Investigator Vissarion Lom has been summoned to Mirgorod in order to catch a terrorist – and ordered to report directly to the head of the secret police. Vlast, a totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown terrorism with an iron fist. But Lom discovers the capital to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.
Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone in his head…
But there is a secret hidden beneath police headquarters: a secret so ancient that only the land remembers.
And a thousand miles east, deep in the ancient forest, lies a fallen angel, its vast stone form half-buried and fused into the rock by the violence of impact. Alone in the wilderness, it reaches out with its mind…
I was offered the opportunity to read this by Gollancz and jumped at the chance – the blurb was fascinating and I loved the sound of the names and places. Wolfhound Century is Peter Higgins’ debut novel and what a way to begin. As I read, I was completely transported to this place and time, familiar yet other, Russia but also completely not, now but with echoes of past and future.
Let’s be clear about this: nowhere in Wolfhound Century does anyone, including the third-person detached narrator, say that this is or was, or will be, Russia. But everything about the sense of place, the atmosphere of simmering tension, the totalitarian state and the invented colloquial names give that inescapable feeling. There are references to giant stone angels which made me think of the colossal Communist monuments to their leaders, enormous figures towering of the landscape. And there’s the idea of the layers of history in the capital, the journey there from the ‘east’ on an enormous train, and the unending forest, concealing all sorts of ancient mystery and magic. I was hooked.
Some people have called this book science fiction but I think to use such a label is to misunderstand the incredible variety of influences, hints and nuances Higgins has included. I was reminded a number of times of Doctor Zhivago; the huge contrast between those in power in the new regime and those without it, be they provincial peasants or the former aristocracy. There are similar longings for a simple, rural life, in touch with the wild creatures and places of the world. And the scene that particularly struck me was when a huge group of protestors are mown down by dragoons in the central square of Mirgorod, a scene which was disturbing because I could anticipate exactly what would happen but the characters couldn’t, or, if they could, didn’t seem to care or even notice.
I also thought of the wonderful Russian fairytales I’ve heard, or read, or seen adapted by other writers and storytellers. There is a strong emphasis on the magical and mythical, with living embodiments of the forest and nature itself interacting with human characters. There’s also a strong strand urging people not to be too ambitious and overreach, but to be grounded and in touch with the world around them; this is a frequent theme in fairytales as well as science fiction. It also has that kind of gothic sensibility, where characters play god, creating new strange creatures like the Eastern European ‘Golem’ but also like Shelley’s Frankenstein. Add to this a view of a city inexplicably in flux, ever changing but without explanation, magical or scientific and you have something with the feeling of the most magical realist works of Neil Gaiman.
Plus, did I mention it’s a great story?
I would highly recommend Wolfhound Century to ‘genre’ readers of all types – there really is something for everyone.
Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins is published by Gollancz