BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a totalitarian, Soviet-like state, a police investigator tracks down a terrorist and discovers his links to a living angel that is poisoning the world.
PROS: Lyrical writing; fascinating world-building that mixes Russian/Soviet history with folklore and fantasy.
CONS: Abrupt ending; characters tend towards thinness.
BOTTOM LINE: While it doesn’t feel like a complete story itself, Wolfhound Century is an intriguing first volume, with a promising setting and some exciting plot threads.
Peter Higgins’s debut novel Wolfhound Century is an ambitious, lyrical, and occasionally messy mix of police thriller, Russian/Soviet history, and fantasy that lends itself to at least two drinking games.
DRINKING GAME #1: Take a shot–preferably vodka–for each time the book crosses a genre boundary:
In Wolfhound Century, our hero (arguably) is Investigator Vissarion Lom, an honest cop in a corrupt system. As is traditional with honest cops, Lom has made enemies in his provincial hometown. So it’s probably good both for his career and his health when Lom is summoned to the capital city of Mirgorod by the Under Secretary of the Ministry of Security. The Under Secretary has a problem in the form of a bank-robbing terrorist named Josef Kantor; and since Kantor may have friends inside the Ministry, the Under Secretary needs a disposable outsider who can investigate both the criminal underworld and the bureaucratic overworld of Mirgorod. Enter Lom, the perfect outsider.
So far, so Martin Cruz Smith. (Or… well, who else wrote police procedural mysteries set in Soviet Russia?) But for all that the Vlast resembles Stalinist Russia and the city of Mirgorod resembles St. Petersburg/Leningrad, we’re reminded that it isn’t, since this is a city where giants walk the streets (usually pulling wagons); where occasionally monsters from Russian/Slavic folklore like rusalka and vyrdalak pop up; and where dead angels have fallen from the sky due to a heavenly war. Dead angels might sound inconvenient, but the government of the Vlast has found some uses for the dead angel’s stony flesh, such as crafting interrogation tools and semi-sentient golems called mudjhik. Lom himself has a piece of angel flesh shoved into his skull which he occasionally uses as a symbol of authority. (A badge might be simpler, but lacks that totalitarian flair.)
In his investigation, Lom gets tangled up with security agents and militia, striking workers, “degenerate” (i.e., politically unfavored) artists, and, most importantly, the mysterious daughter of Kantor, Maroussia Shaumian. Maroussia Shaumian and her mother lived out by the giant forest near the political prison Kantor was held in for years. And now, while Maroussia tries to figure out her relationship with Kantor, the forest sends out emissaries to the Shaumians telling them of the epic quest they must undertake to save the forest, a quest that will bring them into conflict both with Kantor and with the still-living angel that is both poisoning the forest and motivating Kantor’s terrorism.
So, how many genres do you count in that premise?
Higgins might call this genre collage “disreputable,” but I prefer to think of it as “messy”–and that sense of messiness is one of the strengths of this book. On one level, the messiness of Mirgorod gives the city a lived-in, realist feel, as we see fragments of the city from multiple points-of-view without ever getting a clear narrative map of the city. But I especially enjoyed the messiness of the fantastic elements of the world. How do Lom’s magic powers relate to the fallen angels? How do the giants fit into the world with the other fantastic aspects? For me, this first volume doesn’t clearly lay out the true nature of the world–and that’s a strength. While we hear the official story about the fallen angels, we get hints both of unofficial stories, and of other, older magic. That underlying sense of uncertainty seems perfect for a book where the official state history smoothly paves over a thorny reality–though never perfectly.
That said, while that messiness fits thematically, the plot and pacing present a less positive messiness. As other reviews have noted, the book ends somewhat abruptly, with this first volume in no way serving as a standalone novel. There’s something slightly unbalanced about Part I being 223 pages and Part II being only 80 pages–as if Part II ended in the middle of its arc, just when the quest was picking up steam.
While the plot may be messy, the characters are almost too neat: they fit too perfectly into their assigned roles and so seem a little thin when accomplishing their plot-mandated tasks. So, for instance, disgraced scholar and Lom’s childhood friend Raku Vishnik has been given the unrewarding position of historian of Mirgorod; this is useful both to Lom and to us, as Vishnik can lead us all around the city and report on various subcultures, from former royalty to an artists’ cabaret. And yet, I’m not sure I could tell you much about his character.
Similarly, Lom verges on the typological–or if we’re being ungenerous, the cliche: the last honest cop on a bad beat, a man willing to go against the corrupt system… at certain points, where the plot demands it. So when a childhood benefactor is denounced and taken away by the police, Lom doesn’t seem too bothered by his potential complicity; but when love interest and heroine Maroussia Shaumian looks down on him for being a cop, Lom starts to have more serious second thoughts about his career. While that helps to move the plot forward, it doesn’t absolutely feel organic to his character.
However, I give Higgins points for best use of “dialectic” in summing up a character’s motivation, when speaking of terrorist conspirator Josef Kantor: “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.” Not much to say about a character after that.
And characters like secret police commander Lavrentina Chazia… wait, why does that sound familiar? Oh, right, because it seems like a clear allusion to Stalin’s secret police commander, Lavrentiy Beria. Which brings us to…
DRINKING GAME #2: Take a shot for each element from our history that Higgins absorbs into his work–and double shots for all the terrible real-world atrocities of the 20th century: the mass shooting and burial of an internal ethnic group, the jailing and murder of political dissidents, state-sponsored torture, etc.
I don’t know a lot about Russian/Soviet history, but even I could catch some allusions that Higgins mixes into his book. Besides the Lavrentina Chazia/Lavrentiy Beria connection, there’s also several literary allusions, as when Josef Kantor’s thoughts on revolution–
“The revolutionary is doomed. […] The revolutionary has no personal interest. No emotions. No attachments. The revolutionary owns nothing and has no name. … There is only the revolution” (9)
–echo Sergey Nechaev’s 1869 manifesto, “Catechism of the Revolutionary”–
“The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion–the revolution.”
Now, in some cases, this might just be me over-identifying allusions. When you read about how an angel-flesh golem has a dog’s brain grafted in, do you think of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog? Or when Higgins describes the sun as tumbling like a severed head, how can I not hear an echo of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories? (Confession: I’ve had Red Cavalry on my shelf for years now and still haven’t gotten around to reading it, but even I know Babel’s famous line about the sun “rolling across the sky like a severed head.”) And though Higgins’s description of the angel’s gaze as “vast and cool and inhuman” seems to echo H.G. Wells’s description of the Martian intellect in War of the Worlds as “vast and cool and unsympathetic,” I have no idea what to do with that–but I’m still going to take a shot.
Wolfhound Century isn’t just an extended (drinking) game of spot the reference. Or if it is, I’ve lost because I know I’ve missed many, many references. (Also, to be clear, on his website, Higgins showcases a shelf of reading that in some ways informed this work, so he’s not trying to hide his references.) In its own way, these allusions contribute to the air of intriguing uncertainty in this book.
That is, usually when reading alternate history, we just have to find the point of divergence–or usually get lectured on it by some character in the book. (Even Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle has one person discussing how things would’ve been different if FDR hadn’t been assassinated in Miami.) But in Higgins’s “disreputable” fantasy of Soviet history, while we’re clearly in a fantasy world with falling angels and its own history, we get little hints of these allusions to our world history. It’s unsettling in the best way and a reminder of a strong undercurrent in the story, that the opportunities lost to history may not be completely lost.
Besides being thought-provoking, Higgins’s Wolfhound Century is also entertaining and enjoyable, a poetically and lushly described conspiracy/magical thriller in an original, enthralling world.