Category: Fiction

Long May She Reign

Cover image for Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomasby Rhiannon Thomas

ISBN 978-0-06-241868-5

“It was one thing to be uncomfortable in court, to hate all the pretenses and be desperate to leave. It was quite another to panic, to become so frightened of the people around me that I forgot how to breathe.”

Twenty-third in line to the throne, Freya never had any expectation of coming anywhere near the crown. Instead, she dreamed of leaving the pomp and pretense far behind for a career in the sciences on the continent, where such things are appreciated. But when most of the court is poisoned for motives unknown at the king’s birthday celebration, Freya finds that all those ahead of her in the succession are dead. For better or worse, as long as she is still breathing, she is now Queen of Epria. Thrust into a position she never wanted, she must fight to hold onto it, or be killed by rival claimants to the throne. Unsure if she was even meant to survive the massacre, Freya is besieged on all sides as she tries to find out who murdered the king, and why.

Shy and socially anxious, Freya hates all the pretense of the king’s extravagant court. Her father—a man risen to the nobility by marriage alone—encourages her to cultivate her position, but Freya dreams only of a time when she can escape the expectations of her birth, and turn her attention entirely to science and invention. Such things are not valued in the kingdom of her birth, but she knows that she can make the world a better place if she solves the problem of fireless heat. All of that is snatched away with the mass assassination, and she must turn her sharp mind instead to solving the mystery of the murders, while also trying to stay alive in a hostile court full of enemies and would-be manipulators. Unfortunately, her interest in chemistry and convenient survival also make her a prime suspect in the killings.

With the motives of the murderers unknown, Freya must be suspicious of everyone around her. The king’s illegitimate son, fallen out of favour with his mercurial father, may have been making a bid for power. Or perhaps the king’s advisor, Torsten Wolff, betrayed his best friend. The court’s priest seems to have staunchly disapproved of the king’s wild extravagance. And why was the popular noblewoman Madeleine Wolff conveniently at her country estate when the murders took place? The suspects in the murder are interesting and varied characters, with potential motives both self-interested and seemingly altruistic, adding depth to the book’s moral questions. It also ends up exploring issues of censorship and ideology, when much of the initial blame is placed on a splinter religious sect who claim to follow the teachings of a dead man whose writings have been banned for generations.

Although there is a minor romantic subplot, Freya’s most interesting relationships in the story develop with her female friends. Her best friend is Naomi, a fellow noblewoman far down the line of succession. They are very close despite the fact that Naomi tends more towards romantic novels than science, and is a little more at ease at court than her best friend. I expected Naomi to be set up in a rivalry with Madeleine, who becomes Freya’s heir and unexpected friend in the aftermath of the succession. But while Naomi’s character development maybe did suffer in comparison to the attention paid Madeleine, I was pleasantly surprised with how the relationship was handled, and how Freya came to appreciate Madeleine’s differing talents and greater finesse with court life. Rhiannon Thomas does not set the women against one another in that way, though they did contrast.

On the whole, Long May She Reign was a little more character driven than the action and mystery adventure I might have expected from the description. But I enjoyed Freya’s character development, the honest portrayal of her anxieties, and the way she had to cope with such a sudden and drastic shift in her expectations for her future. The mix of science and political intrigue really worked for me, despite the fact that the cover and marketing give this book a fantasy vibe that is only realized in the medievalesque setting.

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Ninefox Gambit

Cover image for Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Leeby Yoon Ha Lee

ISBN 978-1-781088-449-6

“The problem with authority is that if you leave it lying around, others will take it away from you. You have to act like a general or people won’t respect you as one.”

The Fortress of Scattered Needles—a key strategic holding of the Hexarchate Empire—has been overtaken by heretics from within, an event which threatens to spread calendrical rot across the galaxy. Thanks to its shields of invariant ice, recapturing the Fortress by siege is virtually impossible, and the only man who could do it, General Shuos Jedao, has been dead for three hundred years. Fortunately, he has been preserved as an undead weapon which can be extracted from the black cradle when duty calls. Captain Kel Cheris—a mathematical prodigy who inexplicably chose the military Kel faction over the more academically minded Nirai—is selected to be the person to wield this “weapon,” and lead the campaign to reclaim the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Unfortunately for Cheris, Shuos Jedao slaughtered his own army before his death, which means that the Hexarchate’s secret weapon is mad traitor who cannot be trusted, even when his help is desperately needed.

