In the world of Wolfhound Century, Vissarion Lom, a police officer in the provincial town of Podchornok, is sent to the capital, Mirgorod, on a mission to help discover the whereabouts of the leader of a dangerous and recently activated anarchist cell. His masters hope that Lom, who as an incomer has no previous allegiances or involvement with the various government factions that rule the Vlast, will have a better chance of pursuing his investigations without attracting the unwelcome attentions of the secret police.
Lom's quarry is Josef Kantor, an activist whose appearance and outlook have been radically changed by his years as a political prisoner in the labor camps at Vig. What Lom soon discovers is that Kantor has powerful allies in unlikely quarters, people whose first line of action in encountering opposition is to kill it. Lom's boyhood friend, the disgraced scholar Raku Vishnik, discovers a vital clue about what might be behind this new wave of violence. Kantor's daughter, Maroussia Shaumian, pursues the same goal, but can she learn to trust Lom who is, after all, just another cop? As devastating floods threaten to overwhelm the city, we begin to see who is really on the side of the angels.
If I encountered some problems with this book, the quality of the writing was not one of them. At a sentence level, Wolfhound Century is beautifully worked. Higgins's use of language is densely allusive and alive, often poetic but never obscure. It has the added distinction of being fit for purpose. Higgins has clearly done his research. The strong emotional and intellectual bond he has formed with his subject matter is everywhere apparent, and the writing in Wolfhound Century manages to capture the atmosphere of "another Russia" with genuine skill. Here, for example, we observe Vishnik, a former member of the toppled aristocracy, entering one of the grand buildings of old Mirgorod and experiencing a flash of déjà vu:
The country estate for which it was built had disappeared long ago under the tenements and courtyards of the expanding city, but for Vishnik the corridors of the House on the Purfas led away into the lost domain of his childhood. If he could go deeper into the house, he felt, he would be back among it all. Back in his own boundless childhood house in Vyra, with its world of passages and stairs. Daylight slanted in through high narrow windows paneled with stained glass, splashing lozenges of color across dusty floorboards and threadbare rugs. The tall furniture and heavy fabrics of drawing rooms, salons, dining rooms, bedrooms, box rooms and attics. The strange devices and spiced air of kitchens, pantries and sculleries. (p. 192)
Such descriptions of a "before-time" have about them something of the nostalgia and evocativeness you might find in early stories by Nabokov or Ivan Bunin. Higgins is also an adroit conjuror of a robust brand of otherworldliness, describing a world contaminated by incursions from a supernatural realm, as vast beings of immense power and telepathic ability have been falling to Earth. Human beings have quickly learned to exploit the remains of these dying "angels," converting their "angelflesh" into sentient golem-like slave-beasts known as mudjiks (from the Russian "peasant") that can become remorseless and indefatigable killing machines as and when required. Much of the natural world in Wolfhound Century is also sentient—the reader encounters rain that can attack, trees that are sensitive to human presence, and strange beings known as "palubas," emissaries of the living forest in corporeal form. At the heart of Higgins's story lies the mystery of the Pollandore, a "world within a world," spinning in stasis, the mysteriously compacted key to an alternate future. The Pollandore bears some similarities with M. John Harrison's concept of "the coeur" in his 1991 novel The Course of the Heart. Once again it is Vishnik who best apprehends the nature of what they are seeking:
The photographs were odd and beautiful. A light in a window at dusk, shining from a derelict building. A penumbra of gleaming mist about a house. A great dark cloud in the sky. There was a sad magic in them all. It was in the sunlight on a street corner, in the ripples in a pool of rain on the pavement, in the way the light caught the moss on a tree. Gleams and glimpses. Tracks and traces. There was a purity of purpose in Vishnik's work that was strangely moving.
"I'll tell you something," said Vishnik, pointing to one picture. "That building there. See it. It doesn't exist. It never did. I photographed it, but it's not there. I have been back. Nothing. . . . See this burned out store? There was no fire. See this alleyway? It's not on any map." (p. 96)
There is much to admire in Higgins's writing, and his fantastical inventions are compelling and enjoyable to read about. The characters of Wolfhound Century also have the potential to be appealing. Lom himself is a familiar figure—the decent cop with a difficult past sent on a suicide mission by unscrupulous masters—but if we've seen his like before that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy meeting him again, and as protagonist of the novel Lom feels like a suitable choice. Raku Vishnik is useful to us both as the character who can remember how things were before the revolution, and the friend who has most insight into Lom, and so it seems rather a shame to see him written out, as it were, this early in the series. Our villain Josef Kantor has the virtue of being three-dimensionally conflicted rather than two-dimensionally evil. We know little of what happened to him in Vig. What we do know is that he has got himself into the dodgy situation of serving two masters and that his business relationships—with the Chief of Security and with the "angelic" supernatural being that has promised him unlimited power—are both rapidly progressing beyond his control. Who is Kantor working for, exactly? Is he secretly on Lom's side, and if so, why? Kantor's ex-wife might hold the answers to some of these questions, but it is up to her daughter, Maroussia, who may or may not be Kantor's child, to pursue the enquiry.
