Friday 19 January 2024

Hounds of the Underworld by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray (Raw Dog Screaming Press) | review by Jacob Edwards

This review originally appeared in TQF64 (March 2019).

New Zealand’s answer to Richard Morgan.

I don’t read as much as I’d like to – life spills over; time seeps away – but there are names from my editing days at Andromeda Spaceways that I still look out for. Dan Rabarts is one of them. I particularly like the way Dan builds his stories, grounding them in both character and setting and then pursuing an idea of real substance. When I heard he’d written a novel – co-authored with Lee Murray – I put it at the top of my short but optimistic “to read” list.

And so: Hounds of the Underworld, a 199pp near-future SF detective piece with lashings of horror.

Penny Yee is a scientific consultant to the police; her adopted brother Matiu is a reformed ne’er-do-well. Where one is upstanding and rational, the other follows his instincts and holds himself to a less rigid code. Written in the third person, present tense, Hounds of the Underworld alternates between their two viewpoints, and it is the dynamic between Penny and Matiu that sets the book apart. The clash of their personalities – of aspects of their shared Maori-Chinese heritage – brings uncertainty to the flow of events, yet is offset by their unshakeable sibling bond. Matiu, sensitive to shades in reality, pushes the narrative forward, and is the more interesting of the two. Penny keeps the story grounded; without her, Matiu would become untethered. They are an unlikely pair and yet their relationship is more than just believable; it is the kernel of a murder investigation that would fail to resonate if carried out by either character on their own.

Hounds of the Underworld takes place in New Zealand in the year 2045 – not a dystopia, as such, but a rundown, shabby sort of future in which problems have outstripped progress. The setting emerges slowly, naturally, and lends the story both a noirish charm and an individuality often found lacking in analogous works. The mystery itself is one that Sherlock Holmes might have described as singular. It creeps up on the reader, hiding at first behind the twin character studies but then breaking loose alongside the Lovecraftian horror. Hounds is well-paced, and in reading feels more substantial than its length would suggest. As a self-contained novel it perhaps flourishes too briefly; but then again, it is also the first book in a series – The Path of Ra – and any small sense of disappointment upon its conclusion quickly gives way to anticipation of what is to come.

A beguiling collaboration, original yet accessible. A must for connoisseurs of small press speculative fiction. Jacob Edwards

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