Ninefox Gambit gets off to a bit of a dull start with a battle and a lot of strategic details that will appeal to fans of hard military sci-fi but leave other readers floundering for purchase. This is essentially world-building by immersion, as Lee introduces the concept of calendrical regimes and mathematical warfare. The Hexarchate relies on precise adherence to the strictures of a mathematical calendar, and the very technology of the society, including the weapons and military tactics, are dependent on this adherence. Calendrical heresy means a world where nothing functions properly. Lee also uses this section to introduce the basic cultural structure of the Hexarchate. Like many dystopians, there are six factions with distinct roles in society, and a defunct seventh faction that was annihilated after breaking from the empire’s orthodoxy. The Liozh heresy continues to haunt the Hexarchs.

The story becomes more interesting when Shuos Jedao joins the action. Although he served in the Kel military, Jedao hails from the Shuos faction, the other military branch of the empire responsible for intelligence operations and assassinations. The Shuos have a reputation for being wily, even when they aren’t mad traitors. When Kel Command goes mysteriously silent, Brevet General Kel Cheris is left with only Jedao’s advice, her own best judgement, and the feeling that she might not come out of this mission alive. It is in the unique interpersonal dynamic between Jedao and Cheris—no, not a romance—where things get interesting. Jedao has an unparalleled understanding of military tactics, and many years more experience than Cheris, but he has also been out of the game for many years, unaware of many developments in Hexarchate technology and society. And he is a terrible mathematician, an unforgiveable and potentially fatal weakness in a calendrical military. Their relationship involves the necessity of sharing information based on their own strengths, but also a high level of mutual distrust that maintains the narrative suspense.

On a more conceptual level, Ninefox Gambit is about the exercise of power, and freedom of thought. This is expressed mostly through the concept of calendrical heresy, and the Kel formation instinct. Lee’s unique society runs on citizens’ belief in and agreement upon a highly specific and regimented calendar, and deviation from that belief begins to degrade society in a way that is literal rather than theoretical. Orthodoxy is strictly enforced, to the point that fighting heresy with heretical math can result in re-education, even when calendrical rot has rendered orthodox tactics inoperable. If quashing heresy is about controlling what people think, formation instinct is the corollary that controls what they do. Specifically, soldiers in the Kel military are indoctrinated with an obedience instinct that helps them execute the mathematical formations that have calendrical effects on the battlefield. These themes of free thought and will even play out in a subplot about the sentience of artificial intelligence robots and drones that service the space ships and stations.

Ninefox Gambit is highly conceptual science fiction that starts slow but builds to an interesting and worthwhile conclusion that is open to a sequel. While it will be a hard sell for those who don’t love military sci-fi specifically, it is the kind of richly layered story that will repay repeat visits. I didn’t love every minute of reading it, but Ninefox Gambit has continued to grow on me in retrospect.

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More Happy Than Not

Cover image for More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera by Adam Silvera

ISBN 978-1-61695-561-8

“My worlds collided and I can’t get up.”

Sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto has been struggling since his father’s suicide, a downward spiral that culminated in a suicide attempt of his own, as the smile-shaped scar on his wrist constantly reminds him. Neither his overworked mother, nor his video-game obsessed older brother are able to offer much in the way of support, but Aaron is trying to get back to normal, a little bit at a time. When his girlfriend Genevieve leaves to spend three weeks at a summer art camp in New Orleans, Aaron begins hanging out with Thomas, a kid from the next block who is a little less rough and tumble than the friends Aaron grew up with. Soon their fast friendship is stirring up tensions with Aaron’s old crowd, and even Genevieve seems a little jealous when she returns home. As Aaron’s feelings for Thomas spiral out of control, he becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing the Leteo procedure—a new medical technique that might be able to make him forget that he ever liked a boy.

