Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Roc Trade; paperback / softback edition (January 2, 2007)
Daughter of Hounds has the dark gritty feel of the popular Urban Fantasy genre, but most scenes take place in small quiet towns, dank cemeteries, and desert wastes. Set mostly in the New England area, Daughter of Hounds is a unique and paradoxical work, with bloody scenes of mayhem and quotes from The Chronicles of Narnia. An orphan woman simply named Soldier and a young girl with stark yellow eyes named Emmie Silvey are somehow tied inextricably together in this story. Soldier is a hit-woman for the mysterious beings known collectively as the Hounds of Cain, ghouls, or ghuls. Canine-like beings from another world, their savage features (and behavior) deny them access to the world of humans; they make their dens below cemeteries and abandoned houses.
Over the centuries, they’ve resorted to stealing away the babies and young children of the people who live above ground, in order to raise them as “changelings” or Children of the Cuckoo, human servants to carry out their business in the sun. The Hounds teach them loyalty, fear, and obedience, as well as contempt for other humans and a taste for meat of any kind.
Any kind at all.
Soldier is one such Child of the Cuckoo. Stolen as a baby, she has no recollection of her life before the Hounds, and is solely and wholly dedicated to them, even as they repeatedly put her life in danger and she sinks into the despair of alcoholism. Soldier is not a traditionally likable character. Her attitude is off the charts and her mouth is in the gutter. She is a foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails kind of woman, who prefers to shoot first, shoot some more, and forget about asking the corpse any questions later. But she does get things done, although usually in the messiest way possible.
She’s rude and vicious to her changeling partners, Saben White and Odd Willie Lothrop, and has no compunctions about shooting down innocent bystanders if they happen to catch a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. Her mentor, the Bailiff, is the only one that can control her, but she’s not so sure the Bailiff is trustworthy anymore, if he ever was. She also has the ability to rewind time, a trick that has saved her life more than once. But there are strange gaps in her memory, and when a job goes horribly wrong, she starts to get the feeling someone is trying to kill her and hide a big secret at the same time.
The confusion Kiernan writes for her is palpable, and half the time it felt as though I had as little idea of what was going on as Soldier did. Every friend is an enemy, and people who should be her enemies turn around to lend a hand at her most desperate moments, causing even more distress. Being a woman neither spares nor impairs her during dangerous moments, and she comes across as strictly asexual, a change from the standard Urban Fantasy shtick. As she tries to complete her assignment, reign in her rogue partner Saben, and figure who and why someone is trying to kill her, not to mention what Emmie Silvey has to do with the Hounds and her, I couldn’t help but pull for Soldier, even though I may disagree some of her methods. She was raised by alien, man-eating ghouls, after all.
Emmie Silvey is eight years old, and the color of her eyes isn’t the only strange thing about her. She’s a precocious and intelligent child, with a very literal mind and a general uncanny ability to make everyone around her uncomfortable, either with her yellow eyes or her blunt questions and answers. Emmie’s wish is for her eyes to be green, her dad Deacon to be sober, and her stepmother Sadie to come live at home with them again. When she meets a strange woman who tells her to beware of horses, Emmie brushes off the encounter. Afterwards, a girl named Pearl starts visiting Emmie in her dreams, and soon reveals secrets about Emmie’s past that shatter every foundation of her life.
The Hounds of Cain want something from Emmie, and they’ll do anything to get it. She is forced to flee in search of Soldier, with the help of Pearl and a woman trapped in a dream of the desert. Emmie doesn’t enjoy the magic she encounters, and some of the scenes she’s forced to see would scar a war veteran, let alone a child. But she powers through, and even amidst all the chaos, manages to find answers to her million-and-one questions about who she is and why everyone is so interested in her.
An eight year old character can be hard to write, but Kiernan manages to cover any defaults with the pre-requisite “precocious” label. If Emmie sounds old beyond her years in some scenes, well, she’s a special kid. There are times, however, when it’s obvious that Kiernan can portray a typical child just fine, as Emmie often comes off as whiney and hardheaded, usually at the most inappropriate times in the story. When she and Soldier finally meet, it’s like oil and water, or perhaps gas and a match. Emmie is an interesting character, and one I’d like to see again in future books. She’s also a bibliophile, frequently quoting lines from children’s and young adult books.
Most of the main characters and several minor ones are women, so this book easily passes the Bechdel Test, with conversations and encounters touching on every aspect of the story. The violence is graphic in some places, but not over-used, and there are implied rape scenes, but nothing explicit, and not exclusive to the female characters. Pearl is referred to as brown, and there’s a brief conversation where she mentions that her mother was a Native American princess. Another character is black, but the color is from an incident in her past, not by birth. Otherwise, the cast seems fairly whitewashed. There are several derogatory references to LGBT characters in the book, but it’s par for the course as far as the language the characters use. A main character likes boys, but it’s more about possible pedophilia then being gay. Not the most diverse, but I have to give props to the bad-assery of all the women involved.
The main problem I had with the book was the ending, which I obviously won’t give away, but after sleeping on it, I see that Kiernan faithfully sticks to her characters’ natures and personalities, even when it would have been easy to write a happy ending. I don’t necessarily agree with it or have to like it, but it feels right for the story. I would definitely recommend this book, although I hope for more diversity and a smidgen less profanity in future releases. There are apparently two previous books in the series, Low Red Moon and Threshold, but reading them wasn’t necessary to understand Daughter of the Hounds, which was written to be a stand-alone.
If you’re looking for Dark Fantasy or Urban Fantasy without the romance, Daughter of Hounds delivers. Strong, dangerous female characters, smart, serious kids, and an ambiguous but thought-provoking ending that will make you wish for more books by Caitlin R. Kiernan.
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