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Stardogs by Dave Freer

StardogsA review by Rebecca Muir

Stardogs is an interstellar story set in 2507, a future where humanity has colonized the remains of the alien Denaari Empire. The Denaari were a race of genetic-engineering bat-like aliens who formed a vast empire, collecting samples of life from other planets for genetic manipulation. This empire was made possible by one of their greatest creations, the Stardogs – big, furry flying carpet like creatures who surfed through the stars via drop-points, under the control of their telempathic riders.

The Denaari were wiped out in a mutually destructive war with the Sil. Now, after a chance discovery of a Stardog on a voyage to Mars, the human race has found the means of interstellar travel. However, they can only rely on the existing ages-old Stardogs and the maps the Denaari imprinted in their minds. They do not have the means to breed or clone Stardogs nor to make them explore other worlds. So humanity spreads out and colonizes the ruins of the Denaari Empire.

There are two power forces in this new interstellar humanity. There is the Empire, officially the ruling power. At the time the story is set, the Empire is ruled by Turabi II, who took the throne after assassinating his parents. There is also the Wienan League, the descendants of the captain of the spaceship who discovered the first Stardog, and his cronies. They control the Stardogs and so control movement of people and goods throughout the Empire.

The Empire is starting to fail – bureaucracy is rampant, taxes are high and the elite ignore the growing grumblings of the general population. Meanwhile, the League is facing its own problems. The Stardogs are starting to die and, with no means of renewing the population, the hold the League have over the Empire is at risk. The implications are serious for everyone else because with no Stardogs there will be no trade or interstellar travel. Something has to change and it seems like everyone is suddenly out to shift the balance of power.

Stardogs starts off by taking the individual threads of many different characters and exploring them for a while before they are woven together. When I started reading the book I found it hard to get a handle on the genre. There are scenes set aboard a space station where everything is high-tech and regulated.

Then it cuts to a scene in the Imperial palace where a princess is about to be assassinated by the holy executioner of the Kali-Dewa. He decides that the princess is actually an incarnation of his goddess and pledges himself to her protection instead.

Another thread focuses on a spoiled young League noble living in luxury with slaves and spies.

There are scenes from the rubbish dump of the imperial city and the power plays of the local mafia-style criminal families.

These diverse characters with their very different settings give the start of the book an assortment of different narrative flavours. For the rest of Stardogs, Dave Freer skilfully works all the characters in together into one narrative. The main characters all embark on a trip to some backwater planets on Princess Shari’s imperial barge for her charity work. Everyone has a plan for that trip. The Emperor wants his sister dead and a Stardog of his own. The oppressed Stardog riders want to further their plans towards freedom. The Yak, a criminal family, want to overthrow League power. The League wants to thwart Princess Shari’s tour, certain that she is up to something. Princess Shari, meanwhile, just wants to stay alive or, failing that, go out with dignity.

The different plots collide and disrupt each other. A mixed group of people, with different allegiances and agendas, end up on the lost Denaari home-world together. If they are going to survive they must learn to work together and trust each other.

Stardogs has quite a few lead characters with many plot twists and turns. However, Dave Freer has written the characters well. He spends enough time showing us where each character has come from that I felt like I knew them. He is very good at subtly changing the voice of the narrator as each character is spotlighted, to enhance the sense of the character. Princess Shari is a good protagonist: likeable and worth cheering for. I loved the portrayal of the sentient “computer” character as well.

It may take some slower readers perseverance to get through the start of the book with all the different threads, but I found them really well written and the action soon starts to heat up. The rest of the book is filled with plot turns – some foreseeable, some surprising — that kept my interest and kept me turning the pages (or swiping, being an eBook). The ending was satisfying and yet leaves the possibility of a sequel.

Stardogs is partly science-fiction, partly political thriller, but it is mostly a book about what happens when a group of people, some of whom literally want to kill each other, have to rely on each other to live. It is about their relationships and interactions, the choices they make and the motivations behind those choices. It is an enjoyable read – fairly long, but well worth your time.

Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0992549000
Format: ebook, 544 pages
Publisher: Dave Freer

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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