The Appeal of Dog-Headed Men, or, Exploring the Non-Human Condition

When I was invited to write a story for Tales of the Emerald Serpent, I was sent some fascinating background material on the city and its inhabitants. My attention was instantly drawn to the Lowl, described as ‘dog-headed humans’, taller than an average man, with some fire magic and an inclination to warrior and mercenary lives.

My university degree’s in Classics, so I immediately recalled Hesiod and Herodotus’s tales of the Cynocephali, the dog-headed tribes encountered by Greeks exploring the mysteries of Africa and India. More than that, I remembered the pictures in the books of myth and folklore which I’d read many years before. I recalled those wonderful maps where pictures of such half-human races separated known lands from the wilderness where all the mapmakers said was ‘here be dragons’. My love of fantasy fiction, as reader and writer, most definitely has its roots in such stories. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if there truly were such creatures?

A Lowl from the city of Taux, art by Jeff Laubenstein

This may well surprise fans of my novels. Readers observe from time to time on the absence of non-human races in my books, curious rather than critical. It’s a valid observation and that was a definite choice I made at the outset. Then as now, I’m looking for new perspectives on epic/high fantasy, those tales of princes, heroes and wizards – and in the ones I write, any and all of those characters can be men or women. I chose not to include ‘classic’ fantasy non-humans like orcs, dwarves or elves because they come loaded with so much baggage. So many readers will instantly see such characters through the prism of their own preconceptions. Some writers work very well with that challenge but I knew it wasn’t for me. I aim to test assumptions on class, gender and political power-structures in other ways in my stories, best done in an all human world. Along with writing a vivid, fast-moving story of course, with whatever sword-play, trickery, magic or dragons seems best suited to that particular adventure.

Writing short fiction offers me opportunities to do different things. Exploring the non-human condition is something I’m increasingly interested in. I considered dryads in my story for ‘The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity’; nigh-on immortal beings whose life is nevertheless lived in a constant here-and-now. Bound to the natural world and its seasons, their concept of time, life and love is utterly non-human – which is all very well until they’re forced to deal with humans intent on building a road through their oak grove.

Lowl are something else again. Their dual nature fascinates me, not only when considering how humans will react to them but wondering how Lowl see themselves. Are they neither one thing nor the other? Or enjoying the best of both worlds? Or something else entirely? What will that mean for an individual’s opportunities and choices?

Help our Kickstarter reach its target, and you’ll be able to read my story as part of a truly fascinating collection. The minimum buy-in is $5, for readers world-wide, and if you have more cash to spare, there are a whole range of bonus benefits after that.

Here’s a taste to whet your appetite.

Zhada was heading instead for the Emerald Serpent, first and most famous of all the Black Gate’s taverns. Whoever had first claimed that half of the long building had known a trick or two about keeping customers coming back even more readily than they visited the neighbouring Silk Purse and that house’s fragrant courtesans.

The pastry triangle in his hand was still warm plump with hotly spiced meat and fruit. He wolfed it down, relishing the bite of the pepper pods. So much human food was tediously bland to Lowl tastes but Mistress Talleran was Taux born and accustomed to using all the Free Coast’s bounty in her cooking.

‘Here comes a hound for hire!’

Zhada halted as he rounded the corner into the wider thoroughfare cutting straight towards the stadium.

‘Varrach.’ He let his hand rest lightly on the hilt of his sword. ‘Don’t you find the day a little chill?’

Like the rest of his followers, Varrach was shirtless despite the season. Zhada noted that three more had now followed his lead and gone under the needle for tattoos. At first glance the ink extended the Lowl pelt covering their heads and necks right across their human-framed shoulders and down their chests. A closer look would show they were no more furred than any particularly hairy human.

He also saw Varrach’s gaze drop to check that knotted ribbons secured his sword’s hilt to its scabbard, to signal that Zhada had no intention of duelling today.

The tan-furred Lowl squared his impressively muscled shoulders and stared straight into Zhada’s eyes. ‘I choose not to soothe the humans’ fears through wearing their clothes.’

‘Then shouldn’t you be going bare arsed?’ Zhada’s riposte was as swift as any blade.

Varrach clenched a fist beside his tattered ulama trousers, the loose cotton fabric cut short above his knees and bare feet. ‘And throw the ball straight into the merchant guild’s hands? Their Sturgeons would chain me like a cur in their lock-up for goading humans into unsanctioned fighting. Who would challenge their claim on this city then?’

‘But you don’t care to challenge them in their own language.’ Zhada interrupted with a gesture towards the men and women walking past, fewer than half of them sparing curious glances for this exchange in incomprehensible Lowl speech.

Varrach’s scarred muzzle wrinkled as he drew dark lips back from his canine teeth. ‘I have nothing to say to such stunted specimens, as good as deaf and noseless.’

Zhada cocked his head. ‘Why do you feel so threatened when Vitcoska’s blessing has given us so many advantages over them? She chose to form us from humanity. Doesn’t denying that kinship insult her? Don’t you see it every time you look in a mirror?’

Truth be told, he wasn’t speaking to Varrach now but to the pack of younger Lowl loitering behind him. Then he noticed that a couple of those fool pups had done something to their eyes. No longer manlike, their gaze was as dark and featureless as any beast’s.

The fur on the back of Zhada’s neck bristled with irritation. He took an angry step towards the closest, ready to grab his scruff and shake some sense into him. ‘What are you going to do next? Cut off your thumbs so you’re left with useless paws and start scurrying around on all fours?’

Varrach moved to intercept him, both fists clenched. Zhada halted. He didn’t have time to waste on this nonsense or on trying to explain himself to the city’s blue-liveried guards.

Taking a swift sidestep to wrong foot Varrach, he went on his way without another word.

Taken by surprise, the tan-furred Lowl settled for shouting a last insult. ‘Be sure they reward you richly for putting their leash round your neck!’

Zhada ignored him, lengthening his stride. He didn’t want to be late for his meeting and the sun had already risen above the vast stadium. He hurried into its shadow, heading straight for the Emerald Serpent.

When he entered the tavern though, he saw Lareo already deep in conversation with some human. Zhada approached nevertheless, to make sure that the aging Eldaryn had seen him. The diminutive individual was barely two thirds the height of most humans, even sitting on his tall stool.

Catching the human’s scent, the Lowl’s nostrils flared. Magic. A Tome Mage. One of those cheats peddling magic-wrought fakery on the basis of some supposed kinship with true wizards. As if such mountebanks had any link with those scholars who lived unseen in the Star Tower across the harbour.

‘Zhada, good day to you.’ Lareo waved to him over the human’s shoulder.

He shucked his backpack and dropped it on the floor to land with a solid thud. The man turned around in his chair, startled.

‘Good day.’ His smile widened. ‘Ah, I am looking for one of your kinsmen. Do you know a—’ he hesitated ‘—one called Durrau?’

Zhada had the Tome Mage’s measure in an instant. Newly arrived in the city from one of the New Kingdoms. While he’d have heard of Lowl he’d never have seen one beyond the seas. He didn’t know how to pronounce their names, just as he didn’t realise that Zhada now baring his teeth was nothing akin to a human smile.

A Lowl from the city of Taux, art by Jeff Laubenstein

You can find out a whole lot more about Lowl through the second of our Kickstarter updates.

You can read excerpts from Harry Connolly’s story and from Lynn Flewelling’s tale
You can also join the The Art of the Genre Facebook group if you’re so inclined.

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