Hi, Dominic. Which book are we talking about?
Ah, that’ll be Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins … let’s talk about that.
What’s the synopsis?
It’s a fantasy-thriller set in a Russia-that-isn’t, a place called The Vlast, where a provincial policeman has to stop the regime seizing an artefact of godly power. It’s the first part of a trilogy.
An artifact of Godly Power, like the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
It’s called the Pollandore – it’s a strange transdimensional object that channels power from the Vlast’s trackless forests… and the secret police have captured it. They just don’t know what it does or how it works.
What’s the feel of the book? Is it dark and brutal? Is it light and frothy?
It’s pretty dark – Higgins’ Vlast is based on a kinda 1940s / 50s Russia, and we see a Stalin-esque character evolve from anarchist bank-robber to dictator (like the real version). The book is very much about totalitarianism, and how individuals bend ideology to their will. People have compared Higgins with China Miéville (Perdido Street Station etc), but I’d say Higgins is more interested in plotting than China. Although there is hope in the book, it’s a thin bead of light cast against a big ol’ stretch of darkness.
Who’s the protagonist? Does he work for the regime?
The protagonist is Vasserion Lom, a security policeman. He’s sent to the big city to capture the anarchist-Stalin character (Josef Cantor) but meets a young woman called Maroussia who is strangely linked to the Pollandor. Vasserion begins to realise he’s a patsy of sorts, albeit in a game played between those who would control the bizarre angel-creatures living in the Vlast’s endless forests and the regime who wish to unlock the Pollandor’s secrets. Vasserion’s journey from cop to dissident is gradual, transformed by his friendship with Maroussia.
It’s a fucking crazy book. You just fall into this world.
It sounds nuts. What are the angel-creatures, why do they live in the forest, and why do people want to control them?
They fell out of space (obviously, right?) and humans use their flesh as a kind of power source (it’s described as being like clay). You get the feeling there’s some sort of celestial power-play going on in the universe, but one of the things Higgins does so well is get you to just accept it. The world-building is incredible – man, there’s sentient *rain* and were-bears but they just segue effortlessly into this political thriller in this not-quite-Russia. It’s why I’m so hyped about the book, it’s startling originality.
The antagonist is a kind of Uncle Joe Stalin – so he clearly wants power. Why does he want it? Does he have communist ideology, or a hyper-real version of communism?
That’s an interesting question – Cantor is like (I suspect) most dictators, in that he conflates his own personal interests with that of the nation – he effectively IS the nation. Higgins doesn’t overly trouble himself with ideological minutiae, which some people who’ve reviewed the book find annoying but I kinda like – there’s so much other stuff going on anyway. And the regime is like this ever-present, 1984-like miasma of paranoia and jack-bootery, probably like a fascist / communist / whatever state. Anyhow, I won’t spoil his cunning masterplan, as its revealed later in the trilogy and is as clever as you’d expect from this particular author.
What does the forest represent? Does it go into the fairy tale idea that the forest is primeval and deadly?
There’s definitely an element of that – the forest is pretty brutal but represents Freedom and everything that means (i.e. it’s messy). There are sylph-like creatures who act as messengers and go-betweens for the dissidents, as the Pollandor is theirs to protect. They also play a role in stopping these giant fucking angels marching relentlessly into civilization (where they’d fight and / or get harvested for their flesh).
Do the angels want anything?
I think they want to get back into fucking space, and are very angry they’ve been shot down. They’re pretty enigmatic. There’s also a clue in there, as there’s a (real world) story of Russian cosmonauts claiming to have seen ‘angels’ during the Soyuz program in the early 80s. They’d probably drunk too much anti-freeze.
The book’s main theme appears to be the horror of totalitarianism. How does the fantasy setting enhance that, if at all?
That’s certainly *a* theme. The fantasy element offers the chance of escape – the Pollandor is, among other things, a psychogeographical portal, where different futures are possible. The forests also represent a different opportunity for the Vlast – a return to its wilder, primal roots. I suppose, in this respect, the book is also about crushing modernity versus tradition, which is sharply illustrated using fantastic elements. It’s also, it has to be said, simply an intriguing genre mash-up in its own right.
You’re known as an action thriller writer whose novels are set firmly in the real world. You’re now working on a fantasy novel – what does fantasy do for you?