Occasionally you run across a book that is best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf being my most recent example. While I had heard a lot of hype about how good this book was, I had somehow managed to absorb almost nothing about the plot, and I think that was for the better as far as my reading experience with More Happy Than Not. So if you are already planning to read it, just go do it! You can read reviews later. If you still need convincing, read on.

More Happy Than Not is a largely contemporary novel with a slight speculative fiction twist. Almost everything about Aaron’s world is recognizable as modern day New York. The exception is the Leteo procedure, a controversial new neurological technique that allows doctors to erase memories. When the novel opens, Aaron’s neighbourhood is abuzz with the rumour that Kyle and his family have moved away because Kyle had the Leteo procedure in order to forget about the murder of his twin brother, Kenneth. Despite this sci-fi twist, the focus is largely on identity and human relationships, and Aaron’s growing curiosity about the Leteo procedure is mostly a narrative device that allows Silvera to delve into the conflict surrounding his sexuality. When is it humane to allow someone to forget a terrible experience? What role does experience play in identity if it can simply be overwritten?

More Happy Than Not is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. Silvera does a good job of developing the connection between Aaron and Genevieve in the early chapters, so it is genuinely heartbreaking to see them beginning to come apart when Aaron starts to fall for Thomas. Aaron’s family relationships are less than stellar, and his childhood friends are deeply homophobic, leaving him isolated and depressed, grasping after the hope of a miracle cure that will make it all go away. Aaron struggles to even say the word gay—eventually opting for “dude-liker” instead—so it is perhaps not surprising that bisexuality is never considered, let alone discussed. The style develops in accordance with Aaron’s level of happiness and self-understanding, bumping along with an artful unevenness that neatly conveys his inner turmoil. While dark enough that I would not necessarily recommend this book for everyone—it deals heavily with both homophobia and suicide—it is nevertheless a powerful expression of what it means to come of age in an environment that is hostile to your very identity.

Mischling

Cover image for Mischling by Affinity Konarby Affinity Konar

ISBN 9780316308106

“Because you had no power over the fact that I was born, you took from me what I was born with—the person who was my love, the half that made me entire—and now I am lessened into this dull thing, a divided person who will live forever, wandering in search of some nothing, some nowhere, some no-feeling, to mend my pain.”

Stasha and Pearl Zamorski are twelve-year-old Polish-Jewish twins who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 with their mother and grandfather, their father already missing and presumed dead at the hands of the Gestapo. Here they are singled out by Dr. Josef Mengele, who would become known to history as the Angel of Death. Inside Mengele’s “Zoo,” he collects genetic oddities, including giants and dwarves, albinos and people with heterochromia iridium, and most especially twins. The inmates of the Zoo receive special privileges including more food, and are allowed to keep their hair and clothes. The price is the terrible experiments carried out upon their bodies, the purpose of which they are never given to understand. How does someone survive the guilt and pain of such an experience, let alone carve out a new existence in the aftermath of liberation?

Structurally, Mischling is divided into two parts, with alternating chapters narrated by Stasha and Pearl. Part one deals with their arrival and internment at Auschwitz, while part two takes place after the camp is liberated by the Russians in January 1945. The first part is perhaps the stronger of the two, and Konar admits to struggling with the second half, throwing out the draft at least three times while trying to get it right. Stasha and Pearl have voices that are at once similar and distinct. Stasha has the more active imagination, and she sinks into it in order to survive, making up stories and creating games that help them carry on, but which also lend her sections a surreal quality. By contrast, Pearl has a quiet but more honestly introspective voice, less distanced from reality. Konar’s prose is lyrical throughout. Although genetically identical, the girls are distinct people, and it seems that Mengele’s experiments can only tear their twinhood further asunder.

