WolfHound Century is a debut that defies any genre and thus manages to be delightfully original, free of the trappings of existing fantasy sub-genres. Gollancz comes up with yet another winner in Peter Higgins who has woven a magical tale set in alternate Russia where folklores come alive, hunger and revolution is still the language the poor understand, giants live amongst humans and a totalitarian regime has plunged the state into a hopeless endless war. It’s beautiful, it’s grim and dark as the starless black of the night and yet so starkly fascinating. A noir- thriller that twists into a surreal dark horror introducing us to darker corners of the mind we never thought existed. That quote from Richard Morgan definitely captures the feel for the book. Definitely among my top reads for 2013.
The book starts off like any typical noire– introducing us to Vissarion LomMagical, an investigator down on his luck being summoned to the Capital state of Mirgorod to apprehend a terrorist. But the city of Mirgorod is not your average city. A city that is the central point of a bubbling volcano in the form of an anarchist revolution led by the most dangerous man alive in the world. Josef Kantor is a ruthless brutal fanatic who would stop at nothing to get to his goals. In a dying world being slowly poisoned by a fallen angel, Lom squares off to stop his shadowy adversary whose reach seems endless.
Seems like a straightforward mystery/thriller, huh? Oh wait – Fallen Angel? Poisoning the world? WTF? Welcome to the twisted imaginary world of Peter Higgins. He populates a grim and dirty 1940’s Soviet Russia bordering on revolution with fantastical elements that include an archangel and deep dark secrets that could change the world’s course.
As the story unfolds, layers are slowly peeled off to reveal a surprising depth of worldbuilding – a seamless blend of the historical accounts and the fantastical mythologies from Russia. The chase takes Lom to dark corners of a world that is a grim and darker re-imagining of the erstwhile soviet Russia with its totalitarian regime – human life is worthless, the gendarmes are worked by a KGB-like secret police society which itself has secrets, technology is a throwback to early twentieth century. Josef Kantor, the anti-hero, Marraussia the girl with the mysterious past, Vishkin Raku the disgruntled official historian of Mirgorod– bring in the other point of views in the story that is fuelled on by short and punchy chapters. It works. The excellent prose of Higgins helped keep the pace up; the plot that is even more twisted than your wildest nightmare keeps things fresh and unpredictable for a while.
Then again, this debut is not without its faults. A lot of elements thrown into the narrative are unexplained, it keeps the suspense up but it might get trying if you as a reader have to constantly fend off inexplicable elements lifted from Russian folklores thrown at you. The pacing is furious but slows down in the second half. After the breathless frenetic first half of the story that takes us deep into a completely surreal city of Mirgorod where buildings grow overnight, windows and doors disappear and realign and the doorways lead to dead-ends, the second half action moves away from the city deep into the northern wastes. Make no mistake, it’s still pulse-pounding edge of your seat action, but the brilliance with which Higgins constructs the plot in the first half is somehow missing from the narrative. For me, the city of Mirgorod with its myriad levels of secrets and mysteries was as real as any other protagonist. Beautiful, evocative and atmospheric, Higgins’ writing brings alive the slushy treacherous settings of this alternate Russian city.
Higgins writings seems similar to the slipstream/weird dystopia king China Mieville’s. Beings of the forest, giants, Archangels, evil experimentations, fascism, revolution, disgruntled artists. Wolfhound Century is an odd-ball alright, but this delightfully original mix of noire, fantasy and horror brings alive a sordidly dark and grim tale set in Russia you have never imagined.
Richly recommended. Four stars for a splendid debut from Gollancz.