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Literature / Dogsbody

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Dogsbody is a novel by Diana Wynne Jones. The guiding spirit of the star Sirius is framed for a murder and sentenced to reincarnation on Earth in the form of a dog, unless he can come up with the murder weapon (which also happens to be a very powerful MacGuffin).

Tropes featured include:

  • Abusive Parents: Kathleen is staying with her aunt and uncle while her father is imprisoned. Her uncle is benignly absent and sometimes shows her a scrap of kindness, but he doesn't particularly care about what happens out of his sight and thinks a heavy-handed scolding should fix everything. Her aunt, Duffy, very much resents an Irish girl brought into her house and rails against poor Kathleen at every opportunity. Kathleen promises to do all of the family's cooking and cleaning if Duffy lets her keep puppy Sirius, and Duffy holds her to that, going on racist tirades when the quite young girl makes mistakes and constantly threatening to have Sirius put down. She also has No Sympathy when she hears that Kathleen's father was killed. Duffy's not as terrible to her two sons, but when Kathleen runs away she makes them cook dinner, and is furious when they burn it.
  • Amplified Animal Aptitude: Sirius as a baby puppy doesn't seem too unlike a normal animal, but as he grows he applies himself to learning English. He's not really a dog, and his hyperintelligent star nature can struggle through his simpler canine thoughts. Other animals also seem to be pretty smart. Most of Sirius's dog-siblings are simple and tend not to say much more than "Hallo!" but Rover can figure out how to undo latches and understand most English if it's spoken slowly. The cats can't understand more than tone of voice and a few crucial words, but Tibbles is excellent at undoing latches and coordinates with the tabbies to try to get Sirius in trouble, then becomes his friend when he saves her from Duffy's beatings.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Sirius's Companion, the Luminary who occupies the dwarf star in his orbit, detests him and had him framed for murder, then when he's incarnated as a dog she tries repeatedly to kill him. Sirius, discovering that her nature has less kindness in it than Duffy, finds himself embarrassed realizing that Sol clearly knew what she was really like and politely never said anything.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sirius achieves his goals and he finds a better home for Kathleen, but the two are separated, possibly forever - he's a terrifying angelic entity that can't touch her, and Kathleen mourns the dog he inhabited and is so carefully polite to him that she's clearly scared. Sirius leaves her, ashamed, and with Sol's help arranges for her to take home a puppy that's the niece of his dog self. He has a hope that there might be a way to make her his Companion eventually and keeps that spot open in anticipation.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Sirius is very drawn to the scent of a dog in heat. He soon discovers that she's his sister, but that doesn't mean to a star or a dog what it would to a human. Fortunately, he can't jump the fence to be with her.
  • Burning with Anger: As a star Sirus is hot-tempered (and actively hot) and flames with outrage. As a dog his powers are much less, but when he's really worked up people comment that his eyes seem to be flaming.
  • Cats Are Mean: The cats in Kathleen's house are outraged by the presence of a dog, especially as he's jealous of Kathleen - the one person in the household who's consistently kind to them and gives them attention. They try to get rid of him, but mellow out before too long. While he and they get on quite well after that, they're still on the aloof and condescending side.
  • Cool Old Lady: Mrs. Smith is a kindhearted old woman who quickly grasps that Sirius can understand every word she says. She proves her coolness at the end of the book, when it seems like she taught everyone in the town who has a measure of power and takes in Kathleen.
  • Drowning Unwanted Pets: Puppy Sirius and his littermates are thrown into a river shortly after they're born, because an unknown dog got in with their pedigree mother, making them worthless mongrels from a breeding perspective. He later learns that the villain of the story persuaded their owner to this course, in the hope of cutting his mission on Earth short before it had properly begun. Several of the puppies survive, and Sirius meets some of his siblings again in later life, as well as eventually learning who — and what — their father was.
  • Evil Matriarch: Duffy, Kathleen's evil step aunt who works her like a dog, verbally abuses her, and threatens to kill her dog on a regular basis.
  • Extreme Doormat: Kathleen is such a nice, agreeable girl and clearly does think she owes her aunt and uncle work to repay them for taking her in, and for everything Sirius breaks. She does quite a lot of labor for them, meekly obeying Duffy in every way. Until Duffy lays into her after Kathleen's father dies and Kathleen smashes Duffy's pottery in revenge. Sirius defends her and bites Duffy, so Kathleen agrees that he has to be put down and runs away with him instead. Even then, though he takes her to Mrs. Smith, when she talks to her cousins she seems resolved to return with them.
