My dayjob and writing life will collide this weekend at Imaginarium in Louisville, KY. I’ll be teaching a writing class on applying biology (vet medicine/animal behavior science/epidemiology). Coincidentally, I’ve also been reading Hounded by Kevin Hearne. I was recommended to me by a number of people who probably thought I’d like it because the main character Atticus has a side kick–namely an Irish Wolfhound he can communicate with telepathically.
But I’m not enjoying it. Kind of not at all. First, I’m not huge into Irish mythos. But that’s not hard to overcome. Second, Atticus is a smug, cocky, child-man. Third the story the author tells is sexist (every woman either sleeps with the hero, for no reason, or if they won’t they’re probably unattractive, or an evil shrew) and the writing doesn’t show Atticus as a clever man worthy of the gift of immortality or attention from the gods. Instead it cuts all the “foe” characters down into even stupider, flatter beings to keep the hero from ever being in real danger. (I mean, when facing down with a legendary, goddess-favored warrior, Atticus literally pushes him over the invisible dog behind him so that he trips and falls and Atticus can behead him.)
Then, we have the dog. Oberon is a great name. And it’s the greatest part of him. While Atticus has gifted Oberon with some intelligence and telepathic communication through his friendship it’s just that Oberon isn’t a dog. The character is a dumb human, to put it in D&D terms a troll or kobold, in dog form.
The. Dog. Makes. Pop. Culture. References. The dog uses very human slang. Sarcasm. The dog talks about watching The Wizard of Oz.
This is my suspension of disbelief; broken.
While there are some studies that show that dogs will watch TV we know that they don’t see the color range that we do, they perceive “moving pictures” differently (they are faster than us, so what is moving TV to us is jerky animated pictures to them), and they just don’t stay interested long enough. Their attention span is way more active. While they might be drawn to a noise or sudden movement the lack of other sensory excitement (smell, taste, etc) causes them to lose interest fast. Dogs will cuddle on the couch with you. They will follow your gaze instinctively (like other humans do), but once that “alert” period is not further engaged they stop really paying attention.
And even if a dog actually physically watched the television for a whole movie, they don’t think in “plot” terms like we do. They can learn action and reaction (thus learning commands and the whole “looking guilty” thing), but they wouldn’t have much of a understand of the concept of stories, or stories following the same plot. Much less enough to make accurate comparisons of immediate activity to it.
This seems like a small thing to harp on, but this is really just an example of an ongoing problem. The dog also uses language like a human would. Sentence structure, even paragraph structure. And correct grammar, like verb tenses. Dogs are as mentally developed as two year olds, which is impressive! But Oberon does NOT talk like a 2 year old.
Early in the book the goddess of the hunt drives Oberon to kill a man. This is supposed to drive some of the story, but it does in all the wrong ways for me. Atticus slaps an invisibility spell on Oberon and consults with a lawyer on…how to help his dog avoid the lawful consequences of his actions.
I understand wanting to protect your dog against being put down. (I really, really, really understand that.) But the way it is written 1) Atticus completely avoids questioning whether he or other people are safe around his dog 2) avoids a metric ton of the actual emotional impact of the issue by dismissing the target as “a set up bad guy” and the reasoning as “magic powers took the dog over”. I immediately wondered who does the awesomely clever Druid who has charms for everything, somehow NOT have a charm to protect his beloved dog from being influenced by the fae/gods who he knows are trying to kill him??
Of course, there are a number of in the open slaughtering where people who have no clue blatantly cover for Atticus as well, to the point of being completely okay with murder and cover up. (I mean his neighbor gets lemonade for him while he goes to bury a body in her back yard.)
I put the book down for almost a month. I picked it up again, hoping it was just a mood, but no, I’m struggling. What I commonly do at this point is read reviews to see if these issues resolve themselves. If there is a chance, I’ll keep reading. The reviews say there is no chance. (Not until book three. But frankly, I don’t have three books of money and time to wait for things to get good.) In fact, the reviews said some other things which bothered me.
I know that this is a fiction series that isn’t even trying to be realistic. But in the end Atticus “rewards” Oberon for being a good boy by buying him 5 in heat poodles.
So, I’ll cover rape briefly. I do believe dogs can consent. Any breeder can tell you a female dog can make her lack of interest in a male very clear. But INFORMED consent is different. 2 year olds, and dogs, don’t do clear informed consent.
But that’s not my issue (though it was an issue with other readers). My issue is…
This is an Irish Wolfhound.
This is a standard poodle, the largest classification of poodles.
The Iris Wolfhound is the tallest of the breeds. the AKC standard says males should be at least 32 inches at the shoulder and around 120 pounds. The breed standard for poodles says female poodles should weigh 40-50 pounds max. Less than half the size. And In Heat means fertile. Ready to breed. Intent to breed. Atticus gifted his wolfhound with five females ready to breed who in the real world would be less than half his size.
Those breeding would be incredibly dangerous and likely deadly for the females. What ridiculous kind of asshat would think it’s okay to buy a bunch of dogs as a reward for his dog, when that reward would likely very seriously harm or kill them??
I mean, let’s set aside the fact that dogs are more smell and taste-centered than us, and not likely at all to fixate sexually on a certain breed’s appearance.
What kind of “hero” treats human women like trash, goddess like vapid, sexy-child-conquests, and female dogs like sacrifices? Honestly, not one I want to spend a lot of time reading about.
So this is a timely reminder (and example) of what I’m trying to teach other authors about. It’s not that science is so very important in speculative fiction. But it’s pretty clear to me that the careless treatment of animal characters and the lack of attention to decent (or even decently fake) science are not isolated writing issues, but mirror issues with the human characters, setting, and plot. It’s just one more way we, as authors can double check ourselves and build lovely, complex tales for readers.