Since the beginning of history, family sagas have never failed to captivate the human race. Across the globe, the religions and mythologies of every culture are littered with tales of kith and kin. For millennia we have dined upon the wars and passions between rival siblings, the unconditional bonds of mothers, and the many splintered facades of a father's love. Yet, we never grow bored, and like some fundamental meme, they remain forever in our blood.
Not least of all does this relate to the stories of the ancient Celts, and the heroes and villains from pre-Roman Britain. And in The Dog at the Foot of the Bed, Tyree Campbell raises the ghost of our Celtic forefathers, and delivers a SciFi family saga that is as intriguing as it is complex.
Set in the same futurescape as Campbell's first novel Nyx, The Dog at the Foot of the Bed follows the exploits of the Shannen siblings, a family whose heritage lays somewhere in the misty past of Ireland. Living on a remote world, the Shannens' life, though far from uncomplicated, is peaceful enough. That peace is shattered, however, when past exploits and old rivalries begin coming back to haunt them.
Siobhan, the oldest of the Shannen sisters, is something of a family renegade. She is a major in the military, and no longer lives with her siblings. One day she learns from her superiors that somebody, somewhere in the galaxy, had gained the terrifying means and power to destroy entire planets. With dire force, the strikes come with little warning, and are without apparent motive. Siobhan is ordered to discover the culprit behind the attacks, and quickly finds herself in the midst of a political quagmire. Here, she is forced to rekindle relations with the family she once walked away from.
Siobhan's biggest problem stems from her longstanding feud with her twin brother. Ovin Shannen is the head of the family. He is also an adept and ruthless assassin. Stripped to a basic outline, Siobhan and Ovin both kill for money. But where Ovin lends his skills to the highest bidder, Siobhan follows military orders in what she hopes is the greater good. Feeling that her way of life claims the higher morality, Siobhan views her twin as a cold and honourless murderer. While as far as Ovin is concerned, the only ethical difference between their chosen professions is political spin.
As protagonists, the tension between the twins is by far the most interesting family dynamic of the tale. But the other siblings are also well drawn, and integral to the plot: there's Kevan, a scientist, intelligent and sensitive; Deyrdra, elf-like and mischievous; and finally the stalwart Una. With Siobhan and Ovin back together, the family forms an uneasy truce, and join forces to unravel the mystery of the global catastrophes. It is then we realise what a big place the galaxy is, and the story becomes a guessing game that will keep you wrong-footed until the final page.
Campbell's vision of the future is a complicated and often dark place. With the familiar themes of devious bureaucracies and high business corporations, there's an abundance of detail, and an unerring sense that the writer might just be showing us a future that we should be careful to avoid. As with any good work of fiction, it's the gelling of the characters that keeps the pace of the story flowing. Campbell has a knack for developing the multi-faceted elements of the human condition, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual. Alongside the family members, the incidental characters and villains are given the freedom to grow and flourish. Love or loathe them, by the end of the book you will understand who each character is, but not necessarily in the way you might expect.
In much of Campbell's work, he explores the nature of sexuality. The Dog at the Foot of the Bed is no exception, and this is where a sense of the mythic is injected into the Shannen heritage. In many ancient cultures, inbreeding was encouraged to keep family lines pureblood. There is an incestuous bond between the brothers and sisters of the Shannen family that is both complicated and occasionally jarring to read. It summons a notion that an archaic form of love exists between them, and it is something other , something old, something forgotten. Erotica can often feel out of place in SciFi, yet once again Campbell smoothly handles the scenario as a product of the story, and it adds an extra dimension to relationships and perils.
At heart The Dog at the Foot of the Bed is a Science Fiction story; there is cause and effect, questions and answers, and no easy escape routes. Invited into the exclusiveness of a family in trouble, we ride the twists and turns as we try to fathom who is destroying worlds, and why. And the guessing game never lets up; Campbell clearly enjoys his red herrings and double bluffs. He likes to dangle clues tantalisingly beneath our noses, and hide truths right in front of our eyes. Subtly, the threads of this tale weave together to form a single picture that one could almost imagine as a tapestry hanging in the halls of the ancient Celts.
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