This is the second type.
I need to head off on a tangent for a bit, sorry. So sometime back, a certain novel was awarded a Hugo for being the best of the year. I tried to read it, and was instantly lost in the undefined terminology, cultures, world, and a distressingly nonlinear flow. That was Ancillary Justice, and I maybe got 10% of the book read before I deleted it. I don’t mind all those things as a reader, I just need something to use as a guide to the world. In Kris Carey and Rod Kierkegaard, Jr.’s ‘Flight To Mecha‘ you get most of those, but it is well done, and you are never thrown into things without a touchstone as you are in Ancillary Justice.
Back to the review at hand. Zhukov’s Dogs starts off going down the wrong path. Terms, environment, an obvious cultural shift…all of this is there in abundance, and it was enough to get me to stop reading while I read a few other books in the middle. But I did return, and I have to say I am glad I did. Because it clears up, mostly, and clears enough to allow the reader to move forward without knowing the whole of the story.
And you never do. You are seeing a fraction of the world – a narrowly focused slice telling this one specific story, without the background to really understand things. You wind up not really needing it, I suppose, but for myself, I missed it. As I have mentioned in this space before, I like knowing the full story. I like knowing what I am seeing in the background. I want to know why Zhukov is known as a dog, why there even is a Youth Intelligence Division, who decided Grey Men were a good idea (and, yes, why), how Seattle came to be not only mostly underground, but the cultural shift to make it uncomfortable for a gay character to be openly so.
So, yeah, there are some things that would make this more enjoyable.
But then there is that ‘First Novel’ tag, for this is indeed Amanda Cyr’s first novel, and I do tend to give a lot of leeway on those. Getting published is hard, and having some dude half a continent away with precisely zero books published (or submitted, or written, or started) slam your decisions because they aren’t his isn’t needed.
So, what is the book about? Simply put, it is about one Lieutenant Colonel Nik Zhukov being dispatched to the underground city beneath the icy Seattle tundra, this is supposed to be his final mission handed down directly from The Council. The year is 2076, and America is vastly different than it is now – there is a Council, for one. Also different are the Grey Men, who seem to be genetically / chemically engineered super soldiers (more Bane than Captain America), who serve as guards and shock troopers. Nik, as a member of the YID, is also enhanced in some ways. A lot of this is gleaned from the text – the feel is very much one of ‘everyone knows this, so no one explains it’, which is a huge bonus to authenticity (as opposed to a single character spouting exposition for a chapter), but also a bit of a drain on the ease of readability. It makes the beginning harder to understand than it needs to be.
Don’t give up though. While my preference for reams of backstory creates blinders, the bulk of the information you need is filled in, and the story soon leaves behind the need for explanation. What we get then is a decent infiltration tale, with the usual bits of seeing that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t, that the establishment is corrupt, and so forth. These are well executed, and have their own twists, which removes them from being mostly standard tropes. The characters are mostly well developed, with two exceptions that I kept confusing. In the end, they didn’t really matter, so no harm done.
That leads to the final issue I had – there is a lack of wrap-up. Which, again, is very much something Nik wouldn’t know, but this reader wanted. Not that I need the follow-on novel of each character, but something would have been nice. After the story got me into it fully, that was a bit of a let-down.
So, if this review seems all over the place, it’s because my impression of the book is as well. I loved large chunks of it – most of it, really, but then other parts were inexplicably deus ex machina mixed with handwavium. I couldn’t get a handle on it. There is a reason I paused to read another novel in the middle. It just wasn’t holding me. Then it was.
So, finally, we get to the end of this ramble. Let me close with this. I want to read the backstory – how did it get to this place where there is no President? What happened to the environment to make Seattle tundra? What changed in a fairly liberal city to make it intolerant of homosexuality? How do we have the tech we do, but not the tech we don’t see? Grey Men? Youth Intelligence Division? So. Many. Questions. So, yes, I would read a sequel, and be vastly more interested in a prequel.
Zhukov’s Dogs is good, it raised a lot of unanswered questions about the setting, and came dangerously close to losing me in the beginning, but it pulls it out, and is a good book. I think Amanda Cyr is worth watching – this is a great start.