(2013) Peter Higgins, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 362pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21109-4
Wolfhound Century is the first instalment of the 'Wolfhound Century' trilogy by Peter Higgins, published in 2013 with its first, UK mass market paperback edition out in 2015. While the main action revolves around Investigator Vissarion Lom and his hunt for Josef Kantor, a dangerous terrorist in a Soviet-like country, what struck me after finishing this book was the richness and originality of the world Higgins has created.
As such, my first impression when reading the opening chapters was one of surprise for the originality of this world: the country where the story happens is a police-state, where an authoritarian regime holds power in a place that seems old, aged, and evidently decaying, something reminiscent of what the USSR would have been in the early 20th century. But this world has giants. And golem-like creatures, humans with supernatural powers and a fallen angel: a strange supernatural being with damning plans for Mirgorod who is gathering allies for his quest, more a part of the trilogy-wide story than of the events in this first book.
Had I read a synopsis or a review before getting to read the book (which I never do, to avoid spoilers; I read book reviews as some sort of prologue to the actual book) I would probably have lost interest. But Higgins masterfully weaves these two worlds together and, to his credit, manages to reach just the right balance and prevent the fantastical themes from taking over the gritty, steam-punk environment of the capital city Mirgorod. The giants, for example, are introduced in a very casual way, fully immersed in the world:
They sat in silence, awkwardly, staring out of the window. Watching Briefcase do nothing. ‘Shit,’ said Ziller, half-rising in his seat and craning to see down the road. ‘Shit.’
A line of giants, each leading a four-horse dray team and a double wagon loaded high with resin tanks, was lumbering up the hill from the direction of the river quay. They were almost in front of the Rikhel already – the rumbling of the wagons’ iron wheels set the café floor vibrating faintly – and when they reached it, Briefcase would be out of sight.
This first mention of a fantasy element is completely embedded in the story, and other fantastical elements are likewise expertly blended in; Higgins manages to keep the reader firmly in a world that is almost believable.
Some of the places in this world are extremely interesting. The Lodka is surely a remarkable creation: the headquarters of the government and police, this corrupt and dark pinnacle of bureaucracy, is one of the best-realized pieces of this world. Throughout the book the reader can feel its history, its strength and its mysteries. Despite not being at the centre of the plot in this book, key events will unfold in the Lodka that will shape the future of this world.
A less positive aspect is the primary plot of this first book itself, that is the actions of Lom in his search for Kantor, which is not on par with the richness of the world. Even though there’s plenty of action, dangerous situations and a couple of gripping instances in which it’s not at all clear how the main character will survive, this is not a fast-paced story. Events happen at a somewhat slow speed, and I felt that the plot in this first part of the trilogy was perhaps too unidirectional, with few mysteries or surprises. There is of course the background plot as well – the fallen angel and his plan for the future of this world – but this story sees little more than an introduction in Wolfhound Century, and I expect that most of it will develop later in the trilogy.
There are interesting characters in the story, and I particularly enjoyed the main character Lom: this depressed, quiet police officer fits right in with the gritty city of Mirgorod (even though the plot starts him off in a small village). But apart from Lom, Kantor and a few other exceptions, the characters felt shallow and underdeveloped. In particular, given her importance in the story, I would have enjoyed more information on Maroussia, the young girl who ends up being paired with Lom in his quest; the reader is left with little to build her character.
Wolfhound Century is the first part of a three-book long story, so a lot of ground has to be set for the reader to feel immersed and Higgins did this very well. I can’t stop feeling underwhelmed by the plot and some of its characters; when thinking back to this book it’s the strange, half-believable world that comes to mind, and it’s this world that is pulling me back. I will be visiting it again in the remaining parts of the trilogy – not so much to know how the events surrounding the mysterious fallen angel will develop, but rather to be able to walk down the dark and damp streets of Mirgorod and visit the immense Lodka once more.
João H. Duarte
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