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Book Review: Wolfhound Century

By (April 23, 2013) One Comment

Wolfhound Centurywolfhound century

by Peter Higgins

Orbit, 2013

Many stories take us “beyond the fields we know,” as fantasy trailblazer Lord Dunsany would say. Peter Higgins’ new novel, the hypnotically bleak Wolfhound Century, takes us beyond the Iron Curtain we know.

Our hero is Investigator Vissarion Lom, as he hunts for the murderous Josef Kantor; the setting is gray, crumbling Mirgorod, the capital of a fantastic Soviet realm peopled with giants, golems, and manipulative angels from space.

Underneath even these elements, however, something mysterious struggles for breath. Something like the lungs of the Earth itself, smothered by humanity’s bureaucratic voracity to report, detail and know. Higgins begins his excavation in the dismal locale of Podchornok; workaholic Lom and his partner Ziller sip tea in a cafe, observing a man outside on a bench with his briefcase. The man is young, thin, and does nothing but occasionally eat bread.

Then some giants trudge past, “patiently in the rain,” with “earth-colored shirts, leather jerkins, [and] heavy wooden clogs.” They provide cover for the thin young man and a nearby soldier to make contact. When Lom and Ziller disrupt them, tackling their respective targets, our protagonist prizes a cloth bag from the soldier’s strangely cold hand. Inside, he finds, “nothing but a mess of broken twigs and crushed berries and clumps of some sticky, yellowish substance that might have been wax. It [has] a sweet, heavy, resinous perfume.” Actually, it’s a heart.

In connection with this, Higgins eventually describes a pabula (an enchanted, person-sized puppet, cobbled together from organic detritus), a “war of the angels” (which shattered the moon, crashing something sentient, obsessive, into the Earth) and the Pollandore (the world before people began worshiping said angels).

But before these revelations, we meet the deadly Josef Kantor. He’s on a hotel roof in Mirgorod, over Levrovskaya Square, overseeing a bank heist he’s orchestrated. Living in Boston, and this being the week it’s been, I won’t quote from this scene. Suffice it to say that Higgins’ violent imagination is a Da Vinci’s Notebook of atrocities. They cause Krogh, a high-ranking government security official, to summon Lom to help track the villain. His idea is that, as an outsider in Mirgorod, Lom will have the advantage his own agents don’t. Krogh can also disavow the investigator’s existence if it all hits the fan.

Dark like a sack over the head, Higgins’ fabulously grim world is supposedly reminiscent of China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, 2000). But M. John Harrison, architect of the nightmarish Viriconium novels (The Floating Gods, 1983, being the most relevant here), might offer a sidelong grin. Higgins, intentionally or not, toys dangerously with his predecessors:

The rain had been trickling through the cracks and gaps in the carapace of the chitinous city, sliding under the tiles and lead of the roofs, slipping through the cracks between paving slabs and cobbles, pooling on the floors of cellars, insinuating itself into the foundations, soaking through to the earth…Fine jemmies and levers of rain slid between ashlar and coping. Little by little, century by century, the rain was washing the city away.

Yet this drenched Communist ghetto, rotten with paid informants and neglect, is quite lovely between the downpours: “The cobbles of the wharf opened their petals like peals of blue thunder. The stars were luminous night-blue fruit. And the gendarme in his kiosk was ten feet tall, spilling streams of perfume and darkshine from his face and skin and hair.” Yes, Higgins should be proud of his shabby apartment block, full of revolutionary artists and paranoid scholars. He’s also an extraordinary fantasist, capable of dialogue that feeds the ear like spools of terse, deadly gossip:

“You’ve made a mistake,” he said. “Wrong person. Wrong place.”

“No. You’re Josef Kantor.”

Kanor didn’t like his name spoken by strangers.

“I’ve told you. You’re mistaken,” he said. “You’re confusing me with someone else.”

“Please,” she said. “This is important. I’m not going until we’ve talked. You owe me that.”

She took off her coat, draped it over the back of a chair and sat down. Underneath the coat she was wearing a knitted cardigan of dark green wool. Severe simplicity. Her throat was bare and her breasts were small inside the cardigan. Kantor was curious.

“Since you refuse to leave,” he said, “you’d better tell me who you are.”

“I’m your daughter.”

That isn’t much of a secret, and we’re told early on. Besides, the first half of Wolfhound Century alone brims with more fiendishly fresh concepts than most books twice as long. Higgins’ tale is unique, and none too worried about tangled literary roots. From out of the deep, mossy woods it comes–all the fresher for it.