I am blessed to know some really cool people. One of them is Little Red Reviewer – who loaned me an Advance Reading Copy of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins. The novel was published in hardback in March of 2013. I had my eye on it from the time I read snippets about it on some “upcoming novels” site. I really enjoyed this book and I think I will probably eventually purchase a copy. I am also given to understand that this is the opening book in a trilogy. I think the next installment is due out in early 2014 (which seem really far away right now).
This book is not for every reader – this is not the sort of mass market paperback novel one picks up at the airport that contains one of the standard plotlines and uses stock characters. Some people have compared this novel to China Miéville’s writings. I am not comfortable with that comparison, but I can see how some readers might feel there is a likeness. Miéville is a unique and intelligent author, but I do not think that anything that is unique and intelligent therefore must take after him. The main element that sets this book apart is that the writing style is so unusual.
I really loved the writing style in this novel. I like the way that Higgins developed the setting of the novel; the setting is big, dark, real, and potent. All of the descriptions used in the novel portray a great intensity. Some readers have referred to this as “world-building,” again I differ because I feel world building is something less esoteric and more infrastructure related. World building is making the map of the setting and making sure the physics is “sensible.” What Higgins does in this novel, however, is poetry. At no point did I feel that the writing was pretentious or bombastic, but each chapter was very well-written. This is Higgins’ debut novel, though, and there were a few minor items where the writing is not perfect. But the drop off is not steep. Overall, Higgins is an excellent writer.
The novel is set in an exceedingly interesting location, a sort of alternative Stalinist-Russia. The country is surrounded by an immense forest and the terrain and the geography play a role in this novel. Not merely in a way that maps out places, but in a way that actually infuses the plot itself and affects the characters significantly. The pseudo-Stalinist Russia of the novel contains the dystopian elements of unending war, a police state, and a huge governmental edifice of buildings and departmental offices. The weather is cold and rainy and dark. And the landscape is full of bridges, streets, stonework, and iron.
The Vlast is the regime. And in chapter 22, Higgins treats us to a scene reminiscent of 1984‘s “two minutes hate.” In chapter 22, we are told that the main character:
….had looked up synonyms of Vlast once. They filled almost half a column. Ascendancy. Domination. Rule. Lordship. Mastery. Grasp. Rod. Control. Command. Power. Authority. Governance. Arm. Hand. Grip. Hold. Government. Sway. Reign. Dominance. Office. Nation.
But the novel is also fantasy. Here is a novel that is really difficult to jam into a genre. It’s fantasy – because it takes place in an alternative historical location, but also because it involves fantastic creatures like giants, golems, and “angels.” I put quotes around angels because in this novel these creatures are nothing like any typical conception of angels. Golems, giants, angels, magical properties, dryads – but all of these elements are written seamlessly into the novel so that it seems commonplace and normal and unremarkable that giants are puttering around a pseudo-St Petersburg. The characters in the novel must deal with the Vlast as well as the supernatural. This makes for a fascinating read.
Higgins is also, obviously, a very intelligent writer. He has either done an extreme amount of research or he’s well-educated to begin with (perhaps both). And it shows through this novel on every page. There’s a great deal of conceptual apparatus here to play with – but it is all very subtle and seamless. At no point does Higgins bash the reader over the head with any of these items. And maybe things will be lost on some readers, or not resonate with others, but there are plenty of concepts that flesh out this novel so that it’s a full piece of literature and not simply a crime novel. For example, the entire part of the storyline involving the artist Lakoba Petrov is representative of Higgins playing with aesthetics and politics and propaganda. Awesome stuff.
Overall, this is definitely a five star novel. It isn’t for children or the average reader – but it is a beautiful selection for those who like word craftsmanship, esoteric and dark settings, and intense storylines. It really is not often one finds writing on this level – and it’s just super cool that the novel feels like Russia and has some fantasy elements.