Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins
Wolfhound Century is the first novel by Peter Higgins, and was a free book that I got through the Gollancz Geeks programme. Basically, every so often Gollancz sends you an email asking if you’re interested in reading a new book that they’re publishing. It helps that Gollancz publish stuff from a good few of my favourite authors (running the alphabetical gamut from Ben Aaronovitch to Chris Wooding), and I’m pretty much yet to read a book published by Gollancz that I’ve hated. So free books from my favourite publisher? Yes please.
I usually start out these reviews with a quick outline of the plot, which is kind of tough to do with Wolfhound Century, because the plot is so intrinsically related to the setting. I’ll do it very quickly: policeman Vissarion Lom gets summoned to Mirgorod, the capital city of Vlast, to catch a terrorist, Josef Kantor.
The book is set in an alternative Soviet Union, which is established incredibly effectively and incredibly quickly. The few proper nouns alone in that brief plot description alone should begin to demonstrate that, but this extends far beyond just character and place names: even in the opening page the language quickly conjures up images of grey, utilitarian buildings, put-upon citizens and a centralised police state. Higgins’ world evokes so many feelings of not-quite-Cold-War-Soviet-Union that it instantly feels like a real place. Not just through the settings, but through the inhabitants of the world as well.
The opening couple of pages are basically as good at establishing a world as any I’ve ever read. You’re dumped into Lom’s surveillance of a suspect, and you get quickly acquainted with his duelling emotions of excitement and boredom at this. And then, just as it might seem that this isn’t any different from your usual criminal investigation novel, Lom’s view of his target is interrupted by a bunch of giants wandering past.
Because this isn’t your usual criminal investigation novel. In Higgins’ world, way back when there was a war in heaven, and the dead angels from this war have fallen from the sky, allowing Vlast to use the remains of these angels as a natural resource (angelstone). Higgins manages the trick of quickly creating a world that is familiar enough to not feel like a fantasy world, but that is simultaneously weird enough to be new and exciting.
The easiest analogy that I can come up with is that Higgins’ world is to Cold War Soviet Union what George RR Martin’s Westeros is to medieval Europe: comparable on a basic level, but with a whole heap of elements that quickly take the story away from that grounding in reality. Higgins probably makes a greater effort to stick closer to reality in his actual settings, by using very Soviet sounding names and organisations. This works well as as a sort of shorthand, which I’m fine with: a single carefully invented word can get you thinking “right, like this but…”, which in my mind is definitely preferable to pages and pages of painstaking descriptions to get you to that point. But I’ll not get into an ironically lengthy whinge about George RR Martin just now.
Anyway, now I’ve established the setting, a little more on the plot. It turns out an angel has survived the fall from heaven, and while crippled, the angel is working with Kantor, using him to try to return to the heavens. At the same time, Kantor is trying to use the angel to help him seize power.
Sadly, in the end the plot doesn’t really live up to the world they are in. There are elements that might help it become more compelling, particularly a mysterious Macguffin (the Pollandore) that various folks want to either use or destroy, a tonne of political scheming, and particularly nods to a shadowy war encroaching onto Vlast’s borders. The plot isn’t outstanding, and doesn’t live up to its setting, but at this point it’s good enough.
The characters can probably also be classified as “good enough”, but none are particularly exciting. A fair bit of time is spent establishing a range of supporting characters who don’t really go anywhere, and the book is at its strongest when its focusing on Lom and his makeshift ally, Maroussia (who is also Kantor’s daughter). Lom, Kantor and Maroussia aren’t particularly great characters, although the arcs for Lom and Maroussia are pretty decent.
In a novel that, just off the top of my head, tells the story from the point of view of at least six characters, it’s a little disappointing that the standout character, Safran (Lom’s colleague/antagonist), is only really ever portrayed from an external perspective. Although there are interesting technicalities that necessitate the use of the word “really” in that last sentence, getting into them would involve spoilers. A greater understanding of him could really have pushed Wolfhound Century up a notch.
But the plot and characters being merely acceptable, rather than excellent, aren’t the most glaring problem with Wolfhound Century. The most glaring problem is just that it isn’t complete. Or rather, it is, but it’s only the first part in a series. For the whole novel it builds up and up, drawing elements together towards a strong finale, and then, just when it seems things are coming to a head for an explosive final act, it just stops.
I think I’m probably even more critical of the ending than I would otherwise be because the section leading up to the ending is probably the standout section of the entire book: an extended chase sequence, that amid tense action scenes somehow manages to not only fit in a tonne of character development, but also bring in new elements of intrigue to the wider world. Abruptly ending with a “to be continued” after building up such momentum takes something that could have been genuinely special and turns everything that has gone before into a case of “it was good, but…”.
Wolfhound Century is definitely good enough that I’ll be checking out the sequel (due out next year apparently), but unless the sequel is exceptionally good, I think I’ll probably come out of it thinking that I’d have preferred an extra 100 pages or so of Wolfhound Century to get everything wrapped up in a single package. The alternative, I guess, is that things will sprawl out into a wider series. I’ve no problem with that, as there are certainly enough interesting elements to make that possible. But even then I’d have been much happier with this book if it had just finished what it started.
Read if you like: Fairly gritty low fantasy (think a combination of Neverwhere and your detective novel of preference), Cold War Soviet Union.
Don’t read if you like: a complete, self-contained story, stuff that doesn’t have fantasy creatures in it.
Next up: The Braided Path series by Chris Wooding