Dog Country by Malcolm F. Cross
Dog Country follows the story of Edane, a geneforged dog-person who was created to be a soldier. The powers that be, however, had to acquiesce to citizens’ demands to end the program, and Edane and others were “emancipated”–set free to live by others’ definitions of a “normal” life. Readers follow Edane (and a few other intermittent viewpoints) as he tries to navigate this new world.
Janine is Edane’s girlfriend, and some of the best scenes in the story take place between these two as Edane attempts to figure out how to even express himself. He struggles to live by the standards of what is “normal” and joins up with a MilSim team trying to work its way up the ranks in a simulated combat game. There’s no small amount of discussion of what runaway capitalism could do. This especially looms large in the way the main plot takes off as the geneforged dogs start a crowdfunding campaign to depose a dictator. The campaign is a runaway success and Edane ultimately joins on for real battle, trying to find his own place in the world and meaning for himself. As readers follow the intense action scenes, flashbacks abound to Edane’s first combat action two years earlier.
The action is great, with strategic and tactical decisions abounding. It doesn’t take up much space in the story, but when it’s there, it absolutely delivers. I’m not an expert on military action, merely a fan of military sci-fi and history, and I found it satisfying each time the military action showed up. The political and civil issues raised loom large, but aren’t explored in great depth. Nonetheless, they do create breaks in the intense story of Edane’s life and background that are welcome.
I do have one minor complaint about the novel, which is that I wish the larger stakes had been made more clear. Specifically, while there’s plenty to wonder about here, the premise takes a little bit away from the stakes. We don’t have genetically engineered super-soldiers made from animals (or other geneforged people, for that matter) around. That means many of the questions raised are hypothetical. You have to be invested in the characters–which I quickly was–in order for much of the conflict to feel pressing. Of course, all of this also seems to be an extended metaphor for PTSD, with the geneforged problems standing in as problems with PTSD, and that immediately ups the stakes and brings it all together.
As a side note, I especially appreciated how many women (or at least female geneforged people) were major characters given voices in the book. Edane’s mothers have numerous great moments including some brief discussions of motherhood that are touching. Janine equally is a fully-fleshed out character dealing with her own difficulties as a geneforge. It’s great to see. Also, that cover is to die for. I definitely think it’s among the best covers in the contest.
Dog Country is yet another proof that self- and indie-published books can be and often are superb. It’s an excellent book from beginning to end, with strong characterization, a solid plot, and difficult questions. Fans of thoughtful speculative fiction should dive in immediately, and the military sci-fi aspect of it is strong enough to appeal to fans of the same. Highly recommended.
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