Konar’s narrative provides a measure of the horrors of Mengele’s human experiments, and yet does not focus on them. Mischling is more about Stasha and Pearl’s internal lives during their internment, focusing on how they cope and survive under such adverse, inhumane conditions. Yet many passages are undeniably horrific, and are often drawn from the real memories of Auschwitz survivors, particularly the accounts Eva Mozes Kor. Perhaps the most horrifying confession comes from Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to collaborate with Mengele. She admits to performing abortions on female inmates after discovering that Mengele was using pregnant women for vivisection. Her character is based on Dr. Gisella Perl. Through Stasha and Pearl, we see different ways of coping with the reality of such circumstances, though in Stasha’s case this often means obscuring reality in order to survive. After receiving an injection from Mengele, she becomes convinced that she is now deathless, and is therefore concerned only with how Pearl, who has not been made deathless, will survive.

Mengele himself is a character who is made large by his absence from most of the narrative. Yet he is strikingly horrific when he does appear, not just because of his brutality, but because of the nauseating contrast between his avuncular manner with the children one moment, immediately followed by terrible violations of their bodies and minds. In part two, he disappears from the narrative entirely—in real life he disguised himself as a farmhand before fleeing to South America—and yet continues to cast shadow, as Stasha becomes obsessed with tracking him down and exacting revenge. But the fact that he appears little on the page allows Stasha and Pearl to come into focus, their voices dominating the narrative in an effort to seize back some measure of control.

Mischling is a Holocaust novel that depicts horror couched in beautifully crafted prose. For some, Konar’s careful wordsmithing will distance them from the narrative, and the atrocities it unveils. For others, the juxtaposition will only serve to make the truth that much more poignant as it explores what it means to come of age in the midst of such a tragedy.

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The Upside of Unrequited

Cover image for The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

ISBN 978-0-06-234870-8

“There’s this feeling I get when I watch other people kiss. I become a different form of matter. Like they’re water, and I’m an ice cube. Like I’m the most alone person in the entire world.”

Molly Peskin-Suso is the queen of unrequited love. At seventeen, she has had twenty-six crushes, but zero boyfriends. She hasn’t even been kissed. By contrast, Molly’s twin sister Cassie has an easy confidence when it comes to hooking up with girls, and she always tells Molly everything. But then Mina arrives on the scene, and for the first time ever, Cassie is totally crushed out, and a little bit secretive, leaving Molly out in the cold. But Mina has a cute best friend named Will, and Molly might not feel so left out if he was her boyfriend. So why can’t Molly stop thinking about her nerdy co-worker, Reid?

One of the chief themes Becky Albertalli touches on in The Upside of Unrequited is the necessity of vulnerability in order to get what you want. Molly has had twenty-six crushes, but she has never asked anyone out, or told any of her crushes that she liked them. Molly is basically allergic to being deliberately vulnerable, since going through life as a fat girl is already a highly visible form of vulnerability to bullying from her classmates and pointed comments from her grandmother. Add in social anxiety, and the idea of ever getting into a relationship seems like an insurmountable obstacle. But Molly slowly comes to realize that she might have to be less careful in order to get what she wants, even if the idea is terrifying. Even if she isn’t sure who she should be less careful about.

Molly’s romantic conflict is between Mina’s cute hipster best friend, Will, and her new co-worker Reid, a nerdy Jewish boy. Will seems like the easy and obvious answer. He is best friends with Cassie’s girlfriend, which would make Molly feel like less of third wheel when she hangs out with Cassie and Mina. And Cassie seems pretty determined to get the two of them together. Her twin sister seems to be drifting away, and Molly will do anything to keep her close. But the more time she spends with Reid at the store, working, and talking, and laughing, the more she can’t stop thinking about him instead, even if he takes her further away from Cassie. It is a story about a struggle to reconcile two seemingly conflicting impulses.

