Amidst the Ruins
Truth and Fear is in many ways a departure from Wolfhound Century while drawing on many of same themes and inspirations. While the first novel was mainly an atmospheric piece, here we have a much greater focus on narrative and on relating the actions of the characters to the thrust of the story.
In Wolfhound Century, the assassination of the Novozhd that capped off the novel seemed to be largely a side-event, deflated from significance by how peripheral it was to the journey of Vissarion and Maroussia, but here the full consequences of the assassination come to the fore. The power struggles in Mirgorod to fill the vacuum left behind by the beloved dictator actually have consequences over the cosmic backdrop of the struggle between the stone angel and the forest, even eclipsing them. The delicate bureaucratic framework holding the Vlast together has fallen apart; truths suddenly puncture through the ideological shell that enclosed its citizens, and as the title suggests, also begets fear. The war with the Archipelago, so distant before, spills through towards the capital city: the Vlast has been losing, and the unwanted perception of loss once hidden away makes military disaster a reality.
Finally, the Pollandore awaits, promising a different future than either humankind, the stone angels, or the forest can create.
Alasdair, you’ve mentioned that you liked Truth and Fear more than Wolfhound Century. Does this change in focus have something to do with that?
Alasdair: First of all, I’m glad to be back for this second go-round. And yes, I did find Truth and Fear more engaging than Wolfhound Century. The first book instantly hooked me with its premise, but a took a while for me to process. As I mentioned in our previous article, when I first read Wolfhound Century, I stumbled over the tsarist-Soviet mixture of the setting as well as the overall structure of the plot, which could be crudely summarized as a detective story that collapses into a fantasy quest. (In an aside, Higgins does return to Lom-as-detective mode a few times in both of the following books, and I always found those sections a bit awkward. Wolfhound Century’s climax comes with Lom’s literal transcendence of his humble origins, so his return to investigator-mode always felt like a step back.) I must also admit to being more interested in the human side of the trilogy’s conflict, so Wolfhound Century’s greater focus on the forest-archangel conflict did leave me a little lost at sea. Finally, I also felt the novel had the classic “Volume One burden” of having to do all the spadework of establishing the elements of the setting and the rules of the game before properly getting off to the races.
While I have seen some reviews describe Truth and Fear as a mere “chase” novel, I actually found that aspect helped sharpen the story’s focus. Everything’s established, we know what everyone’s goals are, and the time has come to achieve those goals. The novel starts right where Wolfhound Century ended, and initially the stakes seem clear; Lom and Maroussia are set on finding the Pollandore, while Lavrentina Chazia is maneuvering to fill the power vacuum left by the Novozhd’s death. However, about a third of the way through the novel, the troops and heavy bombers of the Archipelago breach the Vlast’s defenses and war finally comes to the streets of Mirgorod. The conflicts reshuffle and accelerate. Chazia flees the doomed city with both Maroussia and the Pollandore in tow, speeding by rail to the closed city of Novaya Zima, looking for the weapon that will make all her dreams come true. Vissarion follows in dogged pursuit, winding his way along the northern rivers and forests of the Vlast by seaplane. Meanwhile, Josef Kantor, transformed by Chazia’s documentation into General Osip Rizhin, whips the people of Mirgorod to repel the invaders while awaiting a special delivery from the north. Seemingly demoted to the minor partner of the antagonists of the trilogy, Kantor (or Rizhin, as I will call him from now on) is in actuality the forgotten pawn making his way to the edge of the board.
Even the pool of historical events that the novel draws from have been reduced. In essence, Truth and Fear is the Great Patriotic War Novel, with a few details from the post-Stalin succession struggle and the Russian Civil War added for seasoning. The greater part of the novel is devoted to the siege of Mirgorod, the assault on the city by Archipelago bombers, and the desperate efforts by the conscripted citizenry to mount a defense. Michal, what would you have to say about Higgins’ depiction of the conflict?
