The Dawnhounds by Sascha Stronach was first published by Little Hook, a New Zealand micropress, back in 2019. I reviewed it back then for Landfall, the lit magazine out of Otago University. Not long after, Stronach sold Dawnhounds to Saga, as the first book in the Endsong series, and the book was updated for an international audience.
I’m pleased to say that part of that update was an increased focus on Kiwi idiom. There’s even a note in the front matter, not-quite-warning prospective readers about the linguistic fun they are about to encounter. If you, like many, are confused by the difference between Yeah, nah and Yeah, nah, yeah, then ha! You’ll figure it out.
The Dawnhounds isn’t set in any version of New Zealand. It’s located in the fictional city of Hainak, but this is a world which has been significantly impacted by Stronach’s own background. Not only are there familiar birds and familiar slang—familiar to me, anyway, and how delightful is that?—but there’s also a number of references to Māori language and culture, which is fitting because Stronach is an Indigenous author, from the Kāi Tahu iwi and the Kāti Huirapa Rūnaka Ki Puketeraki hapū. Don’t see a lot of Māori-influenced queer fungal fantasy, do you? No. Good. That means you’ll be more inclined to pick this up, and you should. It’s great. I described it, in that first review, as Ankh-Morpork meets Ambergris, and I still think that gives an accurate tone. If you like spores, and you like the City Watch, you’ll like this.
The broad strokes of the story remain the same, but there are a number of places, some of them quite small, where I noted differences. One of the small alterations was most impactful, I think, because it’s one that grants a measure of dignity to a character who deserves it, but who didn’t always get it the first time around. Sergeant Sen is attacked by his young partner, Yat, who suffered at work for the perceived degeneracy of being attracted to women as well as to men. Yat is trying to escape a terrible situation and doesn’t know who to trust, and poor old Sen gets the brunt of one particular encounter. Nonetheless, Sen knows Yat is a good officer and he sticks up for her, to people who are far above him on the professional and political food chain, and at one point two of them turn up to warn him off. They threaten him. They hurt him. In the original, he wails. In the updated version, he doesn’t.
No one could fault him for wailing. I’d wail in his position. But he doesn’t, and I want to give him a hug.
There’s a lot of reason to wail in Hainak. The Dawnhounds is very much a humanist work, one that prioritises resistance to the causes of wailing. One thing that doesn’t get talked about enough, when it comes to this book, is how very much rooted it is in poverty, and the experience of poverty. I’m guilty of overlooking that myself; my first impulse is to talk about fungi and technology, because that’s fun, but the heart of this book, and the part of it that reminds me so much of Terry Pratchett’s work, particularly the City Watch books, is how much it cares about the people at the bottom of the heap.
Yat, demoted at work for the above-mentioned reasons of prejudice, is barely scraping by on the reduced pay that comes with her new position. What she earns each week doesn’t cover her costs, and she’s forced to spend the days before each paycheck literally starving, though Sen stands her the odd meal when he can find an excuse to make her accept it. At one point he tells her that he got two meals from the staff canteen by mistake, for instance, and it’s clearly a lie, but one that they can both overlook.
I was going to say that the worst thing about such deprivation is that Yat is just plain used to it, and that poverty is so much a part of her life that she has no emotion to spare for it. What’s the point of being angry at inevitability, after all, or of resenting exploitation, when it’s so much a part of life? That’s not the worst thing, however, because Yat’s only one person. Her suffering exists, and it’s wrong that she suffers, but there are scales of wrong, however terrible that is to say—and that wrongness, that injustice, is magnified when applied to society as a whole.
The worst thing about such deprivation is that it is so widespread. One woman, on the bones of her arse, is a small thing compared to a community where poverty is an essential death sentence. One woman, exploited, can be helped by the actions of a few individuals. An entire population, exploited, can be helped only by the massive and deliberate dismantling of every economic and social structure of the wider community. It is far less easy to fix.
The problem with Hainak is that there’s so little incentive to fix it among those who might do so. As with many of our own societies, the people in power have a vested interest in making sure that others continue to suffer. It’s very clear, in The Dawnhounds, that suffering correlates with lack of money. Sen, who lies to Yat about his two meals so that she can eat one, thinks that, “Perhaps the folks who said money couldn’t buy happiness were still right, but it could sure as shit obviate misery” (p. 149). There’s a lot of misery in Hainak. The most disturbing thing about life there, however, lies in the intersection between poverty and suffering ... or, in one very specific case, the lack of suffering.