Although Molly is caught between two boys, the central relationship in The Upside of Unrequited is really the sibling relationship between Molly and Cassie. Cassie has dated before, but she has never had a serious girlfriend before Mina, and this presages some changes in her relationship with Molly. Cassie has always been Molly’s person, but suddenly she is faced with the fact that siblings are rarely one another’s main person in adulthood. Her moms have one another, and Nadine barely talks to her sister Karen, even though they were very close growing up. Molly recognizes change as “the most basic of all tragedies,” an inevitability that she is determined to avert, even when struggling against change only seems to make matters worse.

Becky Albertalli’s sophomore novel has a loose connection to her first book, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Molly’s cousin Abby recently moved to Georgia, where she met a new guy named Nick, and became friends with Simon. Although there are a couple fannish nods to Simon, and some interactions with Abby, The Upside of Unrequited really stands on its own. It is a sweet story of love and family, featuring a diverse cast of characters all with their own unique charms and struggles. Relationships of all kinds are the driving force of this coming-of-age story.

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Scythe

Cover image for Scythe by Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1-4424-7242-6

“She wanted to believe she wasn’t capable of it. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t Scythe material. It was the first time in her life that she aspired to fail.”

It has been three hundred years since humanity turned the corner, leaving behind the Age of Mortality. With the arrival of infinite computing power, a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead emerged to rule this new deathless society. But although accidental death is a thing of the past, humanity still lives on a single finite planet, and so population growth must be limited. This task was deemed to require a human conscience, not to be entrusted to a computer, and so the Scythedom was born. Citra and Rowan have been selected to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a job that neither of them wants. But there is corruption at the heart of Scythedom, and the Thunderhead is powerless to intervene. Reform must come from within.

There are a lot of practical world-building questions that can be raised about Scythe. How, for example, has humanity advanced so far as to be able to reverse the aging process, but been unable to master space travel, or some other method of supporting an increasing population? And if it is necessary to limit the population, why kill people in often gruesome ways to achieve that end? If you are the nit-picking type, you will probably have a hard time accepting the basic premise of this novel and some of the devices. But if you can achieve the necessary willing suspension of disbelief, you are in for a twisty and thought-provoking adventure that continually ups the stakes.

The main narrative focuses on Citra and Rowan, who are real teenagers who have yet to turn a corner to reset themselves back to youth. They have a limited idea of what life was like in the Mortal Age. Even with the existence of Scythes, they had to give very little thought to death and dying until they were called to perform the task. Interspersed with their perspectives are journal entries from the mandatory gleaning journal of the Honorable Scythe Curie, who is often known as the Grand Dame of Death. Her age and experience interject the perspective that Rowan and Citra lack, providing context to the events of their yearlong apprenticeship. We also get the occasional glimpse into the mind of Scythe Goddard, the main antagonist, who is simultaneously realistic and yet a bit one dimensional.

Scythe depicts a futuristic society with a vastly changed relationship to death and violence. Someone who is accidentally killed is not dead, but deadish, since only Scythes have the authority to take life; no one else can kill you, and you may not kill yourself. One mandatory trip the revival centre later, the deadish person will be back on their feet within a week. The resulting changes are quietly disturbing. Since actual suicide leads to mandatory revival, it has largely passed from memory, but attempting suicide has become a grisly form of entertainment. Rowan’s best friend Tyger is a splatter—someone who deliberately gets deadish by jumping off of buildings. The boredom of immortality is a common trope in vampire fiction, but it is less commonly explored in relation to humanity as a whole.

Due to the non-interference built into the Thunderhead, which rules everything else about this world except death, Scythes have almost unlimited discretionary power. They operate within a quota set for the year by their conclave, but they are free to choose who they will glean and their method of killing. Bias in their selections—such as by race, though almost everyone is mixed race—earns a mild reprimand at best from the conclave. They also have the discretion to grant a year of immunity from gleaning to anyone they choose, though it is customary to offer it to the families of those who have been gleaned, as well as to the families of Scythes and their apprentices, for as long as the Scythes serve. This nearly unbounded power and terrible responsibility has naturally created an order that is isolated from normal people, and sinking further into corruption as the centuries pass. A schism has occurred between the traditional Scythes, and revolutionaries who want to remove the few checks and balances that are in place.

