The DWJ Project: Dogsbody
Tackled this one at the request of marumae. (Or rather, moved it up in the queue at her request.)
Quick synopsis: Sirius is a luminary, a member of a godlike race of entities that inhabit and personify the stars of the universe. At the beginning of the book, he’s put on trial for having killed another luminary using a Zoi, which is an object of great power. But instead of being executed for his crime, he’s exiled to Earth, in the body of a dog. If he can find and recover the Zoi before the dog’s natural lifespan ends, he can return home.
It is, as marumae said, a very bittersweet book. Sirius, born as a helpless puppy, takes a while to understand what’s going on around him, but we the readers can see the unpleasantness of it from the start. There are a lot of of awful people in this book (as well as some very good ones), and the worst part is that they’re completely plausible in their awfulness: not mustache-twirling villains, but people with ordinary cruelty and lack of compassion. And then there’s a second, subtler kind of unpleasantness, which is the inhuman nature of luminaries; they aren’t necessarily bad, but even at their best they don’t have human considerations.
The interesting thing for me, reading this book, is that I now have the perspective to see how this feels like a Diana Wynne Jones who hasn’t fully hit her stride. (Dogsbody was published in 1975; it was her fifth book, and fourth work of fantasy.) All her usual touches are here: finely observed detail, souls both generous and stingy, abused children, numinous wonder breaking through into the ordinary, and more. But there’s a lot at the end, after Sirius and the others follow the cold hounds, that is fabulous in concept but (for me) not quite there in execution. Explaining why involves spoilers, so stay outside the cut if you want to avoid the next two paragraphs.
Arawn and his hounds are beautifully creepy, and I love the mingled sympathy and cruelty of that whole chase. But once the characters get below ground, it falters; Arawn asks for his freedom, doesn’t get it, and fades away without further ado. I wanted something more, there. Then the fight over the Zoi, which leads to Sirius ending his life as a dog — and while I fully approve of the way that he didn’t realize how he was about to cheat Kathleen, the moment as presented on the page doesn’t pack quite the same punch that I think her later books manage. I have to do more filling-in for myself to really see how awful that is, and not in the way I’ve mentioned before, how she presents enough information for the audience to understand, but leaves the degree of unpacking up to the individual reader’s inclination. I don’t think I really got that as a kid, and reading it now, I want to be a bit more gutted than I actually am. It would really help setup the final bit, about Sirius leaving his Companion star open.
The Zoi is, unfortunately, a bit of a macguffin; we never get any explanation of what it really is or where it comes from. And I almost feel the book should have begun with Sirius as a puppy, filling in the trial and exile as we go along, because it would allow DWJ to more gracefully hide the fact that Sirius knows what his Companion did. I realize that he’s irrationally devoted to her, and people are capable of lying to themselves, but once that information comes out, the opening scene starts to feel a bit false. The gradual emergence of his “green nature” in his limited dog brain makes for a much better conceal, as he remembers bits and pieces of what happened with the Zoi, leaving the most hurtful parts until last.
So I guess my evaluation would be that it’s a lovely story, but not quite a perfect book. I’m a little too craft-minded these days to overlook the bits that fall short. They don’t stop me from enjoying the tale, mind you; I will take an awesome story with imperfections over a boring story with perfect execution any day. But now I’m considering bumping the earlier books up in the queue (Wilkins’ Tooth aka Witch’s Business, The Ogre Downstairs, and Eight Days of Luke) to see if I can see any patterns there.
One final, silly note: Jones is the only author I’ve personally read who seems to have equal affection and affinity for both cats and dogs. I’m a cat person myself, but she did make me fond of Sirius and his dogly behaviors — I giggled out loud at the line about how his mind is “like an amiable sieve.” Given that people generally grativate toward one or the other, her ability to love both is admirable. 🙂