the Little Red Reviewer

Wolfhound Century, by Peter Higgins

Posted on: April 6, 2013

SAM_2634Wolfhound Century, by Peter Higgins

Published March 2013

where I got it: received review copy from Publisher (Thanks Orbit books!)

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Musicians, think about the 7th for a moment, a minor 7th, if it makes you feel better. To oversimplify for everyone else, the 7th is the musical cue to move on. A 7th can certainly take you right back to the beginning of the chord progression, or the key could completely change in the next moment. That’s the thing about the 7th, it’s all potential, all possibility. For a split second, you’re not sure where the song will go. For a split second, the song is free of it’s predetermined chords. But all that potential has to go somewhere, because a 7th is unresolved. You can’t end a song on a 7th.

I’ll be back to this metaphor in a bit.

In the alternate Russia of Wolfhound Century, angels have been falling from the sky for generations.  Along with control of the angel flesh, the totalitarian government controls everything, reports everything, defines everything. Mothers still tell the cultural myths to their children, but only in hushed voices.  The ancient words are not to be used, the Pollandore is not to be spoken of  or even thought of, because the Pollandore doesn’t exist. Lock something away for long enough, and people will forget it as quickly as they forget the events that birthed their own myths.

Higgins doesn’t just write, he doesn’t just put words on a page to get the reader somewhere, this man is an artist when it comes to prose. I’d quote passages to show you what I mean, but really, just open the book and choose a paragraph and random, and read it out loud. You’ll  be transported. This really  is some damn beautiful prose.

Provincial police investigator Vissarion Lom has been called to Mirgorod, the capital city of The Vlast. A man with a strict sense of truth and integrity, Lom had always been seen as a troublemaker by the leaders of his small rural city, so no one there is sorry to see him go.  When he meets with his new supervisor, Lom learns the reason he’s been called in is that no one in Mirgorod knows him. He’s an unknown element, connected to none of the bureaucrats or their bribing crime bosses. He’s the only person who can get close to the infamous political dissident Josef Kantor, a man the government needs to clean up. Lom contacts the one person in the city he knows from childhood, and starts getting to know the city.

With the help of very short chapters (some are only a page or two), Higgins gives us the view points of a large handful of characters. Lom, of course; but also Maroussia Shaumian, the daughter of Kantor; Lakoba Petrov, a painter and Maroussia’s sometimes lover; Raku Vishnik, Lom’s childhood acquaintance and man who knows too much, and a few others.  The growing quantity of POVs quickly began to weigh on this lightweight book.

This is a story with many layers, a painting that offers up additional details the longer you look at it from different angles.  Vishnik photographs the city and develops images of buildings that aren’t there.  Maroussia attempts to understand the ramblings of her ailing mother.  Something arises from the forest and convinces the shadow government of the path they must take. The danger isn’t from the direction you think, but you know how stubborn totalitarian governments can be.

The novel’s breakneck pace is invigorating, and I rarely had time to catch my breath and process in my mind what was happening. Higgins gives the underlying mythology the barest of flirtations, he introduces creatures of the fantastika, teases with a flashback, then switches POVs at the moment the reader realizes what’s happening.   Done once or twice, it would have been intensely and impactful. But done every few pages, used as a device, it ended up feeling rushed, muddled, and increasingly annoying.  I wish the book had been 200 pages longer, or a shorter novella that touched on fewer elements or characters.  The prose was so transporting, to have it constantly pulled in different directions every few pages was disheartening.

The Richard Morgan blurb on the cover compares the book to Vandermeer and Mieville, so of course I couldn’t help but think about their works while reading.  Wolfhound Century is an atmospheric and surreal noir, as are Vandermeer’s Finch and Mieville’s The City and The City. If you enjoyed those novels, you’ll probably enjoy this one (and for what it’s worth, I am a huge fan of both Vandermeer and Mieville).

As I ran out of pages to turn, Lom and Maroussia reach an incredibly climactic scene. Something needs to give, events could really go either way, this is the big showdown. It was time for a change of chord progression, an opportunity for the song to go in a new direction.

At a moment of limitless potential, there was no resolution.  Higgins ended his song on a 7th.

As I turned the final page, I exclaimed out loud “what! it ends like that?  you can’t end a book like that!”.  My frustration began to ebb when I later learned this is just the first in a series.  There is nothing in or on the ARC telling you it’s the first in a series.  Even after the logistics of not knowing it was only prelude, a beginning, and introduction, was incredibly frustrating.  So, although I’ve spoiled the least important element of the ending for you, at least now you know there’s a whole symphony coming after this prelude. And truly, I haven’t spoiled anything of importance.

Wolfhound Century is Higgins’ debut novel. Memorable and showing potential, the book has some flaws. And now that I think about it, Vandermeer’s Dradin in Love and Mieville’s King Rat didn’t do much for me either.

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8 Responses to "Wolfhound Century, by Peter Higgins"

Sounds like one to look out for.

I am really jealous you’ve already gotten to read this! But super excited by your review – because this sounds great!

how close do you live to me? if you’re on the same continent I’ll mail you my copy to borrow.

Hey! That’s mega-sweet of you! I do live on the same continent (although SC is a world of its own). I just need to not be cheap and lame and buy myself a copy.

I appreciate your use of the 7th chords, though I surmise that you are classically trained. We have different opinions of 7ths in my world. :p

I’ll have to check this out, though I may wait until sequels are imminent.

You’re rock guitar?

i did 5 years of classical piano, followed by a few years of composition & jazz piano, and I’ve spent the years since hanging out with folk guitarists. 8 measure progressions are my friend!

If the book sounds lukewarm, I’d definitely recommend waiting till more books in the series are available. I’ll bet it would read smoother as one really long novel (maybe 3-4 books?) than a bunch of short ones a year apart.

Classical piano at first, then jazz sax. I guess jazz is my home territory. I’ve been semi-pro for maybe 15 years tho, playing whatever music pays the bills.
The book sounds pretty cool, but I’d rather plough through them all than wait for follow-ups.

[…] Century is a rare beast. I’d already read some reviews before receiving my own review copy of the book and I knew I was in for an interesting […]

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About this redhead, etc.

Redhead is a snarky, non-politically correct 30-something who reviews mostly science fiction and fantasy and talks about all sorts of other fun scifi and fantasy geekery. She once wrote a haiku that included the word triskaidekaphobia.

This blog contains adult language and strong opinions. The best way to contact her outside of this blog is twitter, where she is @redhead5318 .

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