“His clothes and skin stank of hopelessness and self-disgust and other people’s blood.”
For me to be immersed in a novel, I need a strong atmosphere and great dialogue. The most bittersweet thing about Peter Higgins debut, Wolfhound Century, is that he captures the bleak landscape and time period in such a brilliant way, yet doesn’t know how to string a conversation together.
And it’s because of this tussle that I never fell in love with Higgin’s first novel.
The story is set in a sort of Russian-esque empire called the Vlast. Think the Soviet Era, or Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth. Yes, both have a strong sense of fear, a creeping paranoia, and a general cold tone that clicked with me. The revolutionary (or terrorist) of this tale uses all of these to keep control and bring down the Stalin-like government. See, Josef Kantor, the man trying to overthrow “the man,” is not some romantic freedom fighter. He’s a monster trying to topple another. His chapters were my favorite, if you couldn’t guess.
But he’s not the star of the show. No, Vissarion Yppolitovich Lom (Or “Lom,” for you non-native alcoholics) is the noir hero. What Higgins did different with him like he did with Kantor was not produce a second-rate cynic that we’ve seen time and time again. No, the insignificant detective working in the secret police is an idealist through and through, even to the point of being shocked when normal citizens begin abusing him for simply wearing his uniform. It’s not just a nice contrast to the common hardboiled anti-heroes, but also a nice show of country mouse meets city mouse.
More exploration is shown in the remaining POVs, from the explosive poetics of Petrov to the mystical tragedy of Missarionn to the brilliant man who’s not what he seems Vishnik. All were memorable and fascinating characters that were somehow mere caricatures. I have yet to figure that one out.
But neither plot nor characters are the centerpiece.
“He knew that the place he wanted would be down. Such places were always near the root of things. Tucked away. Like death always was.”
Usually, the setting is the backdrop for the story, but in Wolfhound Century, it’s the opposite. Higgin’s Mirgorod is both a fantastical take on St. Petersburg and Moscow, while including an ancient depth in the surrounding lands. The frozen canals; the muggy cafes; the sluggish and overpacked streets that can become desolate at the drop of a hat; all help breathe life into Higgin’s creation. But not only does the city have a sense of realism. It also holds a wondrous and grandiose mystery in its monsters, both human and non.
There’s giants used as slaves and angels that fell from the skies. There’s a Gaukh Engine that helps archive history (written by the victor, of course) and a swamp on the outskirts that’s trying to destroy everything that’s been built. There’s a flood that wracking the city like a disease, and a totalitarian state that’s more infectious that the rising sea level. There’s a sense of epic, fantastical majesty between the pages, that just clambers to suck you in.
It did for a while, with help from the prose.
“Kantor’s life had been shaped by the dialectic of fear and killing: if you feared something, you studied it, learned all you could from it, and then you killed it. And when you encountered a stronger thing to fear, you did it again.”
Verbose. Minimalistic. Haunting. Poignant. That’s how I’d describe Higgin’s word choice. If anything, the man is a master of the English language. While he may delve into surreal gibberish at times, all’s forgiven when he crafts a beautiful turn of phrase or a simple sketch of the landscape. It’s because of his control and talent that the world develops in such a visceral way.
But all of this is hampered by the dialogue.
As I said, the characters aren’t center stage. Because of this, the dialogue isn’t firm. I believe the two are dependent on each other. Not only that, but Higgins writes without action to break up the back and forth, like in a normal conversation. It’s just quick jabs, boring stuff you might see in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Vishnik’s dialogue, though, was amazing. If ever there was a correct way to use profanity, to pack a true punch, his is the way. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate into the rest of the characters.
More worrisome than that, the detached voice keeps tension at bay.The main mystery, besides trying to find Kantor, is the repeated question of “what is the Pollandore?” When that’s settled, it’s “where?” But the real one is “why do I care?” What does it do? I have yet to see the effects of it. I don’t understand what’s so terrifying. Maybe I missed something. Probably. But that’s neither here nor there.
“‘We both know the game. I’ve been beaten myself, in rooms like this one. You ask yourself, will I be brave? But it doesn’t matter. It makes no difference.’”
Where the plot and characters become lacking, the vast setting makes up for it many times over. What it cannot fix is the ending that goes nowhere. If I didn’t know a sequel was to be released, I would be pretty ticked. There’s no resolution whatsoever. The story just stops, like Higgins decided to cut the last ten pages for dramatic effect. Yeah, it was probably one of the worst endings I’ve read in a good while. But maybe that’ll be fixed in the second installment.
Aside from all this, I thoroughly enjoyed Wolfhound Century. It’s a very vivid novel that drew me in with its scenery and sharp prose. If Higgins can improve his dialogue in the second, he’ll have another fan. I’m sure of it.
*I was given this ARC for my honest review.*