One of the wonderful things about speculative fiction is the gradient of possible worlds its writers make available to readers. Rather than invent a planet nestled in a distant corner of the universe, or resort to the generic dragon and wizard haunted realms of fantasy, writers of speculative fiction can create inverted versions of our world. This is what Peter Higgins accomplishes in his diverting novel, Wolfhound Century (Orbit, February 4, 2014).
As the book’s cover makes clear, Wolfhound Century is set in the fictional equivalent of the Soviet Union. The resemblance is at once clear and ambiguous. Readers will recognize in the Vlast (the nation) Russian “motherland” ideology. The Novozhd, the Vlast’s selfless and noble leader, is George Orwell’s Big Brother (itself a stand-in for Stalin) made flesh. And the redundant security apparatuses described throughout the book evoke the paranoia of the national security state.
But Wolfhound Century is not merely a replica of the USSR. In the Vlast, nature is alive: Rain assaults the protagonist, quite literally, upon his arrival in the capital. Giants work alongside humans, and yet other folkloric creatures are known to, if still feared by, citizens. And “angels” fall from the sky, the rock from which they’re made used by humans in medical and military experiments, providing some of the “beneficiaries” incredible powers. (The angels appear to be sentient meteorites, a fair guess given Russia’s reputation for being struck by objects from space.)
Inspector Vissarion Lom, our hero, received as a child an implant of “angel flesh” into his forehead; the powers it provides him are negligible. At the opening of Wolfhound Century, Lom has frittered away his career as a provincial police officer by refusing to engage in the politics necessary for advancement. Despite his outsider status, or perhaps because of it, he is summoned to the capital, Mirgorod, to investigate the notorious terrorist Josef Kantor. The story, then, is straightforward: Lom seeks Kantor, and Kantor, at the behest of one of the fallen angels, plots against the Vlast. Their collision is as inevitable as the fall of angel stone to earth.
Higgins’ strengths are his setting and his writing, which work together to create a surreal, dreamlike quality that will either entrance or repel readers. Readers, confronted with a fun house image of the Soviet Union, are immediately disoriented. A giant participates in a terrorist raid. What is this place? Higgins wisely elaborates on his creation not with explication, but with detail: Just pages later, Higgins describes giants pulling wagons down a busy street, a scene of everyday life. The effect is surreal in the best possible way.
Higgins’ prose contributes groundedness to his fantastical setting. Higgins’ sentences are short and punchy, economical; they move the story forward. Higgins is particularly adept at describing landscapes, regardless of whether they’re urban or rural. The final third of the novel is set in the marshes outside of Mirgorod, and Higgins’ evocation of the swamps is especially successful.
Wolfhound Century has two issues that may put off some readers. The first half of the novel moves slowly as Higgins sets the scene for its more explosive second half. The story at times seems to wander, as adrift as Lom’s investigation. Still, patient readers will be rewarded: The payoff here is not merely the action that takes place nearer the end of the book, but also the opportunity to further explore Mirgorod and Higgins’ world. Readers begin to receive answers halfway through the book, but shouldn’t neglect to enjoy the questions they’re faced with as the story builds.
More problematic is the fact that Wolfhound Century is obviously intended as the first installment in a series. It becomes clear in the last quarter of the story that the action will not be resolved by the end of the book, and it’s only fair to warn readers that this is the case. (Indeed, the sequel, Truth and Fear, is slated to be published on March 25, 2014.) This comes down to a matter of taste: If you are a reader who isn’t bothered by cliffhangers, or if you’re willing to commit yourself to another series, Wolfhound Century’s ending won’t intimidate you. Other readers will wish there was a greater sense of resolution.
Wolfhound Century is a quiet, unassuming book that will sneak up on those readers who have the patience to permit themselves to be rewarded by it. It in some ways reminded me of Ian Tregillis’ recent novel, Something More Than Night. Recommended for readers of unconventional fantasy/sci-fi and those with an interest in Russian mythology and folk culture.