What’s Bred in the Bone: Not Quite Reaching Liftoff — book review by Enjy.
by Dogpatch Press Staff
A request came in for furries to review a non-furry author’s book. Many thanks to Enjy for offering her thoroughly attentive writing. Find What’s Bred In the Bone at Amazon, see the author’s art and writing at her site or read a brief cover summary and another short review in the Twitter thread. (- Patch)
I love contacts like this. A nonfandom publicist wrote in seeking a reviewer for a book that looks like it hits the sweet spot for a fun genre piece. Police mystery with sci-fi intelligent dogs in space. Anyone into getting a free copy and writing about it, DM me. pic.twitter.com/jnm2peYzgc
— Dogpatch Press (@DogpatchPress) June 16, 2019
What’s Bred in the Bone is a novel written by Jan S. Gephardt, a multi-talented artist and author who has been in the science fiction fandom for most of her long life.
The story, which is the first part of a trilogy, centers around canine police officer Rex Dieter-Nell and his human partner Charlie Morgan as they attempt to solve an explosion on a ship. Rex is a sort of genetically engineered canine resembling a German Shepherd, but much larger, called an “XK9”. Through harrowing and abusive training, he and his Packmates, the other XK9s, gain insane amounts of intelligence alongside their normal dog abilities. This all takes place in a campy future setting, as shown by the cover art done by Jody Lee. It has an aesthetic that reminds me of the old Mega Man boxart from the NES, so this sci-fi is less Alien and more Logan’s Run or Flash Gordon. It has outlandish alien species, gadgets like brain links and vocalizing collars for the dogs, and outfits for the higherups that are described as garish and colorful, Fifth-Element style.
While these ideas can all combine into something great, Gephardt leaves a lot of ends loose to the point where it can leave the reader feeling left behind as we are zoomed from half-idea to half-idea.
Indeed, Gephardt has put quite a bit of effort into world building. Aliens have their own pronouns, there are inter-stationary politics abound, and the author does an excellent job of setting a scene visually. One of the most frustrating things holding back this world building is that it does not seem that we, the reader, are ever allowed an explanation for things Gephardt knows, but we do not. For instance, she is very gender-inclusive in the book, in one instance having Rex address a gathered assembly as “Gentlepersons”. However, this also leads to a sense of confusion with the other aliens, with pronouns like “k’kir” and “nem” that are never fully explained and hard to keep track of. On top of this, there are concepts like a capital-F Family that seems to differ from what we now consider one, although how I could not tell you because it is not explained, and also an “Amare,” which I assume is someone you love, but this is also not delved into.
Indeed there is a full on bestiary forming here, but as a reader we cannot fully grasp what exactly is being shown to us. Why Gephardt would spend 3 pages detailing a conversation in a car, but not so much as a glossary for all of the police abbreviations and self-made terms she uses, leaves me scratching my head in wonder. I must be honest and say that I had to double-take between the book and Google sometimes to understand what was going on, and this pulled me out of the world. This isn’t to say that the author is bad at detailing. In fact, it’s one of her strongest points. From painting outside scenes to correctly stating the effect that space radiation has on scents, it’s clear that she has some amazing chops, but focuses them in strange and confusing ways.
This book is quite obviously a passion project, but in order for its grand scale to move out of the nebula for the rest of us, the author needs to let us in, and she did not do so great of a job.
This inability to focus on the cohesive ideas that form a great story manifest themselves in a couple of other very puzzling choices as well. One that stuck out to me as the most grievous was the use of a server-rack full of deus-ex-machinas. Scent profiles can tell Rex what a person is thinking just by smelling them. Every canine and their human partners have a brain-link that lets them talk and type to each other telepathically, and even feel each others’ emotions. Rex is a superdog who has perfect photographic memory, even from when he was a puppy. No conflict or situation felt terribly scary or bad, because it was understood (and indeed proven) that one of these all-encompassing tools would be used to solve whatever issue the two were going through. On top of this, the focus on using these features as catch-alls for problem solving in a minute sense seemed to blind the author to the larger implications of these powers. How did the doctor who created the XK9s get away with abusing them for so many years if there were almost 150 of them and they all could have their minds read?
There is an entire section of the book somewhere near the middle where Rex goes off alone after his partner is harmed in the line of duty to do “community policing”. I had never read a book with what I would call a “filler episode” before this one, and I feel like if that chapter was removed and replaced with one where the author took a little more time to flesh out the universe, all of these questions and many more could have been answered with the skills she’s proven she possesses.
It is also quite difficult to stay involved in a story that does not stay involved within itself. Gephardt’s refusal to commit does serious damage to the narrative she tries to craft, and nearly every chapter we are whisked off to somewhere else, or someone else. One of the big draws of the book is the relationship between Rex and Charlie, and for reasons that escape me, Charlie is absent for a literal 90 percent of the story after he gets injured. He is put in a type of stasis and so outside of the first few chapters, we are never allowed to explore the relationship between these two titular characters. We are also taken into the life of Rex’s mate Shady, in what is probably one of the only engaging character relationships in the book. Shady loves Rex, but her owner is Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Pam. This leads to fights and misunderstandings that unfortunately peter out as soon as they begin. Instead of diving into how that can affect Rex and Shady’s relationship, it results in petty squabbling like whether the dog should use her paycheck to help pay Pam’s rent.
Why this bothers me so is because I know from reading this story that Gephardt has the talent and skill to dig deeper into what she’s created, but instead of being allowed to walk inside of a diorama of her universe, we are forced to watch from behind the glass.
Of course this book has positives as well. One scene in particular that tickled me was getting to hear Shady arguing with Pam after she was locked in a room while Pam’s new boyfriend was throwing a party to watch a sports game. If you’ve ever wondered what your dog could actually be saying while they whine and scratch on the door, Gephardt does a fantastic job of putting us inside of these animals’ heads. Every action they take makes sense for an animal, and you get the feeling that she truly understands what makes our canine friends tick. She also has a great sense of humor, with some pages making me giggle as I read them, such as Rex gaining access to a back room by asking to use the toilet. The secretary at first refuses, but then as he lifts his leg near the water fountain, she hurriedly lets him in. This is something only possible for a dog, and Gephardt uses this to great effect as she crafts her story. It is quite the shame that she did not put this level of detail towards the rest of her novel.
All in all I can see great potential from this author, but this effort falls quite flat, and to be brutally honest, I really had to push myself to finish. There are more than 300 pages of this book and it feels more like a compilation of personal stories than a steeled unit. Every seed that was planted for a great idea wilted before it ever broke ground. Yes, the XK9s are sentient beings which puts them above being animals, but in a world with every type of alien and where even a cybernetic consciousness and a race of gryphons are recognized as such, why is this such a contentious thing? Why does Charlie’s injury only concern Rex for the space of two chapters, then take a backseat to his strangely meteoric rise to the top of the police ranks through mundane things like talking to people and doing his regular job?
In order for a story to stand strong, it needs a strong foundation. That is woefully absent in this book, leaving Gephardt’s universe to slip and slide confusingly in whichever direction she decides to point the camera. I sincerely hope that the author really sinks her teeth in, like I know she can, in her next two books. This is a universe the reader would love to get lost in, but we are never given the chance. Space is in reach, but the thrusters just will not fire. Greatness is in view, but we are constantly held back from experiencing it. Gephardt’s engines need calibration, but if she focuses her immense writing talents in the right direction, this story could truly reach for the stars.
I give “What’s Bred in the Bone” a 5/10.