Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins (2013)

So I really really liked this book. I’m writing about it not as a review but as way to articulate what I enjoyed so much. I’ve read a lot of books over the last year that were much acclaimed as mind-bending or fantastic or important or whatever, none of which have really bent my mind. I picked up this book without knowing anything about it except that it was some sort of fantasy spy novel. (The British publisher, Gollancz, tweeted out a picture of the first page in a “What’s this book?” game, and I was struck by the concepts.) This one didn’t exactly bend my mind – maybe having read too much literary criticism and modernist/postmodernist/experimental novels keeps my mind from being bent much more than it has been. But I couldn’t predict where this novel was going, and I loved that.

It started out as a secondary world fantasy about a policeman in a Russian-inspired culture. It stayed that, but much more was added: fallen angels, other possible worlds, life under an oppressive Soviet-style regime, greed, magic. I don’t want to get into spoilers here, because a lot of the fun of the book for me was the unexpected – I would think I knew what was going on, and either the plot would twist a little or some element I never would have imagined was added. He had a great imagination for both spooky magic and human art.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the novel was the way Higgins made use of water – rain, river, floods, and marsh. Wetlands are a wonderful transitional place, great for observing a lot of biological diversity, but so often when they are used in fantasy – when used at all, which is infrequently – they are an obstacle to get around or a horror to be avoided. Swamp things and dead corpses, the stench of rot, the lonely pathless waste where one gets lost. Higgins’s marshes were beautiful and eerie. It reminded me more than anything else of Graham Swift’s Waterland, about the fen country of England. He also had a description of falling into a cold river that was amazingly imagined and described, and his flooded river is a force of itself. The flood did not become an action scene of our hero escaping from a bunch of enemies or predators; it was a powerful force of movement, inevitable, inescapable, nature greater than city.

Higgins also does some great work with language. Frequently I am disappointed to read a book that has been highly praised but is clunky or pedestrian in its language. Higgins wrote sentences such as


Lom breathed deeply, concentrating on the air around them, ancient and cold and thickened and still.


He can feel the unseen pull of the moons: a gentle lunar gravity tugging at his hair and palpating with infinite slowness the ventricular walls of his heart.


When he grew tired he lay down to sleep, and in the dawn when he woke his clothes crackled with the snapping of ice.


The words carry their own weight. They have an intensity and a lyrical quality that I haven’t seen in a lot of other fantasy novels. At the same time, they are plain, solid, not overwrought and baroque purple prose. It would be really easy to write that last example as “when he woke his clothes had frozen solid” – accurate, but not evocative. Higgins used strong verbs to convey the imagery, which is one of my favorite things when reading. (As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a language junky.) As the story becomes stranger, Higgins’s style moves from a straightforward detective type prose to more poetic and nuanced imagery.

The novel has its flaws – nothing is perfect. But since I’m not reviewing it, I don’t have to go into them. It did the best thing any book can do for me – kicked me into my own creative high gear. It’s a book I wish I’d written, and it inspired me to go out and write something that stretches my imagination and my style. So thank you, Peter Higgins.


(The sequel, Truth and Fear, was published in 2014 and I’m hoping to pick up a copy of it today.)