Michal: It’s not just Chazia who abandons Mirgorod, the entire administration evacuates from the Lodka out eastward. They conspire to re-build a Vlast without its first and most important city, not realizing (as Rizhin does) that without Mirgorod there is no Vlast. The people are abandoned, but it’s the idea of Mirgorod, rather than the physical entity of the city itself, that makes it so crucial.
Guy Gavriel Kay wrote that the value of using fantasy stories to re-tell historical events was that you could telescope history and make the relationships between far-flung elements contract together in a way that was personally meaningful to the characters. The same drive seems at play in how Higgins draws from Operation Barbarossa in the Archipelago’s invasion of the Vlast. Yes, the armies surrounding Mirgorod evokes scenes from the siege of Leningrad, but the battle takes on a nearly mythic significance that transcends the siege of one city in the Second World War. Bits and pieces of the entire eastern front and the wars preceding it pour into the conflict, even call-backs to Napoleon’s 1812 campaign and the burning of Moscow. Most prominent to me was the contextual function of this siege as a replay of Stalingrad, not as the actual battle took place but how it’s remembered. The idea of Stalingrad, embedded in its name, has become just as important to the way we attach significance to the battle as its place as the recognized turning point where the Nazis finally faced a significant military defeat. The battle for Mirgorod is not one over its political and geographical significance, and Rizhin is happy for the city to end up bombed to smithereens as long as the rubble doesn’t end up the enemy’s hands. After all, as we noted in our last review, Mirgorod as a physical place is a transient entity that only persists because the people value Mirgorod as a concept. Higgins works this all together effectively, keeping the focus on a small cast of characters and collapsing the entirety of a conflict as wide-ranging as the War of Extermination so that its significance can be embedded into the experience of a single person.
I think the great irony here is that with so much focus on the imagined city in Mirgorod, we really get to know the city’s streets, monuments and buildings. I found Mirgorod in Wolfhound Century a slippery, ephemeral place, described more in terms of a general atmosphere (identical, grey apartment blocks, muddy thoroughfares, block-like factories) than as a concrete, living city. We see Mirgorod much more intimately in the first half of the novel through the eyes of Lom and Maroussia, learn its layout, its neighbourhoods, even its transit system. Mirgorod solidifies into a much more concrete place…and then Higgins spends the next part of the novel completely destroying it. That narrative focus effectively re-asserts Mirogord as an imagined city: we are now familiar with all that was lost in the wreckage, and how little that loss truly matters.
Alasdair: For myself, I was rather drawn to how Higgins reimagines the details of the War in the East to depict the historical conflict in a more critical light. The Great Patriotic War has become one of the great foundational myths of both the Soviet and the modern Russian state. Even though the official (Russian) interpretation of the conflict has shifted over the decades from the triumph of communist civilization to the victory of the Russian nation against fascism/Germany/the West, the mythological aura hanging over the war still remains to valorize and justify expressions of Russian state power. Even today, it’s not uncommon to see Russians interpreting the travails and miseries of the 1930s as harsh but necessary actions that were needed to prepare for the coming war. Western fantasists experimenting with fictional Soviet Unions have also tended to absorb this tendency uncritically. One of the most elaborate fantasy depictions I’ve seen yet is Madiha Santana’s webnovel The Solstice War, a low-fantasy reworking of Operation Barbarossa that pits a Hindu-influenced Soviet analogue against a fascist Amero-German invader. While the identities and behaviors of the nations involved have been drastically reworked, the story still draws from past valorizations of the war.
Higgins, by contrast, reworks his version of the conflict in several different ways. One of the most powerful devices Higgins uses is the ethnic identity of the invading Archipelago. In most Western stories depicting fantasy USSRs, it’s quite common to pit the USSR-analogue against an analogue of Nazi Germany and get the Western reader to naturally sympathize with the fantasy-Soviet state by drawing on our own historical animus against Nazism. In the Wolfhound Empire books, the exact identity of the Archipelago is kept vague. Based on the few place names we get, the Archipelago seems to be an vaguely English polity. Furthermore, the first book establishes that the war between the Vlast and the Archipelago was initially a war of aggression instigated by the Vlast that has since turned sour. For the English-speaking reader, these details shock us out of the “virtuous Soviets vs. wicked Nazis” mindset and encourage us to view the conflict, and the Vlast’s behavior, more ambivalently. (The reworking of identities also encourages the Anglophone reader to feel a touch more discomfort with the Archipelago’s bombing campaign against Mirgorod, subconsciously drawing parallels between it and the bombing campaigns of both the British and the Americans against German cities in the Second World War.)
