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 is the debut novel by author Peter Higgins. A weird tale of espionage in an alternate, fantastical Russia – it’s a bit like China Mieville had a party with John Le Carre. On acid.
The book follows Inspector Vissarion Lom, a small-town police detective who hasn’t done himself any favours when it comes to self-promotion with his superiors. But out of the blue for Lom, he’s summoned to the vast capital city of Mirgorod, a sort of Moscow/St. Petersburg/ New Crobuzon hybrid, to investigate the reappearance of a suspected terrorist. It is Lom’s ability to ask the right questions and stay in the dark that is required by the head of police in Mirgorod. So Wolfhound Century goes on to become a story about spies, artists, revolutionaries, gunfights and death-defying chases on the cool, wet streets of Mirgorod. So far, so James Bond.
But James Bond doesn’t have angels, sentient rain and giants. I don’t remember seeing many weird, walking trees and vast stone golems in Skyfall.
Higgins’ has managed to craft something truly different. It’s a neo-noir fantasy thriller that is filled to the brim with ideas and imagery that jumps off the page. His prose is honed to near perfection. His descriptions and style are so atmospheric that several scenes in particular are still clearly with me long after finishing the book. Seriously, the way Higgins describes rain is incredible:
“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 spring the forest rain was thick with yellow pollen that stuck in your hair and on your face and lips and had a strange taste. In autumn it smelled of resin and earth. This, today, this was forest rain.”
The plot never lets up, as you might expect from something so easily compared favorably to John Le Carre – it’s at times exciting, exhausting and terrifying to read. My only problem with the book was that its ending was so abrupt. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to say there is a cliffhanger – but rather that it just ends, practically mid-scene. It’s a bizarre choice and in many ways left me with the feeling that this is only half of one greater novel. I’m under the assumption that there will be a sequel – otherwise I’d really have to reassess my feelings on Wolfhound Century.
So apart from that ending, Wolfhound Century is an extraordinarily accomplished debut from a real master of atmosphere. Peter Higgins has managed to create a completely unique fantasy world with a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern day thriller. But what sets it apart (except for the angels, golems and sentient rain) is the sense that really, anything could happen. This is what good genre fiction can do – it can take the familiar and imbue it with the fantastic, creating something fresh, original and a real standout novel. Excellent stuff – now where’s Part Two?
Thanks to Gollancz for providing me with an advanced review copy of Wolfhound Century.