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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Tales of the Apt Thoughts

When Adrian Tchaikovsky’s massive Shadows of the Apt saga at last came to an end, I left it with very mixed feelings, having disagreed with some of the story-telling choices he had made toward the end. Nonetheless, I cannot deny he is an objectively good writer, and that Shadows of the Apt boasts one of the most intricate and impressive settings in the entire fantasy genre.

Cover art for Tales of the Apt: Spoils of War by Adrian TchaikovskyThus, I did eventually find myself compelled to look into the short fiction collections set in that universe he has released since the end of the main series, titled Tales of the Apt. So far, there are three installments in this series: Spoils of War, A Time for Grief, and For Love of Distant Shores.

The first collection somewhat disappointed me. It mainly dealt with locations, cultures, and themes that were already well-explored in the main series, which seemed a waste of potential. We get it; Wasps are dicks.

The only highlight was the story of a disgraced Mantis-kinden Weaponmaster searching for her warrior’s death, a story perfectly calculated to appeal to my interests.

A Time for Grief was more impressive, though. It features a lot of new material surrounding settings and concepts that were not explored by the novels, including a very interesting delve into pre-history and the true origins of the insect-kinden. The title story also delves into the birth of the city-state of Princep Salmae, and feels important enough that I think it really should have been included in the main books somehow.

The third book, For Love of Distant Shores, was my favourite. It feels more like a full new novel, because while it is still technically a short story collection, it follows the same characters throughout.

For Love of Distant Shores tells of the travels of the absent-minded Beetle explorer Doctor Ludweg Phinagler (seriously) as he uncovers new knowledge, and mortal peril. Mostly peril. This serves as an opportunity to visit a number of areas and stories mostly or entirely new to the series, some of it truly fascinating.

However, Phinagler himself isn’t necessarily the focus. The stories are told via the notes of Fosse, his assistant, an acerbic and debaucherous Fly-kinden woman. More than anything else, Fosse is what makes For Love of Distant Shores worth reading. Her wry, cutting commentary is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

All of these stories seemed to be written with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the setting, so unfortunately I’m not sure I’d recommend the collections to those who haven’t already read Shadows of the Apt.

For those who have read the novels, I definitely recommend A Time for Grief and For Love of Distant Shores. Spoils of War is less memorable and probably only worth it for super fans, if that.