Truth and Fear by Peter Higgins

People who were annoyed by the cliffhanger ending of Wolfhound Century should definitely wait the six weeks or so until Radiant State is published before reading Truth and Fear. Peter Higgins hasn’t solved the middle-book problem, but it’s clear that he conceived and wrote the three books of the Wolfhound Century tale as a single, coherent story. In the middle of March of this year, it will all be there for readers to enjoy. That is, if the desperate story of a now-renegade policeman caught amidst a revolution and an invasion and maybe a limited nuclear war, with the possibility of a superhuman intelligence imposing permanent totalitarianism, is the sort of thing you enjoy. I know I do.

It’s possible that a merely human Stalinism might be the preferable outcome of the trilogy, given some of the other choices on offer.

Hitherby spoilers.

In Wolfhound Century, policeman Vissarion Lom came to see that there was much more to the world than he had hitherto imagined. The angels that fell from the war in heaven and provided the Vlast with its legitimacy were unquestionably real — after all, Lom had a piece of angelflesh embedded in his forehead, and then brutally ripped out in the course of Wolfhound Century — but there were still more things in heaven and earth. One angel who fell to earth yet lived, somewhere in the endless forest that formed the Vlast’s eastern border. The forest itself was home to more than just the ordinary giants, tree spirits and other beings Lom was familiar with. It might once have been the home of the mysterious Pollandore — a seed of possibility, or maybe a world in itself, or maybe both — that seems to be the only hope of renewing a world that is about to come crashing down. More creatures arrive to play a part in Lom’s story, and maybe to assert that the human story is not the most important one in the world of the Vlast. (I am not sure whether Higgins is alluding to Pelevin when he has a werewolf character with origins in Central Russia, but I wouldn’t rule it out, either.)

At the end of Wolfhound Century, Lom found himself thrown together with Maroussia Shaumian, a young woman with a past that is unknown even to her, and ties to the world of the forest, a world older than the Vlast, one perhaps waiting to be reborn. Maroussia either has or is the key to bringing that world back, by opening the Pollandore. For that reason, among others, Lavrentina Chazia the head of the Vlast’s secret police wants her killed. Lom has gone walkabout from the state’s police, and Chazia wants him dead, too. About a third of the way through the second book, the two of them find out where the Pollandore is, something that readers have known since the later parts of the first book. Unfortunately, the key to freeing the people of the Vlast, or at least what Lom and Shaumian believe is the key, is in the basement of the headquarters of the secret police.

Where Wolfhound Century was a police procedural (or at least started out that way), Truth and Fear is a chase book. Lom and Shaumian start out on the run from Chazia’s minions, only later to learn that to achieve their goal they must get to the Lubka, secret police headquarters. But then further complications set in: the Vlast’s war with the Archipelago takes a disastrous turn for the worse, one that in Higgins’ telling echoes both the collapse of Russian armies in World War I and the relentless roll of Allied forces toward Berlin in World War II. With the assassination of the Novozhd, head of the Vlast government, at the end of the first book, there is an uncertain political transition precisely at the moment of the greatest danger from the war. This echoes the infighting in our world that arose immediately after Stalin’s death, just as the decision of the collective leadership to evacuate the government eastward from Mirgorod echoes Soviet actions as the Wehrmacht advanced on Moscow in 1941.

One of the things to get evacuated is the Pollandore. But rather than sending it eastward, Chazia sends it northward, to a secret installation on the islands of Novaya Zima. (Readers who know the history of our world’s Novaya Zemlaya will guess what is happening at the installation well before it is revealed in the story.)

Truth and Fear is a book of motion and complication. Lom and Shaumian are in motion, to hide from the Vlast police and to find the Pollandore. The Pollandore itself is eventually in motion. The armies of the Archipelago are closing in on Mirgorod, the government is fleeing, and individual characters readers meet within the story are also mostly moving around trying to save themselves from the events crashing around them. Josef Kantor moves by metamorphosis, ending up somewhere vastly different from where he started. Even the fallen Archangel, far to the east, begins to move. The forest itself does not move, but there are suggestions that it underlies everything in the Vlast, and that a move of a different kind might bring it to the surface again.

Lom and Shaumian each find out things about themselves that complicate their roles. A character who is “freelancing” steps in, implying that there are more forces at play than just Vlast and Archipelago, forest and Archangel. More importantly, there are suggestions that opening the Pollandore might not bring salvation but rather usher in a different, more inhuman world. Will Lom and Shaumian find a way between the two alternatives — Archangel or Pollandore — that allows for normal human lives? In the world that Higgins describes, is such a thing even possible?

Truth and Fear does not resolve these questions, but it deepens the story of the Wolfhound Century.

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