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.
In Higgins’ own words, Wolfhound Century is a mixed-genre creation, ‘an SF-fantasy-thriller set in an immense totalitarian state, the kind that spies on and murders its own citizens, but it’s also a world of giants and golems and sentient rain, with an alien presence deep in the endless forest.’ And yes, there really is sentient rain (see pp.45-48). The full interview with Higgins (from which the quote comes) is well worth reading.
The city of Mirgorod is the heart of the totalitarian state called Vlast (apparently ‘Mirgorod’ translates to something like ‘world city’ or ‘peace city’), and the description of the central administration building, the Lodka, perfectly encapsulates the unfathomable complexity of the regime; it’s Gormenghast meets Kafka:
It was said the Lodka had been built so huge and so hastily that when it was finished, many of the rooms could not be reached at all. Passageways ran from nowhere to nowhere. Stairwells without stairs. Exitless labyrinths. From high windows you could look down on entrance-less vacant courtyards, the innermost secrets of the Vlast.
The complexities of the regime’s bureaucracy and its martial power keep the citizens controlled (for the most part). But as with any good totalitarian state, there’s an active dissenting force threatening to undermine it. In this case, rebellion is fomented by terrorist Josef Kantor, and Investigator Vissarion Lom is sent from his provincial hometown to Mirgorod to catch him.
Wolfhound Century sits nicely within the sub-genre known as the New Weird*, alongside works by China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, K J Bishop, and Steph Swainston. In fact, Wolfhound Century reminds me of Miéville‘s The City and the City: both have a quasi post-Soviet setting, and both deal with the concept of a city sharing the same physical place as another place.
I think Miéville handles this idea with more sophistication and complexity than Higgins. In part, this is because in The City and the City, the twin cities are a known fact and central to the plot of the novel. The co-existent spaces overlap each other in parts, and citizens of each city are trained to ‘unsee’ the people and things of the parallel city.
In Wolfhound Century, the overlap between the co-existent locations forms part of an unfolding, wider mystery about the true nature of Mirgorod. The second place, about which we know very little, is referred to as the Pollandore. However, the Pollandore is not a place per se, but rather an object that was made, long ago, to contain a world:
The Pollandore hung in blankness, a pale greenish luminescent globe the size of a small house, a cloudy sphere containing vaporous muted light that emitted none. Illuminated nothing. A smell of ozone and forest leaf … The Pollandore looked small for a world, but Kantor knew it wasn’t small, not by its own metrication.
And now, it seems, the Pollandore is ‘broken, or leaking, or failing, or something’, and parts of the world within it are bleeding or blurring into the real world.
One of the characters, Vishnik, notices these overlaps and keeps records of the ‘times and spaces when the city slipped and shifted … Like it had when he went back to a familiar place and found it different.’ Sometimes the differences are small, barely noticeable; other times, they are horrifically vivid. In a photograph, Vishnik has captured 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 tilted forwards, tipping the people towards the camera … A baby flew out of its mother’s arms.
The city of Mirgorod, is, in Higgins’ words, a world of ‘revolution and war, marching crowds and gulags and state police, writers and artists and composers and dissident intellectuals.’ Outside Mirgorod, the natural world reigns. The vast, endless forest, the rivers, the mud and rain and wind have a tangible power and presence of their own. And each world threatens the other.
The tension between these two powers, these two worlds, is at the centre of the story. It’s the classic Nature-Culture dichotomy at play, reimagined and recast in a fantastical way. We see it at work in the wonderful character of the giant Aino-Suvantamoinen, ancient caretaker of the land and waterways outside the city. He knows that Mirgorod and its people have adversely impacted the land around them:
‘Every time the floods come now, the city builds its stone banks higher. But that is not the way. The water has to go somewhere. If you set yourself against it, the water will find a way, every time.’ …
‘I tried to tell them,’ the giant continued … ‘When they were building the city, I tried to tell them they were using too much stone. They made everything too hard and too tight. You have to leave places for the water to go.’
We see it in the paluba, ‘an artefact carefully constructed of birch branches and earth and the bones of small birds and mammals,’ and in her companion, the ‘breath of the forest, walking.’ The paluba is the avatar or ‘vehicle’ of a forest-being, made to ‘carry the awareness of its creator and act as a proxy body for her, while she herself remains in the endless forest, in the safety of the trees which she can never leave.’
We see it, corrupted, in the golem-like mudjhik:
A kind of quiet began to settle on the square, until the tall bronze doors of the bank were thrown open and a mudjhik came lumbering out, twelve feet high, the colour of rust and dried blood. Whatever small animal had given its brain to be inserted inside the mudjhik’s head-casket must have been an exultant predator in life. This one was barely under control.
The world building is exquisite, and the plot intriguing, fast paced, and entirely satisfying. My only complaint, my greatest criticism of the book, is the ending. Interviewing Higgins, the Mad Hatter puts it mildly when he says ‘Wolfhound Century ended a bit abruptly’! Whatever Higgins’ motivation for the ending, I still believe a half-decent publisher should not have let him get away with it. Higgins does actually explain his reasons for ending the book the way he does (read the interview), and we are assured of a sequel, Truth and Fear (due out March 2014).
If you have not read Wolfhound Century, you can sample the first five chapters for free.
*What is the New Weird? Well, it’s complicated. But I will offer the definition proposed by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer in their introduction to the anthology The New Weird (2008): “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.” (I pulled the quote from the Wikipedia entry for New Weird, accessed 14 September 2013)