[GUEST REVIEW] Ben Blattberg on TRUTH AND FEAR by Peter Higgins
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the sequel to Wolfhound Century (reviewed here), while war approaches the city of Mirgorod, ex-Investigator Lom and Maroussia Shaumian search for the power to change the world, while totalitarian police chief Chazia discovers secret government research into a new weapon.
PROS: More and deeper views into this alternate magical Russian/Soviet history; interesting side stories.
CONS: Central character Lom pales next to secondary characters; abrupt ending cries out for next volume.
BOTTOM LINE: An exciting sequel to a solid series — which will hopefully be wrapped up nicely in the third book.
Pity the fantasy author working on the middle book of a trilogy. Or don’t. But at least recognize the needle-threading necessary for a successful middle book: the author has to move the story forward, but not finish it; has to increase characters’ powers and the danger they face, but still leave some space for the final book; and has to build on the first book’s setting — but, boy, do readers get jaded with even the most inventive worlds. “Sure,” we might say to Peter Higgins, “your first book showed us a unique World War II-era Soviet fantasy world that was engrossing and strange — but what have you done for us recently?” Considering those prerequisites for a successful sequel, it seems like a minor miracle that Truth and Fear is as good as it is. In short, if you liked the first book, you will probably like this one, which continues most of the pleasures and minor faults of the first book.
If you haven’t read Wolfhound Century and want to, but for some reason feel compelled to read part of this review, be warned: I spoil the heck out of Wolfhound Century in this review. Except for the next paragraph, which I just wrote for you as spoiler-free for the whole series as I could. Just for you:
Truth and Fear continues the story of Wolfhound Century (with, let’s admit it, a less enthralling title, also taken from an Osip Mandelstam poem). In the capital city of Mirgorod, we get more of the political thriller, with secret police, terrorists with hidden agendas, and a mysterious woman with a strange connection to supernatural forces. Truth and Fear also gets out of the city, showing us more of the countryside as characters race to uncover a totally new and devastatingly powerful weapon. Also, there’s a war on, which doesn’t get as many pages as I wish it would. As Wolfhound Century did, Truth and Fear dips into real-world history for just about the worst things from the mid-20th century — which are just as bad even if they take place in a fantasy world.
And now, spoilers for the first book for everyone!
When we last left ex-Investigator Lom and Maroussia Shaumian, they had returned to Mirgorod after defeating one of those angel-flesh golems; though they are wanted by the police apparatus, they need to return to find the magical MacGuffin — the Pollandore — that will… do something to the world. And this is a world that desperately needs something done to it: not only is a living angel poisoning the endless forest (and the world); not only is war raging between the Soviet-like Vlast and the Archipelago (who are like, I don’t know, a chain of islands?); but our main antagonists from Wolfhound Century — the angel-obsessed head of the political police, Chazia, and the power-obsessed terrorist who talks to the living angel, Kantor — have even more power to terrorize and murder people. Including Lom and Maroussia who happen to walk into the city where Chazia and Kantor are most powerful.
This could turn into a somewhat repetitive thriller, with Lom and Maroussia searching for the Pollandore while Chazia and Kantor continue to hunt them — with the ticking time-bomb of the war and the poisonous angel in the background. The first half of this book has some of that thrilling cat-and-mouse action: Lom/Maroussia captured, escape, captured again, repeat. But Higgins avoids repetitiousness even here by leading the viewpoint characters (and us readers) deeper into parts of Mirgorod that were only glanced at in the first book; and by showing us the repercussions of the first book’s actions.
For instance, while Chazia and Kantor are still opposed to Lom and Maroussia, they also face their own bureaucratic tussle caused by their assassination of the Stalin-esque Novozhd. Now Chazia has to deal with the approaching war and her secretive peers in the new government. Similarly, while we saw glimpses of the oppression of the Lezarye people in Wolfhound Century, we get to see more of that ethnic oppression (yay) as Lom and Maroussia take shelter in the Lezarye neighborhood (or, let’s be honest, ghetto). Even if the first half focuses on this cat-and-mouse thriller, these new views of Mirgorod keep the action interesting.