  • Forced Transformation: Sirius is forced to take the form of a dog, with a dog's normal lifespan and other vulnerabilities, and has to find the MacGuffin before he dies of old age or something else kills him.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Kathleen, to Sirius's exasperation, is kind to any animal she comes across. Mrs. Smith is very good to any dogs she meets, and to Kathleen herself. Then there's the Earth.
  • Hellhound: The Cŵn Annwn, spectral hounds from Welsh Mythology, appear and play a role in the plot.
  • Heroic Canines, Villainous Felines: The cats in Sirius' new home are at first jealous and try to set the Evil Matriarch against him. After he saves one of them from her wrath, however, they become some of his best allies.
  • I Was Named "My Name":
    • Subverted. In a world where stars are actually sentient creatures with godlike powers, Sirius is framed for murdering a dwarf star, and banished to Earth to search for a vital piece of evidence — and, in the process, forced to be reborn as a mortal... a mortal dog, to be precise. When he is later adopted by a young girl, she mulls over his name for a long time, but eventually settles on "Leo" — lampshading it later, when she learns about 'The Dog-Star, Sirius' at school, and comments that it would've been a better name.
    • Played straighter later in the book when Sirius meets Miss Smith, who is generally presented as wise and perceptive and who quickly decides that she's going to call him "Sirius".
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Kathleen's cousins to different degrees. Robin is kind when alone with Kathleen but easily swayed by the opinions of his mom and older brother, so when she's getting yelled at he's caught between sympathy and jeering along. Basil is initially much more antagonistic to both Kathleen and Sirius and has absorbed more of Duffy's prejudices but gradually does reveal better aspects.
  • MacGuffin: The Zoi. The plot is driven by Sirius' need to find it and return it to safekeeping, while other characters try to prevent him. It's very hard for him to explain what it actually is, especially since at first his star memories are very hazed by dog thoughts. Eventually he tells another character that it's the movement behind movement. It can create things, move them, destroy them... it's not well defined what the Zoi can do, but it's certainly effective as a weapon.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Kathleen's story, especially after her father dies because of his escape from prison. She's taken in by relatives, but some of them treat her as a servant and abuse her emotionally.
  • Parental Abandonment: Kathleen is living with her uncle's family because her father is in prison. Then he dies in an escape attempt, and things get worse.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: When Sirius' Companion visits Earth, Sol is scrupulously, exaggeratedly polite with her, and she with him. Sirius finds it uncomfortably clear how much they detest each other.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: While dog-shaped Sirius initially can't access his star memories and capabilities at all. As he grows bigger and older more of his memory and intelligence returns, but have to struggle through his simpler dog thoughts as well. At one point he resolves to permanently run away from the home where Kathleen lives so he can dedicate himself to finding the Zoi, but later that day he realizes she's about to come home from school and his dog nature entirely takes over - it seems like the most important thing he can imagine to be there to greet her.
  • Punctuated Pounding: Duffie (the human Wicked Stepmother type) beats Tibbles (one of her cats) in this way for breaking her pottery. Since the victim of this incident is a cat, and the main character is a dog, this kind of incident with Duffie heads very quickly into literal Kick the Dog territory.
  • Sentient Stars: All stars have living spirits. The spirit of the star Sirius is framed for murdering a dwarf star, and banished to Earth to search for a vital piece of evidence — and, in the process, forced to be reborn as a mortal dog. A few other star spirits also appear as characters, including the spirit of Earth's Sun.
  • Taking the Heat: Sirius furiously denies having killed the victim and thrown the Zoi at the witness. But he won't provide an alternate story because doing so would implicate his Companion.
  • Tantrum Throwing: The Castor luminary claims Sirius did this (and aimed to kill) with the Zoi when he discovered Sirius with the body of the young Orion luminary. The problem with this: A Zoi has to be in someone's hands for him to kill with it, and it was Sirius' Companion who threw it as Sirius tried to wrestle it out of her hands.
  • The Wild Hunt: Sirius in his dog incarnation turns out to be related to them, the result of one of the hounds jumping into a pen with a labrador. As Sirius's littermates, several of the other dog characters share that heritage.