What can I say about this book? I really do not know how I feel about the book I've just completed, and might not know until I reread it a couple of times in years to come. All I know entirely for sure is that my author-crush on A.S. King has gotten larger, and that I have never in my life encountered a book remotely like The Dust of 100 Dogs.
I've read two other novels by A.S. King, Everybody Sees the Ants and Ask the Passengers. As much as they differed from one another, The Dust of 100 Dogs is even further removed. Her other novels are contemporaries, but this one takes place in the seventeenth century and the 1990s. Her storytelling methods, the mature subject matter, and the settings highlight King's daring as an author.
Her love of history can also be felt in Everybody Sees the Ants, in which the main character's grandfather was a World War II veteran. Here, King goes all the way back to seventeeth century Ireland, in the era of Oliver Cromwell and English subjugation (well, one of many eras of that anyway). She unflinchingly depicts the brutality of the English through the eyes of eight-year-old Emer, who witnesses her mother's brave battle and her brother's death firsthand. Where she was once a weak, whiny creature with dreams of being admired for her beauty, Emer learns from this hard lessons about power and how to live.
Taken in by her abusive Uncle and his family, she loses herself in her grief for a while, retreating into herself and going mute by choice, since there is nothing worth talking about in her new life. This changes when she meets the love of her life, a boy similarly mute, Seanie Carroll. When she takes a stand against her cruel Uncle Martin, he ships her off to France to marry a wealthy, disgusting old man. Emer escapes and begins her wanderings around the world, eventually becoming the captain of a pirate vessel.
That's right! Thar be pirates here! These are the kinds of pirates one cannot help but root for, coming across almost as Robin Hoods, when compared to the slavers and the plundering Spanish. Emer, an honest, upright girl at heart, justifies her actions, her violence, with the knowledge that these colonizers do horrible things to the people whose land they are stealing. The comparisons drawn between the English in Ireland, the Spanish on the Atlantic Isles, and the manifest destiny of the Americans are brilliant.
King focuses on power and on colonization. Her tale is not a happy one. Lovers die, heroines are raped and stalked by the worst of men, and many people are held subjective to the whims of assholes with more will and more power. Even in Emer's modern life (as Saffron), this plays out through the abuses of her brother, a druggie, who steals and destroys everything her parents have, but whom they cannot begin to resist; they are willing victims. Emer, after her childhood experience, never allows anyone to make her into an easy victim; her suffering makes her strong.
The concept and execution completely awe me. King tells the story through shifting perspectives: Emer in third person, Saffron in first person, Fred Livingstone in third person, and notes about dogs. Emer's third person narration, with the exception of the prologue, follows her life chronologically. Saffron, blessed or cursed with Emer's memories still has her own distinct personality. She is a fascinating figure, a child with hundreds of years of memories, both human and hound. Fred may be one of the most creepy characters I have ever encountered, and I do not think I'll be forgetting him any time soon; he's like a rapist stalker combined with Gollum, which is just nightmarish. The notes about life as a dog and how best to raise them are typically King in their oddness. These include sharp insights into human nature, but do occasionally come across as a message from the humane society.
What Left Me Wanting More:
Much as I love the plot of this book and am wowed by King's bravery as an author to venture into such untrespassed lands of YA fiction, I do wish there had been more focus on characterization. My first priority for a book is characters I really connect with, and I did not really find that in Emer or Saffron. I like both of them, worry about both of them, and wish the best for both of them, but they did not capture my heart. With all that King had to accomplish narratively, this is not surprising, because the book would have had to be a good bit longer. If you do not read for character foremost, as I do, then this will likely not be a huge drawback.
The Final Verdict:
If you are looking for a book unlike anything else in YA fiction, you cannot go wrong with A.S. King's The Dust of 100 Dogs. King writes beautifully and does not romanticize anything. Her books are honest and thought-provoking.