Truth and Fear not only widens our experience of Mirgorod in this first part; it also expands the genre pool by bringing the war to Mirgorod. In Wolfhound Century, we saw very little of the war: only some soldiers going to and some veterans coming from the war. Here, with bombing raids on Mirgorod and machine-gun nests and anti-tank trenches dug by “volunteers,” Higgins has given Mirgorod its own siege, much like the World War II siege of Stalingrad. (I’m guessing here: Higgins might turn it into the siege of Leningrad with some reports of people eating the glue from books, but right now I’m guessing Stalingrad.) Not only do we get this whole new genre addition, but we get several new characters providing their own viewpoints on the war, including (among my favorite) the Lezarye civilian-turned-soldier, Elena.
Besides Elena and a handful of important new characters — including Lom’s supernatural ally, the wolfish shapeshifter Antoninu Florian — Higgins also expands the world by, literally, expanding our view of the world. When Chazia learns of a secret research facility on some northern islands, Lom and Florian follow her out of Mirgorod, showing us northern seas and timber towns on the way. What they discover at the end of this quest is a bomb capable of destroying an entire city, leaving only a giant cloud with a mushroom-like top…
Oh, wait, that’s an atom bomb. While “atomic” only shows up at the end of the book, it’s pretty clear from the first test footage that the Vlast has its own Manhattan Project developing nuclear weapons. Now, if you get historical whiplash from a magical Soviet Union doing massive scientific research that was done by the US in our history, then this might not be the book for you. In Truth and Fear, we both get to see the Lezarye ghetto and get to see it cleared, as the Lezarye are deported to work camps on cattle cars. If that doesn’t sound Nazi enough for you, Higgins makes the parallel clear, with semi-official thugs cutting the beards off Lezarye men; and the weapons research and factory being inside a mountain. (That last part makes me think of the Nazi Project Riese, though it might be a nod to the underground V2 Mittelwerk factory. For more on those topics, Wikipedia has an entire category of “Nazi subterranea,” so… you’re welcome.)
This playing with World War II history may make Truth and Fear sound less disciplined and more grab-bag than Wolfhound Century, but I found it just as entertaining and intriguing as the first. Higgins remains a lyrical writer — though he can nicely remind us of the terribleness of things with a short, sharp sentence; for instance, perhaps realizing that he is being a little abstract (or a little Darkseid) when he refers to the angel poisoning the forest as “not life but anti-life,” Higgins goes on to note that the angel’s spreading toxic consciousness is “Like piss in snow.” It’s also very entertaining to see a sequel wrestle with the sense of history and consequences from the first book, giving the world a lived-in feeling, even if I’d never want to live there. And the lives and choices of several characters are intriguing, from the aforementioned and traumatized civilian-turned-soldier in Mirgorod; to the traumatized but driven Maroussia Shaumian, who “had set her will against the inevitability of the world.”
That said, one of my disappointments with this book is that Lom never quite reaches the level of interest generated by these other characters. Which is kind of a problem since he’s the viewpoint character given the most pages (or at least seems that way). Part of Lom’s, ahem, boringness (sorry, Peter) may be structural: Maroussia is driven by a magical quest, while Lom mostly seems driven by… his interest in Maroussia. Lom is literally driven around by other characters for a large part of the book, reducing his role to observing the land from car and plane.
Compared to Lom, with his passivity and reactivity, Kantor seems almost quasi-heroic simply because he is more active; to paraphrase The Big Lebowski, say what you will about a man willing to destroy a city to save it, but at least he’s making a choice. When Kantor, in his role as defender of the city, meets with the opposing general (in a train wagon somewhat reminiscent of the Compiegne Wagon used in both WWI and WWII armistice negotiations), she notes that he has the power of choosing — which is both accurate and what makes Kantor a more interesting character than Lom in this book. It’s a curious trick — whether intended or not — to make the somewhat villainous Kantor into the active protagonist of his own plot, and to make me want to hear more about him.
Again, as with the first book, the ending here may leave some unsatisfied; it ends somewhat abruptly (major obstacles and antagonists swept aside) while still leaving many plot-threads untied and waiting for the third book. But that’s generally the way with middle books, so I can’t really be all that bothered by it.
And, curiously, I’m not bothered by it. For all that Lom spends most of his time observing, getting pushed around by others, and for all that I wanted to hear more about other characters, Truth and Fear remains an engaging adventure that hopefully will be paid off in the third book in the series, Radiant State. Wolfhound Century left me curious about the second book; Truth and Fear leaves me looking forward to the third, looking forward to seeing if Maroussia (and maybe Lom, I guess) can close that gap she feels between history as it is and history as it should be.
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