In an exchange placement, this month, with our brethren at the outré-enjoying Gollancz blog, Dan Smith entered the strange Le Carré-esque world of Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century. Read on to find out what he discovered.
Finding something new, something different, is always a treat. You know what I mean − when you think you’ve guessed what a story is before you’ve even read it, you think you know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to turn out, but then it surprises you in a way you never imagined. Well, Wolfhound Century did that for me.
As an incorruptible outsider, Investigator Vissarion Lom is summoned to the city of Mirgorod to investigate a series of terrorist attacks by suspected revolutionary, Josef Kantor. On arrival in the grey and oppressive city, Lom finds himself faced with corruption at every level. He is followed by the secret police, watched, deceived, and his investigation is blocked at every turn by those who will gain by his failure.
If that makes Wolfhound Century sounds like an eastern bloc thriller, that’s because those tropes and traditions flow through its veins. It has all the hallmarks a reader could expect from such a narrative . . . until things begin to skew. You see, Mirgorod is not like any Soviet city we know; it is a living, breathing monstrosity, filled with vast buildings and littered with places that are never quite what they seem and often cannot be revisited.
Built on a swamp and surrounded by impenetrable forests, it is the capital city of Vlast, a Soviet-like land that is in constant war with the Archipelago; a place that uses the stone-like flesh of fallen angels to modify its buildings, its inhabitants and to bring life to the mudjhiks.
But another angel has fallen, and this one is alive. It is now deep within the earth, dying, poisoning the forest, and it reaches out with its mind, finding Josef Kantor, promising power and dominion if he will destroy the Pollandore. Not so much like an eastern bloc thriller any more, is it? And that’s what works so well with Wolfhound Century − there is so much we can recognise, and yet everything is twisted to give us something new and original.
For me, this is where Higgins shines; in writing so coherently about his living city that we believe it really exists. It seethes with life. And, though our hero Lom carries the traits we might expect from a flawed hero, his story is disrupted in unexpected ways by the challenges he faces and, more importantly, by the angelflesh embedded in his head, which has been put there sometime in a mysterious past, to ensure his loyalty to the totalitarian state.
If Wolfhound Century sounds brilliantly strange, well . . . it is. The reader is dropped into a story where the old world meets the new; where revolvers and the secret police are as commonplace as angels and forest spirits. And with good pacing, interesting characters, betrayal, action, intrigue and great world-building, there is much to admire in Peter Higgins’ mash-up of genres.