By Sascha Stronach
This book opens with a ship returning from an expedition that the university/government (mixture of both, some murkiness) has underwritten, visiting a distant abandoned city, for some secret. A secret that should have been left alone. There are not very many of the ship left alive, but what is making the screams and pounding from the hull? A heavy fog rolls in as they are almost back to Hainak, but the lights from the lighthouse are seen, so they raise red quarantine lanterns on the ship and lower the life boats to row ashore.
Meanwhile, our main character, Yat, is a constable in Hainak. She has recently been demoted due to her “delicate” nature (she was caught in a gay bar) and is now pulling night shift. She sees the ship coming in, she sees the fog rise, hears fighting and when the fog leaves, the ship is gone. A night or few later, she stumbles across a crime scene at the docks, and is shot in the head, her body thrown into the water. Only she arises some time later. Alive and not quite as she was. There are nefarious games afoot in the Hainak and Yat is drawn into them. She has to come to terms with what happened to her, figure out who she can trust, and try to save her home.
The world building is unique. Hainak is a city that shuns lead and steel in favour of biological alchemy. Lead and steel is left over from their previous oppressors. After the war, they are covered up (in buildings and the like) and made illegal where possible. Bullets are grubs, that when shot into you will eat you until both you and they die. Houses are basically mushrooms. Why go to the trouble of making glass when you can easily grow membranes. People have all sorts of biological enhancements – some legal, some illegal, though the distinction often depends on what class you are. And there are treatments to regrow lost limbs – though you don’t want to end up with the consequences if you couldn’t afford the right treatment.
The author is Maori and twines parts of his culture into the story. And the writing is beautiful. Here’s one passage that I loved.
“A hero”, she said, “is a young man – and it is usually a man, though not always – who wishes to die loudly. They want everybody to look and say ‘What a hero!’ and to be remembered. They read too many stories and get this idea in their heads that death is noble and beautiful and glorious. A hero is impatient to die, and in there impatience, they have a habit of taking ordinary folks down with them – after all, death is glorious, and that means killing is too. Whether they succeed or fail, a hero is defined by death, and that’s why I don’t let heroes on my ship. I’d rather teach my people how to live.”
The story is told very well and kept me guessing as to who was who (not in the terms of the character, but who else might they be) and what was happening (again, not in a confusing way, but in a keep reading and see what happens next kind of way).
Sascha Stronach first self-published The Dawnhounds in 2020, available mostly in Wellington, and won the Sir Julius Vogel Award. It was then picked up by a publisher, and released globally in 2022. Having read this novel, I can well see why it won.