It's certainly an intriguing thriller. The plot unfolds swiftly and with an engaging clarity. You turn the pages, eager for clues. Events happen. People you were coming to think of as major players get brutally murdered. Still there is a mystery at the heart of things. The world Higgins creates is immersive and often compelling, and if I have a criticism it is that as so often with these thriller-type narratives, the characters do not appear to have much of a life beyond their purpose in the plot. In reality, victims of circumstance will do most anything to re-establish a kind of liveable normality, even in situations of the most abject weirdness, and this goes equally (perhaps especially) for people who find themselves living under military dictatorships. For me it can only strengthen a narrative to afford the reader significant glimpses into the lives of characters beyond, beside, or before the plot takes place. Where these glimpses are offered in Wolfhound Century they enhance the story considerably, and for me it was a shame not to have more of the kind of detail we are offered here, in the scenes featuring the giant Aino-Suvantamoinen:
The giant fell silent and walked on. Maroussia began to notice signs of labor. The management of the land and water. Heaps of rotting vegetation piled alongside recently cleared dykes. Saltings, drained ground, coppiced trees. Much of it looked ancient, abandoned and crumbling: blackened stumps of rotting post or plank, relics of broken staithes or groynes, abandoned fish traps. The giant paused from time to time to study the water levels and look about him, his great head cocked to one side, sniffing the salt air. Sometimes he would adjust the setting of some heavy mechanism of wood and iron, a winch or a lock or a sluice gate. (p. 242)
It is equally a shame that we know next to nothing of Maroussia, other than that Lom fancies her and she might be Kantor's child. We learn little of Lom's thoughts on being torn out of his old life and sent after a dangerous anarchist—what did he do in the evenings when he wasn't being a cop? Who did he drink with? Does he have any outside interests at all?—and it's not until practically the last page of the book that Lom suddenly thinks he "should try to find out" the facts of his orphaned past.
With the central characters so lacking in psychological ballast, it is difficult to invest much in them emotionally. Without such emotional investment in the characters even the cleverest plot comes across as little more than an exercise in mechanics, and in Wolfhound Century this problem is compounded by the fact that—elaborate stage dressing aside—the plot is actually fairly conventional, the same game of cat-and-mouse that has characterized a thousand more routine mysteries before it. There are few genuine reversals, and we end the book not knowing so very much more than we did at the start.
Indeed the biggest issue I have with Wolfhound Century is that the familiar plot at its center has little chance of competing with the seismic events that are hinted at behind the scenes and outside the theater. Nowhere in this novel is "Russia" mentioned, nor indeed "Stalin" or "Peter the Great" or "Lavrentiy Beria." And yet anyone with a reasonable awareness of Russian history will easily be able to recognise Higgins's transparent allusions to the founding of St. Petersburg by Peter the Great, the 1905 "Bloody Sunday" shootings of peacefully protesting civilians by Tsarist mounted guards, the massacre of Kiev's Jews by the SS at Babi Yar. The "Crimson Marmot" cabaret is clearly a replica of the real and famous "Stray Dog" artists' club in St. Petersburg, the monstrously imagined statue of Josef Kantor as described on p. 110 bears more than a passing resemblance to the often-photographed statue of Lenin outside Leningrad’s Finland Station. Similarly the Lodka is obviously meant to be the Lyubyanka, Anna Yourdania (complete with husband murdered by the secret police and son in the labor camps) is the Russian Modernist poet Anna Akhmatova. The real Lavrentiy Beria, notorious head of Stalin's NKVD, becomes the (female) Lavrentia Chazia, head of the VKBD, and her boss the Novozhd, bushy mustache and twinkling eyes and all, is Josef Stalin.
Higgins's core inspirations are no secret. His website boasts a wonderful "bookshelf," detailing the works that "shuffled and groaned and whispered on the shelves while Wolfhound Century was being written." It presents a treasure trove of superb material—indeed anyone with any interest in Russian life and letters could scarcely do better than to use it as a core reading list. But I did occasionally find the whispers of these great works a little too loud—and Higgins's love of them a little too neighborly—for my personal comfort. Compare for example the following line from Wolfhound Century:
An orange sun was tumbling across [the sky] like a severed head, its radiance burning in the cloud canyons. (p. 110)
with the justly famous image from Isaac Babel's story "Crossing into Poland" from his collection Red Cavalry, quoted here in the revised translation by Walter Morison for the 1974 Penguin edition:
The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud-gorges.
