Kate Standish (call her Standish, please) arrives with her dog Hattie in the company town of Canaan Lake on the distant moon of Huginn, ready to take on her new job as part of a team working to expand the reach of communications on the world. What she was not prepared for was an immediate promotion to head of a department that’s now, mostly, just her. Her boss Duncan disappeared shortly before her arrival. That in itself wouldn’t be all that unusual: though humans have been developing Huginn for over a century, it’s still an alien world, and Canaan Lake is on the outskirts of the frontier. It’s the new wild west of Wendy Wagner’s new novel An Oath of Dogs, and these things will happen.
As Standish settles into her new role, she discovers Duncan made some rather worrying conclusions about Songheuser, the company whose resources keep humans alive on Huginn, and on whose behalf the colonists work. Conflicts have developed within the moon’s labor force between those loyal to the company and a smaller group concerned about the environmental impact of human industrial activity. Huginn’s deeply religious early settlers have kept themselves separate from later immigrants too, so the community is divided along a number of lines.
Most worryingly, nature seems to be turning against them: the fearsome native birds that avoided humans for decades have grown vicious, and some of the dogs brought by earlier settlers have turned on their human masters. When they find Duncan’s body, it bears the obvious marks of fowl play, though the authorities keep suggesting an accident or suicide. Standish gets very little time to adapt to her new job, as she’s immediately thrown into a mystery that implicates her new employers and hinges upon a pack of wild super-intelligent animals.
Every good mystery needs a compelling detective, whether or not that’s the formal job title. Standish isn’t the sole point of view character in this novel, but she is the one we follow most closely, giving us our clearest window to the world of Huginn. Especially for readers who are also dog people (surely Wagner is in that camp), Standish’s dog Hattie is also a key focus. There’s something refreshingly upbeat and big-hearted about a lead character with a service dog, who’s also incredibly tough (she’d have to be) and good at her job.
Standish comes to the moon of Huginn having learned to manage her anxiety and a post-traumatic stress condition brought about by an industrial accident on the space station where she used to work. Her disability makes her no less capable. It’s a generous, expansive, and realistic vision of what a powerful woman can be. It also cleverly ties into the main plot: Hattie is key to Standish’s management of her PTSD. There are physical threats on Huginn that endanger both the dogs and people of the moon, but there’s also the creeping sense that Hattie might wind up being influenced by whatever it was that led the community’s previous dogs to turn on their humans. It’s not uncommon for writers to imperil animals as an emotional lever, but Wagner’s not nearly so manipulative: the dogs are the crux of the story, and Hattie is as important a character as any of the humans.
There’s also a thread about crafting (pun kinda intended), as Standish’s crocheting remarkably becomes a key story point. On the distant moon, supplies are difficult to get, and dyes are among the rarest commodities. The caterpillars brought to the world by the early colonists became butterflies with wings of an extraordinary blue, and they too have begun to display signs of rapid evolution. If there’s another outer-space sci-fi book in which the lead character’s stress-relieving crochet hobby plays significantly into the plot, I’m not aware of it.
These are just a few examples of the extent to which Wagner has carefully constructed this book, her first original work, unconnected to a larger media franchise. She introduces a lot of ideas, but very little is extraneous. It all fits together into the larger story of Huginn, which itself offers a clue a yet-broader mystery: in any environmental system (whether distant moon or blue-green home world), everything has a purpose, even if it isn’t immediately obvious. For those Huginn colonists only interested in extracting resources from the moon on behalf of the Songheuser Corporation, the strange behaviors of the local flora and fauna are problems to be solved, obstacles to overcome or eliminate. They’re largely concerned with changing Huginn, while ignoring the signs Huginn is changing them.
For a novel of its size, An Oath of Dogs is wonderfully brisk. Huginn is a compellingly rough-hewn colony town, and Kate Standish is an effective detective and all-around badass lead, PTSD or no. For dog lovers, though, the real hero of the book is Hattie, the indefatigable service dog who winds up being the key to unlocking the many mysteries of an alien world. Wagner’s mystery-in-space is a fast-moving pager-turner, but Hattie’s star turn brings something new to sci-fi.