It’s a genre I’ve always loved in tandem with thrillers – aged about ten or eleven I’d be reading Jack Higgins and Sven Hassel, but also Mike Moorcock’s ‘Elric‘ novels and Philip Jose Farmer. As the name suggests, fantasy gives you total freedom from real-world realities, although of course the challenge is to make it compelling, to help the reader achieve suspension of disbelief. And as a genre, like sci-fi, it’s extremely broad and loves being mashed-up.
I read Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain – a great story.
A lot of fantasy, in my experience, meanders. That has pluses and negatives. What’s the situation with Wolfhound Century?
One thing that hits you, moving from writing real-world thrillers to fantasy, is word-count. Fantasy readers kinda expect 100K as entry-level, whereas my thrillers usually sit at 80K. Why is that? I suspect most of it is world-building, because you’re being introduced to so many new concepts and environments. And if thrillers are usually a slap-up meal, fantasy is more likely a leisurely banquet. Wolfhound Century doesn’t meander as such, but Higgins’ prose is beautiful (he could easily be writing literary fiction) and the pacing is just-so. I didn’t feel it dragged, in fact I devoured it, kicking myself I’ll never be able to write like that (I just couldn’t). This is probably because Higgins encases his story in many of the tropes you’d expect from a piece of espionage fiction (although if you like old Le Carre, for example, you’ll see them meandering like the Amazon!).
One reviewer said of the book that it builds its world through showing, such as giants pushing something along a street in a matter-of-fact manner, which blew him away, though nothing spectacular had happened. Is fantasy as a whole guilty of telling instead of showing like this or do I just not read widely enough in the genre?
I’ve got some strong views on showing / telling as a piece of writing diktat, (I think it overblown to a certain extent, a meta-rule that troubles writers and editors more than readers). However, where you are definitely onto something is the info-dump some fantasy writers are prone to. They’ve built this incredible world and they want to tell you all about it, which can be incredibly dull. A story is still a story – it needs to move, not be bogged down. So maybe fantasy as a genre is more likely to fall into that elephant trap. Conversely, fantasy writers who are on top of their game, just like in any genre, tease and / or suggest with their world-building (like Higgins does – he lets you figure it out naturally).
What would suit a Wolfhound Century adaptation – a TV series or film?
Given the quality of some of the stuff on Netflix, and the luxury of telling a story over a dozen episodes or so? TV.
Who’d star as the main characters?
Hmmm. Well, my Vissarion Lom is gonna be Tom Hiddlestone, Maroussia would be played by Andrea Riseborough and Josef Kantor would be made flesh by the one-and-only Cilian Murphy.
What about the sequels? Mythago Wood is one of my favourites, but the sequels didn’t hit home. Does Higgins keep it up?
A big criticism of the first book is it’s ending – it’s very abrupt – it seems clear Higgins just went and banged down a half-million word story which the publishers simply chopped into three. Happily, the rest of the saga is just as good – ‘Truth and Fear’ and ‘Radiant State.’ None of these are stand-alone stories, you’re either in this one for the long-haul or you ain’t. The last takes place in a 1950ish atom-punk setting and unambiguously ends the piece, which is very satisfying.
Incidentally, you can get all three books in one volume, called Wolfhound Empire.
I’ll have to get involved in the beast.
Dark as Angels is your new novel (out in September). What’s it all about?
As Alex Shaw blurbed me – it’s ‘Mad Max meets Die Hard’.
That’s the TL;DR… It’s a not-quite-post-apocalyptic thriller set in London, mebbe sixty years from now. There’s been a civil war, started by transhumans (as technology will allow, one day, the rich to quite literally become a separate species from the rest of us). The city’s recovering, and the protagonist, Rufus Hooker, works as a bounty-hunter in one of the ‘No-Zones’ to the east of London. A job takes him inside an anarchist commune and then it all kicks off… there are Trotskyite terror cells, fascist street militias, autonomous killing platforms and big trucks with spikes on. Probably. Rufus is pretty hard-boiled, and he has an ex-terrorist sniper called Leah as a sidekick.
Fabulous cover and it sounds cracking.
Dominic, you’ve been great. Any last words?
Thanks for having me, Jason, it’s always a pleasure!
You can find all things Dominic Adler HERE.
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