Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Rex wants to be a good dog. He lives for the moments when his master tells him he is a good dog. When he is, his feedback chip makes sure he feels good. Rex’s master gives Rex things to do. Rex, because he is a good dog, does the tasks he is given. With his team, Honey, Dragon and Bees, they head out into the war torn Campeche province in Mexico and hunt down the bad guys. Whether they are big human enemies or little human enemies, if Master has tagged them as bad, Rex and his team will deal with them, to be good. But what if Master is bad? Rex’s inbuilt hierarchy tells him he must do what Master says. And Rex wants to be, and is, a good dog. But when things go wrong and the things Rex, Honey, Dragon and Bees, along with the other bioform packs, have been doing come to light in the wider world, their leash is slipped and Rex has to decide for himself what being good means.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel is deeply nuanced. The main tale is told from Rex’s perspective. With the massive bio-engineered dog, armed with shoulder mounted machine guns, hands with razor sharp claws and armour covering his already dense skin, the telling of the tale is uncomfortable. Especially for a dog person. Rex and his team are designed to do the dirty work people are not allowed to do. They create fear in their enemy just by being, let alone by what they can do. Rex is essentially a tank, rolling into the centre of the action and creating destruction. Dragon, a gila monster type lizard/chameleon, is the recon-sniper support. Honey, a massive bear, the heavy weapons and Bees is, well, a bunch of bees with a shared intelligence. What is intriguing about this tale, though, is not the capabilities of these creatures, but the way Rex grows through it. From just following orders to being a leader with full responsibility over his team and his actions. Honey is smarter than Rex, and Bees continues to grow, yet Rex is faced with being the face, and the fear, of all bioform weapons in the world.
What could be just a stabby-dog story is elevated by Tchaikovsky. By looking at both the view of Rex and those who are seeing the wider picture, Tchaikovsky gives such colour to the world he has popped his seven foot dog into. He then deepens the tale with questions about both the ethics of what the bioforms are up too (by being just a “good dog”, is Rex just “following orders” in the classic sense or is he responsible for his actions?) and the wider implication of what happens when the “thing” we create can think for itself. While big subjects are tackled, in Rex we have a surprisingly sympathetic eye into his world. Through Rex, we see the world’s reaction to him, reflected in his genetically engineered eyes. As the narrative switches back and forth, with Rex caught in the middle, seeing him grow and understanding not only what has happened to him, but his awareness of his actions, is wonderfully crafted by Tchaikovsky.
Dogs of War was described at the Waterstone's TCR Sci-Fi Showcase I went too as “Paw Patrol:Call of Duty”. It is a good line, but not reflective of the book at all. The nuance of the story could easily have been lost in imagery of massive animals running impossible missions, but Tchaikovsky is a skilled navigator and guides us deftly along to a very satisfying conclusion. Dogs of War is the work of an author on the very top of his game.
Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky is out now from Head of Zeus.