book review: the dog stars

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When I was writing my first novel, my husband commented that I never took breaks from writing. Now, here I am, in between wrapping (the second draft of) my third novel and…well, whatever’s next—and I’m back to never taking breaks. From reading! I’m flying through books, and it’s entirely refreshing.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller was another recommendation from whatshouldireadnext.com.

Before we get into the review, I need to be clear that this book takes place in a violent, post-apocalyptic world and contains strong language. A lot. Like a lot, a lot. A lot. A lot. Also a significant amount of violence (including sexual violence). So huge disclaimer that this is not a leave-this-book-around-for-your-ten-year-old-to-pick-up kind of read.

That being said, I don’t mind post-apocalyptic reads (see Station Eleven) as long as they aren’t hopeless. I don’t enjoy hopeless books. The world can be almost as dreary, awful, and despicable as you want to make it as long as it offers me a fragment of hope (even if the heroes die). Although, (spoiler) the dog dies.

The Dog Stars opens nine years after a devastating flu wipes out most of the population and leaves most of the survivors with a blood disorder. The story is told first person (and, I might add with distractingly limited punctuation) and often out of order as “Hig” (the storyteller) goes about his daily life. It was difficult for me to get into the story as they are no quotation marks or dialogue tags (he said, I said) — but I’m glad I persevered. It was a really captivating read. A fascinating, well-articulated, creatively built world.

Hig is a widower, but everyone else has also lost everyone in the flu, so his grief feels… universal? Undeserved? He’s a pilot living with the exact friend you need in the post-apocalypse world: the guy who owns every kind of firearm and explosive known to man. No, actually, Hig is the better friend because they hole up at an airport, and he’s a pilot. Together, they form a “safety perimeter” of Hig’s flight plan and Bangley’s sniper rifle (and mortars) and live nine years killing anyone who enters their circle.

Oddly enough, Hig is also an angel of mercy to other survivors, delivering vegetables he grows, fixing solar panels. He has two very different but three-dimensional sides of his character. He relies on Bangley and appreciates how many times the total nut-job has saved his life, but he greatly resents the way killing is a way of life. He just wants to fish and misses his job as a writer for an outdoor magazine. He’s very much the everyman, the way I think Harrison Ford movies can make you believe his character is just the regular desk jockey who is suddenly over his head and has to adopt this entirely other way of existing.

Following the death of Hig’s best friend (his dog Jasper), he decides there’s got to be more than this and flies off, past his point of no return where he knows his avgas can’t get him “home.” He’s off to search for…something more, but he doesn’t know what.

The world is violent, and like I mentioned above, there is a lot of swearing. So much swearing. (But I felt it was authentic.) Hig is an interesting protagonist because he’s desperate to help people, and does when he can, but he’s also a killer who lets his dog eat the bodies of trespassers. It’s an interesting balance of shock and compassion and desperation and everything else.

Best scene in the book: Hig and another character see their own reflections in a mirror for the first time in nine years. Reading it, I wondered if I’d recognize myself, even under normal circumstances, let alone in a hostile environment that had stripped away so much of my humanity. Interesting thought as he stares, wondering who the angry, homeless old man is. Channels a little C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet when Ransom is confused by the figure of another human after living among the Sorns for so long.