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’s an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone in his head . . .
Bute 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 . . .
Wolfhound Century is a rare beast. I’d already read some reviews before receiving my own review copy of the book and I knew I was in for an interesting read. I hadn’t expected it to be as interesting and genre-bending as it was, even though I’d been thoroughly warned. It’s both noir urban fantasy, featuring a lone-wolf detective, but also a tale of political intrigue, supernatural creatures and alien invasion. Set in an alternate world Russia, the story is both easy and hard to place. Easy because Vlast is clearly the Soviet Union and Mirgorod is a version of Moscow and the atmosphere Higgins invokes is that which is emblematic of the majority view of communist countries: grey, depressing, paranoid, and dangerous. It’s hard to place exactly because it is an alternate world version of ours and it is not really clear whether it is just an alternate history set on our planet or set on a secondary world. I’m leaning towards the latter option myself, but it is certainly debatable.
Higgins presents his Vlast with a lot of aplomb. It’s clear he knows his Russian and Soviet history well and he takes a lot of its political culture and incorporates it into his own creation. There are many recognisable historical elements, but with interesting twists to them. For example, while the story seems to be set in the equivalent of the USSR, Vlast has existed as a totalitarian state for over four centuries. The biggest twists, of course, are the supernatural ones. The world of the Vlast is sentient, or rather the Forest is sentient and can use its surroundings, the elements, and humans who enter its domain as extensions of its own will. The Forest is one of four opposing factions in the book; there are the Lezarye, the original inhabitants of Vlast, the Vlast themselves, the Forest, and Archangel, the one specimen of the alien entities known as Angels that survived its fall to earth. They can be divided into two sides: the Forest is aligned with the Lezarye, who want to live in harmony with it and its inhabitants, and save the world from the Angels; the Vlast are influenced by the alien presence of the Angels and are being used by Archangel to destroy humanity and the Forest’s best hope to save the world from the aliens. While there are man-made creatures of angel flesh, such as the mudjhik, the Forest not only creates its own creatures, but there are mythical beings as well, such as rusalka, giants, and dvornik, which I took to be Higgins version of domovoi. None of these are surprising to the people living in Vlast, they are part of their everyday life. And while they are accepted as part of the world, they are also to be tamed, to be ‘put to use’, in what seems to be the traditional battle between Man and Nature. In some cases, dvorniks and giants, this succeeds, in other cases, like the rusalka’s, nature manages to frighten man into flight.
The story took a while to really grab me. While the book’s initial chapter was quite engaging, after it took a bit before the story really connected again, mostly because I connected to Lom more easily once he started investigating Kantor. It’s when this investigation gains a bit of traction, that the political scheming comes to the fore, an aspect of the narrative I really enjoyed. The mystery of who is behind Kantor and why was interesting and rather unexpected and hopefully we’ll see a bit more of its genesis in the next book. Intricate scheming only succeeds if the characters can pull it off and Higgins quite skilfully managed his characters and their stories. In a cast of interesting characters there were four that really stood out to me: Lom, Vishnik, Kantor, and Maroussia. Lom is not just your standard policeman, he’s more than that and has a mysterious past. He is the heart of this story, both being its main character and due to the awesome psychological development he goes through. Lom awakens during this novel, to his heritage, his powers, and to the fact that he is part of a corrupt government and that people fear him just by dint of his profession. I loved the almost meditative passages where Lom roams the city trying to work out his thoughts and emotions. One of the people that help him figure things out is Raku Vishnik. Vishnik grew up in the same orphanage, became a history professor and is part of the oft-harassed community of intellectuals and artists. He gives Lom an introduction into this underground community, where he hopes to find leads to one of the villains of the book, the fascinating and frightening Joseph Kantor. The man is a complete psychopath and a terrorist, but due to the fact that we get to follow his thought pattern and some of his history, he doesn’t exactly become sympathetic, but we do gain insight into his motivations. The final of my four favourites is Maroussia, Kantor’s alleged daughter, who turns out to be something else entirely and is both important to the plot in her own right and as a love interest for Lom. There are a host of interesting secondary characters, some of whom are sure to make a repeat appearance in the next book, others… not so much. One thing is for sure Higgins isn’t afraid to kill off characters.
Wolfhound Century is a fascinating read, if not always an easy one. Higgins takes his story to some dark and strange places. Especially the passages which convey the intrusion of another possible reality on Lom’s world can get a little strange and disorienting to read, which is probably the sense the author wants to convey, but it also holds up the momentum of the story. However, there is also a lot of intricate prose that draws you right into the scenes it describes. Higgins also creates some awesome machinery to keep his Vlast running smoothly, one of which, the Gaukh Engine, made my information-managing librarian heart beat faster. I loved the description and concept behind the engine, though it is no surprise the engine isn’t located in a library, but at the Central Registry in the Lodka, the Vlast centre of political power and bureaucracy. The ending to the book is somewhat abrupt, but as it’s the first in a trilogy it does present a natural break in the story, even if that break is a rather big cliff hanger. Peter Higgins has created an awesome debut with his Wolfhound Century and I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series to learn more about the nature of the Angels and about Lom’s and Maroussia’s respective heritages.