Peter Higgins - Wolfhound Century (#1 of Trilogy)
Peter Higgins' fantastical alt-Russia is an absolute delight to explore in this peculiar-yet-delightful detective-fiction-cum-weird novel. We are set up for one story, a basic detective novel, focussing on a suspected terrorist in a provincial city, are are swiftly, in the first couple of pages, taken not only out of this provincial Russian city, but out of our own world entirely.
The novel follows Inspector Vissarion Lom in his quest to find anarchist supreme Josef Kantor, summoned as an outsider to the city by the complex beaurocracy of the Lodka. His outsider status neatly allows for the city to be explored by the reader as much as by Lom himself, as in so many novels, and yet the worldbuilding is subtle, never stopping and telling the reader but simply moving swiftly through what would be taken as known by our characters.
Along the journey through Mirgorod's streets (the capital of The Vlast, our fictional empire, and also, interestingly, both a real town in Ukraine and a collection of short stories by Gogol) we encounter an overiding mystery relating to the major fantastical point of the book - a war in heaven, between Angels, which has resulted in them falling to Earth. One, Archangel, whom we see as a viewpoint character in some memorably mysterious prose, has survived the fall and is manipulating events while its non-human intelligence attempts to rise from its current position, buried in a sentient-forrest. So far, so strange.
The mystery of Josef Kantor bleeds nicely into the mystery of the Archangel through the use of "angelflesh" and a mysterious world-within-a-world of the Pollandore. Slowly, the true object of the quest becomes the understanding and potential unlocking of this Pollandore, which is similarly bleeding into the world of the book, causing mysterious fractures in time and space and people that are recorded in phantasmogorical delight by Higgins:
"The first picture was a street scene, but the familiar world had been torn open and reconstructed all askew. The street skidded. It toppled and flowed. All the angles were wrong. The ground tiled forwards tipping the people towards the camera. It wasn't and illusion of perspective, the people knew it was happening. A bearded man and an old woman threw up their arms and wailed. A baby flew out of its mothers arms." (pp.96-7)This bleeding of fantasy and reality is, in many respects, a tale of the book as a whole. In her excellent Strange Horizons review, Nina Allen picks up on the bleeding of real-world Russian history in easily discernible analogues within Higgins' book. Admittedly, my knowledge of Russian history is very little, but I also picked up on the founding of St. Petersburg, but with the amount listed on there it is well worth a look. This infringement of the real on the book, and witrhin the book the fantasy on the real could be a complex game being played with the Pollandore, and I hope it is, but it is nevertheless fascinating to look at: why are comparison with Russian history so overt, even down to a sentence level? What is the relation of the Pollandore within the 'real-world' and the books' world? Is the fantastical bleeding caused by the Pollandore another world that we will recognise, or is it a third, parallel fantastical realm? All these questions will, hopefully, be drawn out in the rest of the series; however, in the meantime we pontificate and enjoy.
The book has drawn plaudits quite rightly about its beautiful writing that make comparisons with the prose of China Mieville throughout, and it easy to see why. The depiction of Mirgorod, and the surrounding areas that are explored is as rich and as complex as Mieville's Bas-Lag trilogy, if lacking in the variety of weird creatures. The prose too has moments of an utterly stunning lyrical nature, and the occasional input of the Archangel's voice reminds me of Yagharek's Part-opening in Perdido Street Station. The oft-quoted rain scene early in the book deserves repeating for its sublime nature, rare in a debut-novelist:
And throughout the prose is beautiful, experimental, pushing boundaries in form. There is a particularly memorable moment set within a psychlogical-river of thought and reality bound together later in the book that exemplifies this experimental/lyrical juxtaposition. The writing in this scene, revolving around the mantra 'Time is nothing here' is simply the best in the book: It flits from element to element, allowing for an intimate gaze into the heart of our protagonist while elucidating on the world as a whole and simultaneously being utterly beguiling."Two kinds of rain fell on Podchornok. There was steppe rain from the west, sharp and cold, blown a thousand versts across the continental plain in ragged shreds. And the other kind was forest rain. Forest rain came from the east in slow, weighty banks of nimbostratus that settled over the town for days at a time and shed their cargo in warm fat sheets. It fell and fell with dumb insistence, overbrimming the gutters and outflows and swelling the waters of the Yannis until it flowed fat and yellow and heavy with mud. In the spring the forest was thick with yellow pollen that stuck in your hair and on your face and lips and had a strange taste. In the autumn it smelled of resin and earth. This, today, this was forest rain." (p.5)
In all, the book its a masterful exploration of a different strand of the New Weird. Comparisons to Mieville abound because of the style of prose and city, and, while the story itself doesn't have the subtelety of Mieville's text, and could perhaps have done with being longer in order to encapsulate better the inner-workings (outside of the plot) of our characters' lives, the way the plot itself is handled is excellent. Until the ending. Which is seemingly chucked in out of nowhere, to perhaps make the novel a trilogy. It seems to me like the novel as a stand-alone doesn't really have an ending to complete and connect the beginning to the end. Instead we get a set-piece set up, which in another book would be an excellent late-piece drama before a true completion, but in this is thrust as an ending. It has little to do with the rest of the plot, or in the continuation of the overarching mystery of the Pollandore, and as a result seems too open ended, too forced - don't get me wrong, I like a good open-ending as much as next sentient being, but this seems like, perhaps for publishing purposes, the ending got lost among the excitement of the rest of the novel.
Higgins is truly promising, however. His prose style is splendid, his world-building, while as the Strange Horizons review shows is a little heavy handed in its treatment of history, comes across as immersive and encompassing, with hints of a greater world than the plot dictates, and the plot is enticing and promising in and of itself. Beautiful prose, elegant book, exciting times.
Postscript: My thanks to Jon Weir for providing me with a copy of the novel in exchange for review. Apologies for how long it took Jon!