Similarly when Higgins quotes his fictional poet Anna Yourdania:
. . . the orchard
Breathes the taste of pears and cherries,
And in a moment the transparent night
Will bear new constellations (p. 173)
her lines bear an uneasy similarity with lines from the real Akhmatova’s great poem "Anno Domini 11," translated here by Stanley Kunitz:
By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.
Whether Wolfhound Century's close fictional relationship with historical fact serves the reader well is open to argument. If it is Higgins's intention to portray a kind of schism between our own known reality and a magical alternate realm, to use the Pollandore as a kind of "nexus" between these two states, then this barely disguised rendering of real historical episodes might have some resonance and import. The problem for the reader is that the novel's narrative leaves such questions entirely unanswered. Wolfhound Century ends very much in media res, with the ongoing action nowhere close to a conclusion or any sense of narrative closure. As readers we must therefore assume that the world of the Vlast is the only world of the novel, the only reality we are given to consider, and that any apparent coincidence with our own Russia or Soviet Union should pass unnoticed. As things actually stand though, the real world history in Wolfhound Century is so easily identifiable you can't help but focus upon it. As a reader my attention kept being distracted by these factive incursions into a supposedly imaginary realm, and I couldn't help asking myself why exactly Russian history was being commandeered and cherry-picked in this way, and if the narrative's drama was too heavily in debt to reality to feel properly earned.
It would be preposterous to suggest that a writer of fiction should not allow himself to be influenced and inspired by actuality—the whole fabric of fiction is woven almost entirely from such borrowings. That writer might be better advised however either to be open and upfront about his sources—Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies was construed from the start as a fictional reimagining of the last months of Anne Boleyn, and Elaine Feinstein openly quotes poems from Pasternak and Tsvetayeva alongside her own in her recent novel A Russian Jerusalem—or else to be more thorough in their reimagining. In Anthony Burgess's landmark novel A Clockwork Orange, the argot of Alex and his friends is an invented language based around Russian, with every word in "nadsat" (which is simply the Russian suffix meaning "-teen") corresponding accurately with its English translation as it might appear in the text. In Burgess's case this very specific borrowing feels constructive rather than lazy, because in the end the world he creates is so much his own invention, his characters so idiosyncratically terrifying, that the scales tip back the other way and "nadsat" somehow manages to become as fictional as its context requires. Neither should we forget that A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, and that Burgess's use of the Russian language would have been widely assumed to be a timely underlining of the novel's portrayal of an authoritarian society.
My fear for Wolfhound Century is that it is neither one thing nor the other, that it lies balanced precariously between the kingdoms of History and Fancy and is citizen of neither. It could well be that I am jumping the gun, that Higgins will reveal significant intent behind his manipulations of Soviet history in future volumes of this series, thus rendering my objections groundless. I sincerely hope this is the case, for writing of this quality deserves to be praised rather than nitpicked. As it is though, we have only this first book to go on and what conclusions we draw will inevitably be governed by that fact.
It should be noted that at just 300pp in trade paperback format, Wolfhound Century is not an overly long book, and I cannot help wondering if Higgins would have been better advised to make the novel half as long again, giving us more of a sense of his overall concept, providing answers to at least some of the above questions, and perhaps still more importantly to give the narrative as it stands a greater degree of closure. There will be plenty of readers, I am sure, who will find my prevarications on issues of historicity to be singularly irrelevant to their enjoyment of what is always at the very least an engaging story. They might be less likely to forgive the almost vertiginous sense of being left hanging.
I love open endings—any readers of my own work will know I prefer them—but Wolfhound Century does not feel ambiguous so much as guillotined. I am no expert on series fantasy, but my understanding of that subgenre is that each book in the series should ideally work as far as possible as a standalone novel, that this rule should apply to the first novel in a sequence most of all. Even by the most liberal interpretation of the term standalone, Wolfhound Century does not qualify. The story, like the writer himself, shows huge potential—what will Lom discover about his past? Will Maroussia be able to open the Pollandore and what will happen if she does? What actually are the angels, and where do they come from? But whether Higgins has given readers enough in this first incomplete installment to make them feel sufficiently rewarded—rewarded enough to invest their faith in future episodes—remains open to question.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in 2013. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.