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Amidst the Ruins

As promised, I’m bringing back Alasdair Czyrnyj to continue our discussion of Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Empire trilogy. This time, we’re taking on the middle volume, Truth and Fear.

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? (more…)

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A few posts back, I wrote that the closest antecedent to the classic western pulp market is East Asian “light novels”, not western e-publishing. Translations of these books are becoming more frequent, but there’s still a huge amount that’s yet to be licensed or officially translated and probably never will be. The insanely short release schedules and sheer volume of work, coupled with the general disinterest of western readers and publishers in tackling translations in the first place, dictates against us getting more than a small window into grab-and-go novels geared towards teenagers and people who want a quick read on their commute. Yet unlike other languages, Japanese, and to a lesser extent Chinese and Korean, has a dedicated and active fan translation community that brings out work we otherwise would never see. The legality of these projects is dicey, but oftentimes its the only way to read these works if you’re not fluent in the language of origin and the only way they’d ever come to the attention of English-language publishers in the first place.

What I found was that some forms of storytelling from older English pulp that has largely died out on this side of the ocean is alive and well in Japan, as well as a certain young adult ethos that characterized older middle-grade fiction but not the current predominate mode of YA. These features were especially noticeable in two series that I breezed through this year (both not officially translated, alas). (more…)

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I always feel some trepidation when an author returns to a series after many years with a new installment—even when the book is good, it tends to miss something from the original, some spark that drove that series along. So, the news that Isuna Hasekura would release more Spice and Wolf came with some mixed feelings; Spice and Wolf was very much the comfort read I needed at the time I discovered it, but with seventeen books and a satisfying conclusion do we really need more? (more…)

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City and Swamp

Part I

Alasdair: The point you make about authoritarian regimes narrowing the scope of possibility for the future is an important one. Indeed, all of the major antagonists of the Wolfhound Empire trilogy are concerned with remaking the Vlast according to a singular vision. (more…)

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Lost in Leningrad

I read Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century after a strong recommendation from fellow blogger Alasdair Czyrnyj. He’ll join me in the next series of posts as we air our thoughts on the Wolfhound Empire trilogy one book at a time.

First, some background. Wolfhound Century takes place in the Vlast, a country bearing the heavy mark of the Soviet Union, manifested particularly in the city of Mirgorod, a swampy cement-covered place that evokes St. Petersburg back when it was called Leningrad. Vissarion Lom comes to Mirgorod to investigate the activities of erstwhile revolutionary Josef Kantor. This thriller-esque procedural plot largely takes a back seat to the cosmology and fantastic weirdness of the Vlast, caught in a struggle between stone angels and an endless forest, industrialized but in a way that incorporates the preternatural. Giants and golems wander the streets as labourers, unremarked but haunting in their normalcy.

I greatly enjoyed Wolfhound Century but I suspect that I was drawn to different aspects of the novel than Alasdair. So, to start off, Alasdair, what did you find so overwhelmingly compelling about Wolfhound Century, and why did you insist so strongly that I give it a go? (more…)

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If you haven’t noticed, I have a soft spot for DOS-era gaming. I’m supposed to be of the video game generation, but the only console I ever owned was an NES and I was never very good at playing it. My real interest in computer games didn’t come until high school, where I wasted a huge amount of time playing old DOS games that were largely older than I was (more about that here). I wish I could say that I had some sort of affinity with the early computer game scene and was drawn to the elegance and beauty of making a playable system with as few kilobytes as possible, but that would be a filthy lie. The real reason was because there was a website called Home of the Underdogs that hosted abandonware games for free, and the older games fit on a floppy disk so I could download them at school and then take them home and install on my own computer. (more…)

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Olivier Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist: Because I do fan art now, which brings me that much closer to becoming a monster. 

I finished the last volume of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist yesterday. It’s a justly famous and popular comic with endearing characters and some really exceptional pacing—I’d compare the way the panels flow to Jeff Smith’s Bone—but what really struck me was the effortless way Arakawa blended fantasy elements into an early twentieth century industrial setting. While the alchemy of the series is undoubtedly magic, the approach is a scientific one, and outbursts of the fantastic fir perfectly alongside automobiles and rifles.

The visual aesthetic of Fullmetal Alchemist broadly aligns with the various retro-futuristic “punk” subgenres of science fiction and fantasy that boiled up in the 1980s but seem to have solidified and become more of a presence in the 2000s. The terminology began with cyberpunk but has come to mean something different, and segmented to a laughable extent. Cyberpunk was the marriage of high technology with the grimy underclass world of punk rock; steampunk was quite literally a joke word to describe the marriage of old steam technology with the upper crust world of Victorian nobles. Now we have dieselpunk, decopunk, clockpunk, which basically mean re-imaginings of pulp adventure genres from post-Enlightenment eras that operate (more or less) within the confines of that era’s technologies. While potentially fascinating, in practice science fiction and fantasy that embraces the label in North America and Britain has, I’ve found, veered towards confused pastiche and don’t reach a very wide audience.

For whatever reason, the early twentieth century in Europe and America has produced far more appealing visions from East Asia. Fullmetal Alchemist takes names, historical cues, and architecture from central Europe in the 1920s/30s. A more useful point of comparison is the anime Last Exile, which operates on the visual level of dieselpunk’s ideal: giant airships coupled with graceful planes straight out of the interwar years, the brown-and-grey palettes of military and flight uniforms in the era. This type of industrial fantasy has spread to a much greater degree in east Asia than the “punks” of western sf, which is still a largely niche genre that uses the “punk” label to proclaim its own perceived special-ness. It seems every other cover of a pulp novel or comic book or animated series out of Japan has gears and black smoke and heavy machinery, that well-regarded classics like Castle in the Sky create an inextricable link between the feeling of magic and wonder with early twentieth century machinery.

The inspirations for the look are similar but the tradition and the deployment of that look are different. That might be why my comparison here isn’t all that useful; the style of industrial fantasy in East Asia appeals to me much more than what I’ve seen out of most of the “punks” in Anglophone sf, but they are coming from different (more than a geographic sense) places. Something about the anglophone sf tradition makes bringing the same elements together seem awkward where in Fullmetal Alchemist they seem the natural thing in the world to combine. These works, while on a surface level falling into the same category, evoke a very different reaction from me that lies rooted in their approach.

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