About the reviewer: Jo, the cake-obsessed chair of Bristolcon, is a reviewer, blogger and fantasy author whose fourth novel, “The Art Of Forgetting” is due out this summer from Kristell Ink. Her blog-ramblings can be found at http://www.hierath.co.uk, and you can track her down on Twitter too (@hierath77). She often frequents pubs and coffee shops, and she is very amenable to bribery.
Detective Richard Fell is transferred over the bridge from the big city to Snowtown, a feral district whose police investigations department numbers three and a half people (one detective has no legs). Dumped in this collapsing urban trashzone, Richard Fell is starting all over again. In a place where nothing seems to make any sense, Fell clings to the one thing he knows to be true: everybody’s hiding something. Even him.
How to even begin describing Fell to the uninitiated? It’s equal parts disturbing, grim, insane, disturbing and horrific. Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith together paint a city that screams to be put out of its misery. Just take Snowtown to the pound and put a bullet in its fucking head. Volatile, relentless, homicidal, diseased. Anything mean and nasty, Snowtown’s got it. Fell’s got it.
So why did I think this was an incredible, beautiful and joyous read?
I’m no expert in comic books. I’ve never been a particular fan of the medium and it’s only in the last few months that I’ve acquired a feigned interest in catching up with some of the modern classics that everyone I know keeps banging on about. More on that to come elsewhere in the coming weeks, but Fell is the first that I’ve read and actually said to myself: “YOU IDIOT!” – I had no idea comics could do anything like this.
Fell is absolutely dripping, rotting, congealing, with atmosphere. Unlike anything I could ever experience in a novel, Fell literally paints a picture of a decrepit city, full of deranged criminals, hopeless citizens and mostly insane cops. The artwork is consistently outstanding. At times minimalist (to the point of barely drawn sketches) to fully detailed images of a city in decay. The pairing of Ellis and Templesmith is a genuine wonder to behold – one of those times when you have to put it down to some sort of (slightly disturbed) divine intervention that these two met to create such a work of art.
But atmosphere is just one element in this rich tapestry of urban horror. We have the city, the people, the atmosphere. But it needs something else – something to make you want to read; to stay in this place. And Fell has it.
Fell is absolutely all of those things I’ve described. It’s disgusting, it’s volatile, it’s diseased. But at its core is something far more important.
Fell has a heart. A soul.
In Richard Fell we have a weathered cop. The man who has Snowtown thrust upon him like a plague. Our lens to this place. This is his story as much as it is that of Snowtown. We follow him through case after case of grinding depravity and insanity, but Richard never loses his cool. Moving through the various plots of Fell is a redemptive arc of someone we don’t know needs redemption. But he does. Richard Fell and Snowtown were built for each other. Only together can they redeem each other and that makes for a wonderful analogue that deserves to be experienced from start to finish.
There’s no overarching storyline in Fell, but that doesn’t matter. It’s about the people, the place, the man at the centre; the city at the core. As much as I may hope Ellis and Templesmith continue with another volume, I’m satisfied in the knowledge that I’ve experienced something which has opened my eyes to a whole new medium of storytelling. I can’t really ask for much more than that.
Investigator Vissarion Lom has been summoned to the capital in order to catch a terrorist – and ordered to report directly to the head of the secret police.
A totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown insurgents with an iron fist. But Lom discovers Mirgorod to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.
Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone implanted in his head.
Wolfhound Century is the debut novel by author Peter Higgins. A weird tale of espionage in an alternate, fantastical Russia – it’s a bit like China Mieville had a party with John Le Carre. On acid.
The book follows Inspector Vissarion Lom, a small-town police detective who hasn’t done himself any favours when it comes to self-promotion with his superiors. But out of the blue for Lom, he’s summoned to the vast capital city of Mirgorod, a sort of Moscow/St. Petersburg/ New Crobuzon hybrid, to investigate the reappearance of a suspected terrorist. It is Lom’s ability to ask the right questions and stay in the dark that is required by the head of police in Mirgorod. So Wolfhound Century goes on to become a story about spies, artists, revolutionaries, gunfights and death-defying chases on the cool, wet streets of Mirgorod. So far, so James Bond.
