By Colin Salt
Alternate history writers have frequently obsessed over some tangible thing. In many cases, it's been airships. In the The Big One series, it was massive high and fast bomber aircraft. And in Dave Putnam's The Gamekeeper's Night Dog, it's-canines. Of all the strange alternate histories, this has to rank as one of the absolute most bizarre of all time.
The plot revolves around David Banner, an 1891 gamekeeper who receives a dream vision from the Judeo-Christian God that resides in the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The world is on the verge of a dark and terrible future, also known as "actual history". Terrible world wars will result unless the classic Old English Bulldog breed, a divinely favored one, can be preserved and expanded. The last of the Bulldogs (the word is always capitalized throughout the book) is Lockjaw, who will serve as the Adam to a revival of his breed and one of the book's other main characters. Through these visions, Banner and his allies create advanced technology, bringing 1910s technology to the fore in the 1890s. They also create an army of superdogs, both "Bulldogs" and later a type derived from Irish Wolfhounds. To create the good future, the British must start the Boer War early, and so man and beast, after many demonstrations, head to South Africa as a "privateer" army. After the squash victory there, events lead to an Anglo-German World War I starting two decades earlier...
In terms of literary quality, the book feels like the well-intentioned first novel that it is. There's a lot of roughness around the edges in everything from prose to pacing. That can be forgive for a first effort, and it's not nearly as bad as it could have been in that regard. Sure, the characters are stereotypes and the book ends on a weird "cliffhanger", but it gets the absolute basics adequately right.
Of course, this book is near-impossible to actually judge in terms of conventional worth. The dog obsession just goes all the way. There are tons and tons of passages depicting the dogs ripping people and other animals apart. A nation's worth is determined by the types of dogs that it allows. People who wish to ban certain dog breeds and enact animal cruelty laws are placed alongside the worst monsters of history. It's just strange. Yes, stranger than a sixty-four book series about a time-traveling warship. Yes, stranger than a book where a Libyan-Palestinian army invades Ireland to have as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel.
Still, alternate history is better for this book existing. Bizarre and iffy is a lot better than bland and iffy. Woof!