I’ve read several novels over the last few years that were compared to China Miéville by reviewers, publishers, or both. In most cases, I thought the comparison was a stretch, to say the least. In some cases, it was simply ludicrous. Setting your fantasy novel in a grimy city where it rains a lot is not enough. Not every weird/slipstream dystopia qualifies. There is more to it than that.
When Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins arrived on my doorstep, featuring a prominent quote by Richard K. Morgan that compares it to “vintage Miéville or VanderMeer”, I was understandably sceptical. Here we go again. I expected the standard mediocre descriptions of grey, rain-swept buildings. Tired, noir stylings. Grim and grimy characters without much spark.
So, I was wrong. I see what Richard K. Morgan saw in this novel, and I agree. Partly, at least. I’m not going to put Higgins on the same level as Miéville. Wolfhound Century has its problems. However, in some ways, this debut novel is the first thing I’ve read in years that maybe could be mentioned in the same breath as the Bas Lag trilogy.
I’ll be backpedalling a bit in the rest of this review, but generally, in broad strokes, I’d say Wolfhound Century merits the attention of Miéville fans looking for something new. Even if it’s not quite up to par with Perdido Street Station or The Scar or Iron Council, I believe Peter Higgins has the chops to get there later on.
From the publisher:
Investigator Vissarion Lom has been summoned to the capital in order to catch a terrorist— and ordered to report directly to the head of the secret police.
A totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown insurgents with an iron fist. But Lom discovers Mirgorod to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.
Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone implanted in his head.
Wolfhound Century starts off looking, somewhat deceptively, like a classic “catch the bad guy” thriller with the honorable but downtrodden Lom (thank goodness he doesn’t go by Vissarion Yppolitovitch) trying to catch Joseph Kantor, the mysterious agitator/rebel who is working to overthrow the Vlast’s totalitarian rule.
But very quickly a different dynamic starts to assert itself, adding a few layers to that rather recognizable plot. For one, a mysterious alien intelligence (the “Archangel”) seems to have crash-landed on Earth. For another, there’s something going on out in space, mostly off camera. At some point it caused the moon to break into two separate pieces. But mostly, the (overtly rather straightforward) setting of the totalitarian Vlast regime is much more interesting than it initially seems.
Yes, the novel’s setting feels like a fantasy version of the USSR in Stalin’s time, complete with a KGB-like internal security organization, a technology level similar to the first half of the 20th century, famine, gulags and pogroms. Think 1984 but with subtle fantasy elements that, as the novel progresses, gain an increasingly prominent role. This is no coincidence.
As a matter of fact, the place of these fantasy elements in the novel’s broader fictional world is the main driver for Wolfhound Century’s plot: the Vlast (Soviet) have imposed a rigid, totalitarian worldview on the land, but in this case that worldview quite literally affects the actual world, in the sense that reality as the pre-Vlast people knew it has been supplanted. Suppression equals superposition of a pre-existing reality by a new one.
The implications of all of this are fascinating and require much more exploration, although this review is probably not the right place for it. (Just one, though: think of the way art communities in totalitarian regimes are often affected. Only propagandist art is condoned. In Wolfhound Century, people catching a glimpse of reality as it used to be often see it as a strange intrusion or at an Inception-like skewed angle. The parallels with the innovations of early 20th century avant-garde schools like Cubism or Surrealism are obvious. Dada-like performances in underground art bars become much more than just absurdism in that context.)
As a novel, Wolfhound Century has its strengths and weaknesses. The novel has problems. Some plot elements are introduced in a way that feels, for want of a better word, clumsy. The second section drags, after the rushing excitement of the first one. The novel probably would have flowed better if it hadn’t been chopped into over eighty short chapters. And, maybe most frustrating, the ending doesn’t bring any kind of closure: this is part one of a longer story, which I wasn’t aware of when I started reading it. Even so, the placement of the break between this novel and the next one feels almost arbitrary.
The main strength of Wolfhound Century, and the reason I started off this review rambling about China Miéville, is the author’s skill with prose. There are certain writers who have the ability to describe something mundane, something that’s been described a million times, and throw in a few images and similes that are genuinely surprising. A rainy street. A run-down apartment. Higgins has the skill to describe the utterly common in a way that will make you blink, look up, and reread sentences and paragraphs.
Again, just having a rainy, grimy city in your book doesn’t make it Miéville, or William Gibson for that matter, to name another author who mastered the art of describing the ugliness of the everyday from the very first sentence of his very first novel. Peter Higgins writes glorious, rich prose, and for that alone I would recommend this novel. The surprising implications of his fantasy universe are a second reason, not to mention the fact that he’s smart enough to be stingy when doling out the secrets of his fictional universe..
It looks like, before Wolfhound Century, Peter Higgins has mainly published a number of well-received short stories. Wolfhound Century shows some of the common issues of other books that represent a first jump to the longer novel format, but taken altogether, this is a wonderful debut. Recommended.