But James Bond doesn’t have angels, sentient rain and giants. I don’t remember seeing many weird, walking trees and vast stone golems in Skyfall.
Higgins’ has managed to craft something truly different. It’s a neo-noir fantasy thriller that is filled to the brim with ideas and imagery that jumps off the page. His prose is honed to near perfection. His descriptions and style are so atmospheric that several scenes in particular are still clearly with me long after finishing the book. Seriously, the way Higgins describes rain is incredible:
“Two kinds of rain fell on Podchornok. There was steppe rain from the west, sharp and cold, blown a thousand versts across the continental plain in ragged shreds. And the other kind was forest rain. Forest rain came from the east in slow, weighty banks of nimbostratus that settled over the town for days at a time and shed their cargo in warm fat sheets. It fell and fell with dumb insistence, overbrimming the gutters and outflows and swelling the waters of the Yannis until it flowed fat and yellow and heavy with mud. In spring the forest rain was thick with yellow pollen that stuck in your hair and on your face and lips and had a strange taste. In autumn it smelled of resin and earth. This, today, this was forest rain.”
The plot never lets up, as you might expect from something so easily compared favorably to John Le Carre – it’s at times exciting, exhausting and terrifying to read. My only problem with the book was that its ending was so abrupt. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to say there is a cliffhanger – but rather that it just ends, practically mid-scene. It’s a bizarre choice and in many ways left me with the feeling that this is only half of one greater novel. I’m under the assumption that there will be a sequel – otherwise I’d really have to reassess my feelings on Wolfhound Century.
So apart from that ending, Wolfhound Century is an extraordinarily accomplished debut from a real master of atmosphere. Peter Higgins has managed to create a completely unique fantasy world with a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern day thriller. But what sets it apart (except for the angels, golems and sentient rain) is the sense that really, anything could happen. This is what good genre fiction can do – it can take the familiar and imbue it with the fantastic, creating something fresh, original and a real standout novel. Excellent stuff – now where’s Part Two?
Thanks to Gollancz for providing me with an advanced review copy of Wolfhound Century.
“Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things , undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. That is why we must close them up in thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.”
This is a beautiful book. It even looks beautiful, with curlicues and rich colours and dragons (who are not really dragons) all over the cover. It lookslike the kind of book little fingers will grab hold of and refuse to let go except to relinquish it to their own children. It is the story of September, bored in Omaha with her father away at war and her mother working all hours to build aeroplanes. One night she steps out of the kitchen window into the embrace of the Green Wind and the Leopard of Small Breezes, and is whisked away to Fairyland, which has fallen under the thumb of a cruel, bureaucratic Marquess. There she meets a host of wonderful creatures to help her on her quest; a lonely golem crafted from soap who washes her courage, a blue boy who must always submit, and the loveable A-through-L, a Wyverary (his mother was a wyvern, his father was a Library…)
September is wonderful. She would describe herself as irascible and ill-tempered, but she is also loyal, courageous and clever. She misses her home, but more than once she turns down the opportunity to go back because it would mean leaving her friends in danger. She sacrifices her dress to make a sail for her ship, and her own shadow to save the life of a little Pooka girl. She’s not immune to despair, and tantrums, and fatigue, and she seems very alive, a more empowered Alice, a less-than-perfect Dorothy.
“…Ship of her own Making” sails on the back of a rich tradition of children’s fantasy literature; there are shades of Alice in Wonderland, of Oz, of “At the Back of the North Wind” and Narnia. One of the delightful things about this book is its self awareness, which, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could have come across as arch or knowing. Here, it’s just a fact:
“There’s more than one way between your world and ours. There’s the changeling road, and there’s the Ravishing, and there’s those that Stumble through a gap in the hedgerows or a mushroom ring or a tornado or a wardrobe full of winter coats.”
The book is not without its sinister moments, or its gory ones, and the story of the embittered Marquess is tragic, as Fairyland slips through her fingers and she tries to keep it by controlling and restraining the very magic that makes it what it is. Perfect for anyone who has ever danced hopefully widdershins around a fairy ring, or double-checked the back of an old wardrobe, just in case…