, and Bees, a Geth-like distributed intelligence taking the form of a swarm of insects.

Rex and his Bioforms are viewed by the world as monsters, but it is their human master who bears the ultimate responsibility for the horrors they unleash over the course of an anarchic counter-insurgency war. Over the course of the book, the true natures of Bioforms and their role in the war are brought to light, with the potential to reshape society as we know it.

If it sounds like a strange premise, you’re not wrong. Dogs of War is definitely different. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t fully deliver on the potential of its premise.

Considering the vast scale of Shadows of the Apt, it’s amazing how rushed and incomplete Dogs of War feels. There’s at least a trilogy’s worth of story here, but it’s all crammed into just 350 pages. Nothing is described or fleshed out enough. The story never has room to breathe.

There’s a lot of commentary on relevant real world issues here, but maybe that’s the problem. Dogs of War tries to tackle too much at once: the mentality of a soldier “just following orders,” the effects of AI research and cybernetics, and corporatocracy, among others. It’s spread too thin, and none of the issues get to be explored in the depth they deserve.

It doesn’t feel good giving a negative review to a book I won for free. And don’t let me send the impression I hated it or anything. It does have its strengths, such as the aforementioned originality of the concept.

The main highlight, I would say, is Rex himself. He’s a very well-realized character. He captures the essence of a dog’s temperament very well, tempered with a horrifying level of higher intelligence. There’s this odd emotional feedback loop around the character where he’s terrifying for what he is capable of, yet still lovable because of his simplistic canine worldview, and yet all the more terrifying for the fact that he’s so likable even when he’s doing monstrous things.

Still, it’s not a book I can give a glowing recommendation to, much as I’d like to.

Overall rating: 6.9/10

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Review: The Stormlight Archive, Book Two: Words of Radiance

Having enjoyed the first book — and still being peer-pressured within an inch of my life — I was quick to borrow the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, Words of Radiance, from my friend.

Cover art for The Stormlight Archive, book two: Words of Radiance by Brandon SandersonI enjoyed this book more than its predecessor. Words of Radiance improves on many of the strengths of The Way of Kings, and polishes some of the flaws, though it doesn’t erase them completely.

Words of Radiance sees Kaladin and the bridgemen saved from their brutal life of slavery as they now occupy a place of honour as guards in the employ of Dalinar Kholin, but the political intrigue of Alethkar provides threats of its own, and Kaladin’s personal demons threaten to rob him of everything he’s achieved.

Meanwhile, Shallan must begin to find her own path as she finds herself separated from her mentor.

For the most part, this is the same sort of experience Way of Kings was. That is to say a very traditional but highly competent high fantasy. It’s not surprising, and it’s not innovative, but it is entertaining. The plot is compelling, the setting is interesting, and the characters are deeply likable.

Near the end, it also boasts one of the most insane action sequences I’ve ever read. I wish I’d written it.

The flaws of the past book have also been at least partially addressed. Shallan has become a much more compelling character, though she’s still not my favourite, and her plot is too reliant on withholding vital information from the reader. There’s a semi-decent explanation for this within the story, but it still feels cheap.

The pacing issues have also improved. Words of Radiance is not nearly so glacial as Way of Kings was, though it does still have the problem of more happening in the last 1-200 pages than the first 1,000.

I also didn’t find the writing got so bogged down in irrelevant details this time. Or maybe I just got used to it, but there didn’t seem to be as much wasted prose this time.

On the downside, some new issues have arisen. The newly introduced romantic arcs are as lifeless and predictable as you would expect from such a classical high fantasy, and the fact it all seems to be headed towards yet another love triangle is making me physically wince.

But those are ultimately minor criticisms of what is for the most part an exciting, fascinating, and at times inspiring read. This series remains a strong recommendation for fans of old school high fantasy.

Overall rating: 8.4/10