Sometimes it’s nice to be squarely in the middle of the target audience. Although I am not sure whether anyone would have said ex ante that the audience for a police procedural set in an alternate history Russia with fantasy and science fiction elements was much more than just me. But Peter Higgins went and wrote Wolfhound Century anyway (without even knowing me!), and a bang-up book it is.
Investigator Vissarion Lom is having a tricky time in the provincial police department of Podchornok, in the far eastern reaches of the Vlast, as the novel’s not-quite Russia is known. It seems he’s more interested in enforcing the law than in getting along, more likely to follow the threads of evidence regardless of where they lead than to uphold the status quo. That has long been a route to a short career in Russian policing (though obviously not only there), and indeed as the novel begins some of the birds whose feathers he ruffled in the backstory are coming home to roost.
Lom and another policeman are on a stakeout, waiting to find out who a student revolutionary is trying to meet up with at the far edge of the empire. They are doing their bit to uphold a state that, as is revealed in the course of the book, is both pre- and post-revolutionary compared with our world’s Russia. Pre- in that there is trench warfare on the western edge that has been going on too long and is draining both resources and legitimacy, while internal revolutionaries plot the downfall of the governing system that has ruled for centuries. Post- in that the system is not a monarchy and that many aspects of Soviet Russia are already in place, although most of the technology seen in the story is roughly equivalent to the era of World War I. (The leader is known as the Novozhd, which looks like a portmanteau of the Russian words for “new” and “boss,” at least in the sense that Stalin was a boss. Higgins leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the Novozhd is the same as the old boss.)
But although the Vlast is large and the Novozhd is far away, Lom and his current partner have their eyes on the young, would-be revolutionary and the unknown person he wants to meet, who is the policemen’s real target. Higgins also lets his readers know early on that this is also a world at least slightly fantastic: “A line of giants, each leading a four-horse dray team and a double wagon loaded high with resin tanks, was lumbering up the hill…” Nor does the stake-out go as planned. The revolutionary contact is a soldier in uniform, one-armed, presumably wounded in the ongoing war. Between the rain and the giants’ convoy, the policemen almost miss the rendezvous.
[The young man] saw Lom coming. His eyes widened in shock and fear. He should have waited. Showed his papers. Said he had no idea who this soldier was, he’d just been sitting there eating his bread and watching the rain. Instead, he ran. He got about ten paces across the road, when Ziller came out of the alleyway by Krishkin’s and took him crashing down into the mud.
The soldier hadn’t moved. He was staring at Lom’s face. His eyes, expressionless, didn’t blink. They were completely brown: all iris, no whites at all. He opened his mouth, as if he was going to speak, and Lom smelled the sour, earthy richness of his breath, but he made no sound. His one hand worked the small cloth bag he was holding as if he was crushing the life out of it. Lom snatched it out of his grip.
“Give me that!”
The man’s fingers felt cold. Hard. Brittle.
Lom undid the cord and looked inside. There was nothing but a mess of broken twigs and crushed berries and clumps of some sticky, yellowish substance that might have been wax. It had a sweet, heavy, resinous perfume.
“What the fuck –?” said Lom. “What the fuck is this?”
The soldier, gazing into him with fathomless brown eyes, said nothing.
In the second chapter Higgins introduces the other side, a revolutionary leader named Josef Kantor. Josef K and his band pull off a bank robbery, making off with vast sums to help advance the aims of the revolution. The event echoes a robbery in our world, but here too, Higgins brings in the fantastic: a huge, hybrid creature known as a mudjhik that moves slowly but relentlessly, and smashes those who oppose the state. That name is not far from muzhik, the usual transliteration of the Russian word for serf or peasant. Kantor also has one of the tics of the old communist Rubashov in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon: he probes an aching tooth as if it were an ersatz conscience. Neither tooth nor conscience troubles Kantor long; at the end of the robbery, he blows up one of his confederates with a grenade.
Revolutionary justice? Bloodlust? Or a deeper game?
Just as much of the book follows Lom’s efforts to answer his inchoate question at the end of the first chapter, another part gradually reveals what Kantor is up to, and why. The two circle each other, unaware, for much of the story. Shortly after the busted stake-out, Lom is summoned to the capital (Mirgorod, “world-city”), directed to discover something for a very senior police official. As he discovers more, worlds, and worlds within worlds, begin to collide.
The Wolfhound Century is many different things: a character study of Lom, a straight policeman in a decidedly crooked system; an exploration of revolutionaries; a glimpse of life in a system that tries to be totalitarian; a discourse about an industrial society laid over a land shaped powerfully by natural forces; an examination of how individual actors shape larger histories; a view of how a historian (the official historian of Mirgorod, an old friend of Lom’s who has become something of a dissident) sees alternatives; all of these and more, infused by undeniable magic in the world. It’s also an action-packed thriller that hurtles to both its conclusion and the next book in the trilogy.
As soon as I finish this review, I’m starting the sequel, Truth and Fear.
(ps The secret police have a filing system known in the book as the Gaukh Engine. As far as I can tell, none of the reviewers has connected this to the office in Germany that took over the records of the former Stasi after East and West Germany were unified. These records were opened to public access, allowing people to see what information the secret police had amassed about them. The first director of the office — during whose tenure the most important decisions were made and the tone of openness was set — was a former dissident and son of a Gulag survivor, Joachim Gauck. The authority administering the records became known as the Gauck Office. At the time of writing, he is president of Germany.)