Eleven months from Earth, on the other side of a wormhole, the Songheuser Corporation is logging the moon of Huginn. Kate Standish is an agoraphobic hard-ass who wakes up from cryo-freeze with an attitude, yearning for her companion dog Hattie. But dogs aren't well-liked on Huginn.
Standish is a character in the tradition of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, a damaged woman who takes shit from no one. She swears a great deal, and prefers "fuckbuddies" to relationships. Her traumatic fear of stars and open skies lands her and her dog on a rainy moon with a brief three-week dry season. But her personal struggles begin to diminish against the intrigue of her new job. On her way to the plastic printed frontier town where she's been assigned, she is unexpectedly promoted. Turns out the last communications officer was murdered in the forest while Standish was still in transit.
Though Standish is ostensibly the protagonist of An Oath of Dogs, many chapters are also devoted to her co-worker, company biologist Peter Bajowsky—who it turns out is the bisexual/vegetarian/former boyfriend of the aforementioned murder victim. The moon is also home to a large colony of space Mennonites called Believers, as well as packs of wild dogs that have inexplicably gone lunar and taken to digging up corpses from local graveyards.
Though she earned it for her work as an editor at Lightspeed Magazine, Wendy Wagner is one of the few Portland authors who can boast that they've won a Hugo Award. She has an impressive body of short stories in print, as well as a mass-market novel (Starspawn) adapted from the role-playing game Pathfinder. Wagner is a talent, and An Oath of Dogs is her first foray into novel-length original fiction set in her own Northwest-derived universe of eco-terrorists, uncaring corporations, backwoods fundamentalists, flawed humans, and wild dogs.
While some of the hard sci-fi and eco-thriller elements in the first two acts of An Oath of Dogs veer toward melodrama and cliché, it is the dogs that are granted the most poetic descriptions. Wagner has a gift for penning passages from the canines' perspective, impressively elevating instinct and sensory information to revelatory levels. Early in the text, when the dogs unearth one of their own, living, from a freshly dug grave, she writes, "The rest of the pack circled it, barking, licking, pawing, delighted to puppyhood by the creature's presence."
The climactic third act bombards and rewards the reader as successive mysteries are solved, sympathetic characters go bad, and villains reveal their complexities. Despite large sections of the book focusing on a narrative that isn't light years away from Avatar or Starship Troopers, there are also gruesome deaths, bloody violence, corpses, cannibalism, and curses.
Wagner's prose cuts deepest when dealing with horror, and one can't help but paw the dirt, hoping her next novel smells even more strongly of disaster.
Wendy Wagner reads at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., on Monday, July 10. 7:30 pm. Free.