Friday, 9 March 2012

Review of Jason McKinney, Dog World (Jason McKinney, 2011)

Two things that I’m quite taken with at the moment: werewolves (obviously) and the apocalypse. So, I was naturally intrigued when I was sent a review copy of Jason McKinney’s self-published novel, Dog World, a military thriller telling the story of the werewolf apocalypse. I was, however, also somewhat trepidatious, as the recent explosion of self-published novels has left the market swamped with vampire, werewolf and other supernatural novels.

McKinney’s novel begins in Iraq, with a group of US soldiers facing a brutal attack from an unknown enemy. Reports of wild dog attacks, and a growing pile of bodies, are eventually revealed to be indications of an organized lycanthropic assault. Many of the soldiers are killed, and the survivors must band together to fight their werewolf enemy. The reader discovers that this attack is the work of the Aberration, a powerful werewolf group hell-bent on world domination and the farming of human ‘cattle’. Not all ‘lycans’ side with the Aberration, though, and it is left to the ‘good’ werewolves and the surviving humans to fight off the coming ‘werewolf apocalypse’.

McKinney’s werewolves are of a recognizable type. By this I mean that the transformation scenes and bodily changes his ‘lycans’ undergo will be familiar to fans of werewolf fiction. For example, one character, changing for the first time, experiences it thus:

“He felt his bones growing as they moaned in protest to the new additions. A raspy groan echoed painfully from his throat. He was desperately fighting to not start howling because of the fiery pain that criss-crossed his body. He thought of all the werewolf movies he’d seen as a kid. He knew now that they howled not in triumph but in torment.”

The main difference, then, with McKinney’s werewolves is the setting – these animals are not forest-dwelling loners or city-dwellers hiding their secret, but members of the US military. As the other characters become more aware of the existence of werewolves, Dog World offers some idea of how such supernatural creatures might be integrated into the macho and brutal world of the US army and Marine Corps. I particularly liked the coining of the term “poodle” as a derogatory term for werewolves, as it seemed to fit well with the culture McKinney was trying to depict.

Another interesting departure in Dog World comes with the references to vampires. In McKinney’s novel, these creatures are not undead rock stars or pale-faced heart-throbs, but rather corrupted and diseased scavengers, who subsist on the leftovers of the werewolves’ kills. It is unusual to find the hierarchy of werewolf/vampire thus presented, and I think McKinney deserves credit for a rather original take on this.

However, as with the book in general, this interesting idea is sadly not very well executed. The idea is there, but the craftsmanship needs much further attention.

Overall, the book is marred by frequent punctuation, formatting, spelling and grammar errors. "Where” and “were” are misused, as are “too” and “to”; apostrophes are omitted or added incorrectly; the dread phrase ‘could of’ appears on numerous occasions; spellings are occasionally inconsistent (so the vehicle is a “Humvee” on one page, and a “Humm-Vee” on another). These, and other errors, should have been dealt with by a proof-reader.

As well as being in need of a very rigorous edit, Dog World would also have benefitted from a thorough critique from a writing partner or group prior to its publication. I struggled to follow the first few chapters, as the number of characters (with backstory) introduced was overwhelming. Most of these characters were incidental, and most died before the end of Chapter Two. By the time the main group of characters (of which there were nine, which is far too high for a novel of this type) came together, I had completely lost track of who was who. This made it difficult for me to identify with any of the characters later in the story.

In terms of plot, there is also too much going on, and I think a good writing group or partner would have helped trim this down. Again, I lost track on numerous occasions. More seriously, though, there were some contradictions and plot-holes – such as conflicting versions of how vampires came into existence – that were rather frustrating. This frustration was added to by some inaccuracies in the pop culture references and in the ‘historical accounts’ given throughout the book (in overly lengthy exposition passages) – for instance, the frequent references to “The Black Plague” rather than “The Black Death”, or the misnaming of the character from Lord of the Rings as “Golem”. That these points weren’t picked up at a critiquing or editing stage suggests to me that these necessary stages of book production were either rushed or ignored completely

That said, I am aware that I am not the target audience for Dog World. One of the reasons the wealth of characters lost me was that I couldn’t follow the military ranks, jargon and abbreviations used in describing them. In addition to this, I found it very hard to identify or sympathise with such brutal characters – for instance, at one point a reference is made to lobotomizing POWs (albeit lycanthropic ones), which the central characters seem to think is fair since they are at war. However, I know lots of readers who love books of this genre, and who would find these aspects a positive, rather than a negative, feature of a novel. With some work, McKinney’s writing would definitely appeal to these readers.

I think it is also fair to say that Dog World is for American readers only, unless readers from outside the US have a high tolerance for inner monologues from non-Americans waxing lyrical about how fair and good the US government/military is. English readers in particular might find the depiction of “Britishness” a little too hard to take seriously. Aside from the continued use of the word “British” by characters who would, in reality, have described themselves as “English”, Dog World also has a character with “a mild Cockney accent” (?) who uses phrases like “allow me to cut to the meat of it, gentlemen” and “thanks for the tip, fellows”. Perhaps the oddest "Britishisms” in the novel were the way all the English characters used the expression “you’re taking a piss” when accusing someone else of making fun of them (for non-UK readers, the expression is “you’re taking the piss”), and the way everyone blew a raspberry when they gave someone the Vs (again, for non-UK readers, this is a British hand gesture, roughly equivalent to giving someone the finger, and definitely not always accompanied by a raspberry!).

I don’t want to dwell on any more of these errors here. As I stated at the beginning of this review, McKinney’s basic idea for the novel, and his original take on werewolves (and their relationship to vampires) is great and could have been developed into a really strong thriller. Instead, sadly, the “finished” novel reads like a first draft, and so is something of a let-down.

Had this book been brought to the writing group I used to co-ordinate, I certainly wouldn’t have rejected it outright. I would have advised the writer to keep listening to feedback, working on it, trimming it, redrafting it and giving it some overall polish (and I wouldn’t have said that on a public website). However, this has not been presented as a work-in-progress, but rather a finished product that is available to buy. I wonder if the current boom in self-publishing is making it a little too easy to hit the “publish” button before a book is actually ready…

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