Higgins’ choice of viewpoint characters for the conflict also serve to shift the focus away from the standard heroic accounts. The only character we spend time with that is involved in the battle for Mirgorod in an official capacity is Rizhin himself, and he mostly operates in the hermetically sealed world of his high command. For the voice of the average citizen in wartime, Higgins introduces Elena Cornelius and her daughters, Yeva and Galina, about a quarter of the way into the novel. A Lezayre furniture-maker quartered in Mirgorod’s Lezayre raion, Elena and her family grow to bear the suffering of the world on their backs. Before the war, she and her daughters narrowly avoid deportation to the east by the Vlast’s fleeing government, only to be conscripted into Rizhin’s citizen army. Over the course of the novel Elena is steadily ground down by the war, losing her community, her home, her sister, her daughters, reduced to a numbed tool digging out tank traps with her bare hands. While she does eventually become a sniper, she avoids being incorporated into any sort of heroic narrative. While she fights alongside her fellow citizens, she remains separate from the official war effort and views the Vlast’s military forces as allies of convenience. She is the suffering of the Soviet people, inflicted by both the Third Reich and their own government’s incompetence and selfishness, made manifest, and of all the characters in the trilogy, I would say she is the one for whom Higgins has the most sympathy.
Now to get to your discussion of Mirgorod’s depiction in Truth and Fear, I would agree with you that the city becomes more tangible than it was in the first book, only for the tangibility to be obliterated by Archipelago bombs. However, it is also worth noting that Truth and Fear is also the first book in the trilogy to present us with an alternative form of urban space. We are only given a glimpse of it in the last quarter of the book, but the closed city of Novaya Zima, the only settlement on a distant island in the uninhabited north, is a marked contrast to the magical and unknowable Mirgorod. Novaya Zima is a planned city of the sort the Soviet Union built all throughout its history, but Higgins’ description of it calls to mind the sort of professional, science-focused settlements the USSR specialized in during the 1960s and 1970s, rather than the garrulous hubs of industry built during the first Five Year Plans in the 1930s. To put it another way, Novaya Zima is more reminiscent of Pripyat in its glory days than of Magnitogorsk. By our terms, It’s a very middle-class place; plenty of apartment blocks, public parks, an official information center and a tram line, everything a professional would need. However, it is also an extremely artificial construction. Novaya Zima is an urban grid surrounded by inhospitable wilderness that starts immediately where the buildings end. There are no fantasy creatures to be found, and any humans who appear unannounced soon draw the attention of the security services. The city has no culture or community beyond the official culture and community. It is also a city surrounded by death; the only way into the city is across a long railway bridge built with the forced labor of prisoners, and just outside the city entire mountains have been hollowed out by similar labor to house production and test facilities. If Mirgorod is an organic community that both embodies and repels the Vlast, Novaya Zima is an artificial one that sprung fully-grown from the mind of the Vlast, purpose-built to perform a particular function. Mirgorod may be iconic, but Novaya Zima is the Vlast expressed in a much purer form.
But what is the purpose of Novaya Zima? For a novel drawing so much from the Second World War, the answer should come as no surprise. Novaya Zima is Wolfhound Empire’s equivalent to Arzamas-16; it is the home of the Vlast’s atomic programme. It is to Novaya Zima that Chazia retreats, hoping to find a weapon that will finally destroy the Pollandore, and it is the atomic artillery shells built in Novaya Zima’s mountain factories that allow Rizhin to win his war against the Archipelago. Michal, would you like to begin the discussion of the role atomic weapons play in Truth and Fear?
Continued in Part II.