Review of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Wolfhound Century by Peter HigginsTitle: Wolfhound Century
Author: 
Peter Higgins
Published:
21 March 2013
Publisher:
 
Gollancz
Genre: 
science fiction, alternative history fantasy, thriller
Source: 
I received a review copy from Gollancz Geeks, but had to use an eBook for reviewing purposes, hence the absence of page numbers for quotes.
Rating: 7/10

I judged this book by its cover. I took one look and assumed it was a political or military thriller within the sf genre. A perfunctory glance at the blurb –  “SF thriller… alternative Russia” – and I moved on. Only when Gollancz Geeks sent out an email about the book and possible review copies did I take a closer look and realise that Wolfhound Century is actually the kind of weird, hard-to-categorise genre fiction that I like. It’s still, in part, a political thriller but it’s far more bizarre and surprising than I’d expected. 

It’s set in an alternative Soviet Russia known as the Vlast, where for over three centuries angels have fallen from the sky, supposedly killed in a heavenly war. Their massive stone bodies have been used for buildings, machines, and biological modifications that serve the totalitarian state of the Vlast.

Investigator Vissarion Lom has a sliver of angelflesh embedded in his forehead. Among other things, “it encourages loyalty. The sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the whole. It’s a way of binding you to the Vlast.” And Lom is a dedicated, loyal policeman, willing to take down his own corrupt peers even if it means that he’s despised and his career remains stagnant. It’s because of this work ethic that Krogh, Head of the Secret Police, summons Lom to the capital Mirgorod to capture a terrorist. Joseph Kantor is “a one-man war zone”, a man who spreads chaos, fear and distrust”, but who is protected by unknown allies within the Secret Police. He uses his guise as a rebel to uphold tyranny. Because Lom is unknown in Mirgorod, Krogh hopes he can track down Kantor and “stop him. By any means possible. Any at all”.

What Krogh and Lom don’t know is that Kantor is also being influenced by an angel – the last fallen angel, known as Archangel, although it has no real name. Unlike its predecessors, Archangel fell to earth alive. It is slowly poisoning the forest around it as if “shot into the forest’s belly like a bullet, bursting it open, engendering a slow, inevitable, glacial, cancerous, stone killing”. Dying, but fused deep within the earth, the Archangel reached out with its mind and found Kantor. It promised him dominion over this world and others, if only he would perform one task – destroy the Pollandore.

The Pollandore is the stuff of folklore, described once as a ‘”forest god” although that doesn’t really capture its role in the narrative. Rather, the Pollandore is potential personified – it embodies the possibility of another world, specifically a world without the influence of the angels. And this last angel – Archangel – wants to destroy all possibility of a world free from its dominion.

Most people assume the Pollandore is a myth. The Vlast captured and caged it a long time ago, but couldn’t kill it. Now the wounded forest itself sends an emissary to the city to find a way of opening the Pollandore and saving the forest – and presumably the world – from the cruelty and destruction of the Archangel. The forest’s only hope is Maroussia, Jopseph Kantor’s stepdaughter, who holds the key to opening the Pollandore. Her path collides with Lom’s, and although she fears and hates him as a policeman, he becomes her ally when she finds herself hunted by the Secret Police. Lom himself gradually begins to rethink his loyalties as he wonders, for the first time, what the sliver of angelflesh in his forehead has really done to him.

This isn’t what I expected with this novel, and it should serve to remind me to be a bit more open-minded when judging books by their covers. Well, some books anyway. Wolfhound Century frequently surprised me with its world. When I started reading I’d forgotten what was outlined in the blurb; I recalled only that it was supposed to be a genre-leaping book that was hard to categorise, and it had been praised for being dark and inventive. As far as worldbuilding is concerned, the novel certainly lives up to the hype.

At first there are only a few minor fantastical elements – giants, stone golems called mudjhiks, Archangel, the angelflesh that seems to be more than just dead stone. Then some of the characters are revealed to be more than simply human. Maroussia, who has “an open, outdoor scent. Rain on cool earth” clearly has some kind of intrinsic link to the forest; a power which terrifies Kantor. Lom reveals a weak ability to manipulate the air, which he feebly uses when suddenly attacked by sentient rain. Raku Vishnik, a mutual friend of Lom and Maroussia’s, works as the official City Photographer, and has discovered an otherworldly city existing in the same space as Mirgorod. He has photographed the moments when the otherworld breaks through into their world and the laws of physics go awry. And like the alternate reality bursting through into the current one, the novel seemed to flourish with the bizarre as I read. Even as I neared the end it continued to unveil its wonders.

It wouldn’t be nearly as spectacular if not presented in Higgins’s vivid writing, and I spent a lot of time taking down quotes. What I also love is the way Higgins uses the world to emphasis the central conflict between the cold brutality of Mirgorod and the Vlast, and the mythical world of the forest, teeming with life and uncanny beauty. Consider, for example, these descriptions of the Lodka, the colossal building housing the Secret Police HQ:

Six hundred yards long, a hundred and twenty yards high, it enclosed ten million cubic yards of air and a thousand miles of intricately interlocking offices, corridors and stairways, the cerebral cortex of a stone brain. It was said the Lodka had been built so huge and so hastily that when it was finished, many of the rooms could not be reached at all. Passageways ran from nowhere to nowhere. Stairwells without stairs. Exitless labyrinths. From high windows you could look down on entrance-less vacant courtyards, the innermost secrets of the Vlast. Amber lights burned in a thousand windows. Behind each window, minsters and civil servants, clerks and archivists, and secret policemen were working late.

The Lodka cruised on the surface of the city like an immense ship, and like a ship it had no relationship with the depths over which it sailed, except to trawl for what lived there.

