Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins (review) was one of last year’s strongest debuts, a unique dystopian fantasy set in an alternate Stalin-era USSR with Russian mythological elements and vague hints of something science fictional happening out in space.
The story of downtrodden investigator Vissarion Lom hunting down the terrorist Josef Kantor at the behest of the totalitarian Vlast was mostly set in Mirgorod, a gray, rainy city that seemed to fall somewhere between New Crobuzon and Moscow. Wolfhound Century was one of the first novels in a long time that actually deserved the frequent comparisons to China Miéville, thanks in large part to Peter Higgins’ beautiful prose.
Truth and Fear is the direct sequel to Wolfhound Century and, as expected, picks up more or less directly where the previous novel left off—“as expected” because the one major disappointment about Wolfhound Century was its ending, which was, well, really not much of an ending at all.
That disappointment can probably be explained in part by the fact that many people weren’t aware that the novel was the first part of a longer story, so ending with the equivalent of “and then they went to sleep” felt like a huge letdown after the huge build-up of tension.
Given that Truth and Fear is much more the second part of the same story than a separate novel, it becomes even harder to review the book without inadvertently including spoilers for Wolfhound Century. Because of this, I’m going to keep this as vague as possible.
Truth and Fear is in many ways a mirror image of the first book. The first part of Wolfhound Century had a restless energy, kicking off a tense plot centered around Lom and Kantor, but slowed down noticeably in the final third of the novel. Truth and Fear opens with more contemplative prose and more introspective passages, then gradually ramps up the tension.
One of the strongest passages in the new novel focuses, once again, on a journey. Early on in Wolfhound Century, we got an idea of the Vlast’s size as Lom travelled to the capital of Mirgorod by train. In Truth and Fear, there’s an even more effective episode of travel, this time by plane, that gives a great impression of the scale and depth of Higgins’ fantasy world.
(Given that we’ve now seen two travel scenes, one by train and one by plane, I hope the third book will hit the final frontier and take us off-planet. It would make sense, given some of the technological developments we see in the new novel and given that one of the main unresolved mysteries in the books is the what’s actually going on in space. Fingers crossed.)
And then there’s the ending. As mentioned before, I felt that there was a distinct lack of boom in the way the first novel ended. Truth and Fear’s ending, by contrast, is almost too explosive, as if the author wanted to overcompensate for some of the criticism aimed at the first book. Regardless of the reason, it makes the ending of Truth and Fear somewhat confusing and, unfortunately, just about as frustrating as the first one.
Most importantly, though, Peter Higgins once again delivers some truly luminous prose. He has a knack for taking the reader off-guard with surprising imagery and unexpected turns of phrase, turning even descriptions of the most mundane activities—not to mention some of the most dreary cityscapes this side of Bas Lag—into pure literary pleasure.
Higgins has the short story author’s invaluable skill of expressing complex thought or emotion with the minimum amount of words required, as when this character justifies the dangers of performing an experiment on herself:
She knew the risks. The science of angel flesh was a thin crust of bluster over vertiginous ignorance.
All in all, while not blown away, I am perfectly satisfied with Truth and Fear. I’ll confess that I was hoping for more— more information, more of a resolution, just more of everything. There are many questions left unanswered here. Then again, this being the middle book in a trilogy, that’s almost par for the course, and I am willing to forgive a lot for Higgins’ original world-building and gorgeous prose. Still, the success of the entire series will depend on how he wraps everything up in the final novel.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on March 24th, 2014.