Because that’s the danger in poverty, right? I mean, if you’re rich. Grind the people down far enough and eventually they’ll not just start calling for the guillotines, they’ll actually drag them out into the town square and start chopping. But what if you could just keep them poor, and find a way to take away their resentment, make them absolutely indifferent to their own impoverished, miserable lives? That’s a gold mine, right there. Religion’s always been a popular tool for that, and religion does exist in Hainak. More than that, it’s influential there. Yat’s fall from grace results from religious disgust with what Hainak’s clergy refer to as her degeneracy. And her demotion, a priest says, is just not good enough: “The correct censor for her crime is death. She refuses to partake in the sacred circle of life. The book is clear on this matter: burn the cancer before it spreads” (p. 100). Religion, however, is not the only tool available to Hainak’s elite.
More frightening is the existence of blanks. The worst of the convicted prisoners, the murderers and the rapists, the traitors, are given over for blanking. It’s a mental erasure that leaves just enough capacity to follow orders as if programmed. There’s no emotion, and no arguing back. There’s no possibility of disobedience. What’s more, there’s no oversight. A person with amnesia, we acknowledge, is still human, still deserving of basic rights, but a blank is perceived as no longer human. Their minds are taken, and their bodies are fair game: “There were blank soldiers, blank miners, blank prostitutes. Wealthy alchemical botanists liked to use them as test subjects or walking advertisements: stuff you couldn’t legally do to a human” (p. 135). Yat recalls a time when she was assigned as security for an art exhibit, which consisted of mutilated, “dead-eyed blanks fused entirely to the wall [...] Nobody batted an eye: it was understood that they must’ve been horrible men” (p. 135).
A certain type of person will see this technology not simply as punishment. They will see it, instead, as opportunity. Such an opportunity, however, is only economically viable if there’s a continual pipeline of bodies to be blanked. There are, perhaps, tens of thousands of blanks in Hainak. That’s a lot of murderers ... except, of course, it can’t be. No city could exist in relative stability with that many murderers wandering around murdering people. Instead, the blanking nets have been cast wider and wider, to include the petty criminals, the homeless, and academics who have the temerity to investigate and criticise. Opportunity exists, and “factories need workers, labs need people to work with dangerous chemicals, armies need soldiers who aren’t smart enough to run” (p. 134). Hainak has a lot of people who won’t be missed. This widespread blanking is getting rid of them, cleaning the streets up. It’s raising the moral tone of the city, and removing people who object. Blanking takes people and turns them into not-people, into biological mechanisms that can safely be exploited, and who don’t have the capacity to think of guillotines.
Think of how easy it is to be complicit in such a system. Yat is complicit. She’s a cop in a world where blanking is seen as acceptable punishment for criminal activity, and she can’t even say that she doesn’t grasp the results of this—because before Yat was a cop she was a street kid, and a lover of hers was taken and blanked. How, readers may ask, can she work for the system that does this? Part of it, admittedly, is gross naivety. Yat spends the first half of the book having uncritically swallowed all the propaganda about blanks: it only happens to people who deserve it (demotion only happens to people who deserve it). For small crimes, the blanking is temporary (if she just works hard enough she’ll regain her position). Granted, she’s never actually seen anyone come back from blanking, but that’s what’s supposed to happen, right? (Follow the rules, even if they’re unjust, and everything will work out. You’ll get a regular paycheck, enough so that you can get off the streets and have something to eat on at least a semi-regular basis.)
We like to think that good people will do the right thing, no matter the consequence. Every so often that works out. A whistleblower will destroy their own career to save others, and we admire them for it. We just don’t want to be them, because in that same position, how many of us would do the same? It’s not a nice question, but it’s not a theoretical one either. It’s a question that matters. Yat is a good person, and we want to think that she’ll do the right thing. But she hasn’t been doing the right thing. She’s been looking away, she’s been keeping her head down. She’s been complicit. She’s also been starving.
Doing the right thing doesn’t just happen. If we tolerate starvation wages, then we tolerate putting people in the position where they, too, have to look away from injustice in order to eat, where they blank themselves so that they don’t have to act. We want decent people, doing decent things? That takes resources. Not all of those resources are economic. A lot of them are, but having a community is a resource, too. Having people who will help allows Yat to become a person who can help, a person who will no longer look away.
At some point we’ve got to look around and realise that we’re already living in Hainak. Granted, we don’t have magic, though I’d give a lot for botanical alchemy and a mushroom house. (Grow-your-own might be the only chance to get a house in this economy.) Strip away the fantasy, however, and the similarities are there. They always are, in fantasy. But sometimes we can use those parallels to see where our own solutions should be—and that, perhaps, is what makes The Dawnhounds so appealing. It refuses to believe that things can’t be better. Does anyone think that’s not worth reading? Yeah, nah. Me neither.