Scythe begins a series, so while it stands alone quite well, there are certainly more issues to explore and questions to be answered. The lines of good and evil are quite starkly drawn here, but there is room to go deeper. Scythe Faraday, for example, is depicted as being part of the traditional group of Scythes who conduct their duties with care and honour, yet he gives some people deaths that are painful, and fill his quotas by mimicking the death statistics of the Age of Mortality. He and Rowan meet when Faraday gleans one of his teenage classmates, a selection that is intended to imitate a drunk driving death from before the turn. In the Age of Immortality, what reason is there for everyone not to have the chance for at least one full life before they face gleaning? Or is gleaning really necessary at all? It will be interesting to see how the morality of this thought-provoking series evolves.

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3

“It seems like they always talk about what he may have said, what he may have done, what he may not have done. I didn’t know a dead person could be charged in his own murder, you know?”

Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. The killing gains national headlines as protestors take to the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed black boy. In the day’s following Khalil’s death, Starr faces a choice between remaining silent, and speaking up. But even if she can find her voice, will it be enough to get justice for Khalil?

One of my favourite aspects of The Hate U Give was Starr’s family. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is an ex-gang member who now runs a convenience store. Her mother wants to move the family out of Garden Heights, while her father is determined to remain in the neighbourhood and contribute to its betterment. She has a younger brother who isn’t old enough to quite grasp what is going on, and an older half-brother who is fully part of their family, yet still connected to his mother and other sisters. Her uncle is a police officer who works in the same department as the man who killed Khalil. Starr’s family feels warm and incredibly real, complicated, and human. Most of the story’s more didactic moments are seamlessly written into conversations with her parents as they try to help her through the aftermath of Khalil’s murder. Starr’s father, Big Mav, was perhaps my favourite character, especially with his theory about how Hogwarts houses are like gangs. After getting out of the gang life himself, Big Mav is determined to keep his children safe, but he struggles with how to do that while also keeping them connected to where they came from.

While I loved Starr’s family best, her peer relationships are equally notable. Even before Khalil’s death, Starr notices that her relationship with her best friends, Maya and Hailey, is changing. Angie Thomas really captures the painful experience of growing apart from childhood friends. In the case of Khalil, Starr is left to regret that she let him slip largely out of her life, and now he is gone forever. And as she watches Hailey and Maya react to Khalil’s murder—without knowing she is the witness—she is left with difficult choices about whether or not her school friendships can survive the class and cultural divides between them. For the past year, Starr has also been hiding from her father the fact that she is dating Chris, a white classmate, and the time has come for her to face up to her complicated feelings about this relationship. Starr learns a lot by talking things through with her dad, but she also has to figure out how to have difficult conversations with her friends.

Someone who we don’t get to know very well is Khalil himself. His murder is the book’s inciting incident, so he is alive only for the first couple of chapters. Afterward, there is a stark conflict between Starr’s memory of her friend, and the image of him portrayed in the media. He becomes a symbol more than a person. While we learn a few new facts over the course of the story that help flesh Khalil out, he is still someone we did not know until he was already gone—which of course is true of the real-life victims of police brutality. I was reminded of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in The Fire This Time, in which she writes about how victims are transformed from individuals to evidence, a process which their loved ones are helpless to prevent.

The Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. It is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

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Canada Reads Along: Fifteen Dogs

Cover image for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexisby André Alexis

ISBN 978-1-55245-305-6

“Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.”

In a Toronto tavern, the gods Apollo and Hermes strike a bet. When Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence, his brother Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that the animals—any animals Hermes would like—would be unhappier than humans if given human intelligence. The wager is struck, and fifteen dogs in a nearby animal shelter suddenly gain human consciousness—all while still in possession of their canine urges and instincts. As they develop a new language to convey their transformed understanding of the world, the pack becomes divided between those who embrace the new way of thinking and communicating, and those who wish to resist change at all costs. The gods watch—and occasionally interfere—as the dogs try to navigate this abrupt transition. But will any of them die happy?