It sounds frighteningly Kafkaesque (I also assumed that Joseph Kantor is a reference to Joseph K, although I’m not sure why). Compare it to the sense of life in these passages about the forest:

The tree was eating light and breathing clouds of perfume.

The perfumed tree-breath was its voice, its chemical tongue. It was speaking to the insect population in its bark and branches, warning and soothing them. It as speaking to its neighbour trees, who answered: tree spoke to tree, out across the endless forest. And it was speaking to him. Psychoactive pheromones drifted through the alveolar forests of his human lungs and the whorled synaptical pathways of his cerebral cortex.

Maroussia was walking among them. She placed her hand on the silent living bark and felt her skin, her very flesh, become transparent. She became aware of the articulation of her bones, sheathed in their muscle and tendon. Eyes, heart and lungs, liver and brain, nested like birds in a walking tree of bone. A weave of veins and arteries and streaming nerves that flickered with gentle electricity.

I think science and fantasy are beautifully entwined here, and the descriptions draw distinct parallels between the life of the forest and the functioning of the human body, bringing to light the ways in which life is connected. It’s a stark contrast to the pointlessness within the Lodka’s structure, and the impersonal nature of the work that is done there, ignoring or stamping out life rather than nourishing it. To the Vlast, people are only useful as parts of a vast machine. If it considers it individuals to be connected, it is only so that they may serve the demands of the state, which in turn serves only itself.

While the forest and other mythical beings seek to stop destruction, the Vlast only seeks more power and has been engaged in a years-long war with the vaguely defined Archipelago. No reason is given for the war, but I think it’s safe to assume that the Vlast wants to expand. Although the Novozhod (the Vlast’s version of Joseph Stalin) is set to begin negotiations, Krogh warns that

“There are those who say there should be no end to the war at all. Ever. Warfare waged for unlimited ends! A battle waged not again people like ourselves but against the contrary principles. The great enemy.”

It’s a surreal combination of science fiction, fantasy, folklore and political thriller, but surprisingly undemanding. Wolfhound Century feels like a light combination of China Mieville and 1984. It’s much quicker and easier to read, but still contains social critique and a wonderfully inventive alternate history. Sadly, it fails to be as good as 1984 or a Mieville novel.

The problem is that Wolfhound Century is the first in a series, and the author seems to be saving too much content for the sequels. The first half is brilliant; then it gradually peters out as you realise this isn’t quite the novel you were promised. At first it looked like the climax would involve opening the Pollandore. Instead, the heroes never get anywhere near the Pollandore. There’s a prolonged fight that I thought would be just be the final showdown before the climax, but as I got closer to the end I realised that this fight was the climax. It would have been ok if only the preceding events hadn’t led you to expect so much more.

Yes, it’s just the first book in a series, so no, it won’t resolve all conflicts. But even when novels are written with sequels in mind, they still have self-contained plots – one set of conflicts is set up and then resolved in a way that leaves a new set of conflicts to be tackled in sequel. You get a full story, but with the understanding that it’s part of something bigger. Wolfhound Century seems to give you half of the first story, resolving nothing except for a fight that seemed secondary until I realised it would be the last major event of the book. Despite being quite impressed with most of the novel, I somehow finished thinking “Is that it?”

There are unfortunate gaps elsewhere too. The characters of Lom and Maroussia feel quite flat even though they drive the story, and most of the secondary characters are much more interesting than them. Lom is little more than the standard dedicated cop, wandering through the standard plot where he’s forced to question what he believes in after realising that system has betrayed him. It’s hard to see Maroussia as more than a desperate, gasping victim. They’re both cardboard cutouts in a phantasmagorical world, shuffling between people who seem more real than they do. Kantor, luckily, was fleshed out a bit more. Although his history is a tad vague in parts, we learn a lot about his ruthless philosophy of life:

Kantor’s life had been shaped by the dialectic of fear and killing: if you feared something, you studied it, learned all you could from it, and then you killed it. And when you encountered a stronger thing to fear, you did it again. And again. And so you grew stronger, until the fear you caused was greater than the fear you felt. It was his secret satisfaction that he had begun to learn this great lesson even before he was born. He was an aphex twin: a shrivelled, dead little brother had flushed out after him with the placenta and spilled across his mother’s childbed sheet. Before he even saw the light of day, he had killed and consumed his rival.

I hope Kantor will be as interesting an antagonist as his philosophy promises.  He has a strong start in Wolfhound Century, but falls to the wayside in the last third or so.

There are also some issues with the world, although these are less noticeable because that aspect of the novel is generally done very well. Still, I was left wondering about the world outside the Vlast – does anyone else know about the fallen angels? Have they fallen anywhere else? We don’t know exactly where the angels came from, and that makes sense, but the general belief is that they’re aliens, so why does everyone subscribe to the angel mythos? It’s possible that it was put in place by the authorities, who claim that the Vlast’s ongoing war with the vaguely defined Archipelago is an extension of the heavenly in which the angels died. But as far as I can tell there’s no institutionalised religion in the Vlast, so why employ Christian mythology here?

I hope there are answers and a more satisfying story arc in the sequel. I would really like to read it because this was still a mostly good and pretty exciting book. It’s flaws lie not so much in quality, as in the fact that it feels so damn incomplete! So if you’re thinking about reading this, I suggest you do. But put it on hold until the sequel comes out. According to Goodreads, it’s called Truth and Fear and is due to be published in March 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Review of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

  1. The Archangel is known in christian circles as Satan. His buddies where thrown to the earth at the beginning of this age and have been messing about with our society ever since (alluded to by the stone materials used for buildings) The real Vissarion is a cult leader in Russia who claims to be Jesus. The Pollandore represents God, whose existence the totalitarian state denies.

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