Fifteen Dogs is an apologue, which is a fancy term for a fable, of which the beast fable is the most common type. Here the twist is that the dogs aren’t just unquestioned allegories for humans, but literal dogs given human intelligence by outside intervention. The distance—or lack thereof—between the two is what drives home the point. We are reminded that humans, too, have baser instincts and urges. It is a sort of defamiliarization that gives us just enough distance from our own nature and behaviour that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. The events of Fifteen Dogs can be rather brutal, and yet this clever devoice only serves to amplify that fact of our nature, lending the story additional poignancy.

Although we begin with fifteen dogs, the story quickly narrows to focus on three: Majnoun, Benjy, and Prince. Majnoun and Prince both depart the pack when the leader, Atticus, decides that the dogs will no longer use their new language, and will instead try to live as if the change never took place. This makes for an interesting allegory about traditionalist thinking and anti-intellectualism. Prince in particular is ousted due to his invention of canine poetry, which several of the other dogs find disturbing. However, most of the story follows Majnoun as he joins a human family, and forges an unusual bond with Nira, who knows he possesses human intelligence, and her husband Miguel, who refuses to acknowledge that fact. All but one of the female dogs are killed by page 35, and Nira is the most significant female character in the story. The dogs continue to refer to the females as bitches, a fact that becomes increasingly uncomfortable after they gain human intelligence. The ousting of the female perspective is noteworthy, even if it could potentially be intended as a commentary on human nature.

Fifteen Dogs was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by YouTube star and spoken word artist Humble the Poet. The theme for this year’s program was “the one book Canada needs now.” The other candidates chose to highlight specific issues, from the plight of Indigenous women, to climate change, to the consequences of technology, and Humble differentiated Fifteen Dogs from the other books in his defence by arguing that it helps us understand all of these issues by giving readers a deeper understanding of our fundamental human nature, which is the root of all of our other problems. Humble described the book as both timeless and current in his opening remarks, and he returned to this point repeatedly throughout the week.

Over the course of the week, many of the panelists discussed whether or not they were dog people, and whether that affected their reading of the book. For some, it helped them relate to the story, while others found it alienating. However, the best point in this regard was not raised by a panelist, but by an audience member in the Q&A after the show. She pointed out how different the impact of this book would be if it was Fifteen Chickens or Fifteen Cows. Indeed, the close relationship humans enjoy with dogs is precisely what makes the allegory so effective, as the panelists readily acknowledged.

Candy Palmater repeatedly tried to raise questions about the fact that almost all of the female dogs die early in the book, with Chantal Kreviazuk seconding this perspective. When Palmater tried to bring it up again during another question on the final day of debate, host Ali Hassan redirected, promising that they would get to that later, but it was not substantially addressed, as Humble always avoided the issue by pointing to Nira. It was especially frustrating to see this line of questioning downplayed after The Break was ousted on the first day, largely based on Brueggergosman’s argument that it lacked redeemable male characters. Author André Alexis did speak about it later, on q with Tom Powers, but it did not inform the debate. Alexis also highlighted Nira as the most sympathetic character, the one who has to overcome her own prejudice to accept Majnoun as an intelligent being. However, he admits that he did miss out on the opportunity to explore Rosie’s perspective as the only surviving female dog. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge this, after Humble danced around it all week.

It was suggested a couple times over the course of the week that, because Fifteen Dogs had already won the Giller Prize as well as the Writers Trust Fiction Prize, that Canada Reads should take the opportunity to highlight a different voice. (Interestingly, this is the only book from the short-list that I already owned before the contenders were announced.) Both Brueggergosman and Kreviazuk brought this up, and Brueggergosman made it the core of her closing remarks as she defended Company Town in the finale. Though it received some criticism over the course of the week, prior to the finale, Jody Mitic was the only person who actually cast a vote against Fifteen Dogs, on day two. Candy Palmater had originally planned to vote against it on day one, but changed her mind to cast a strategic vote in an attempt to save The Break. When it came down to the final vote, however, all of the free agents chose to vote against Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs the winner of Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette