Wolfhound Century is a book about Russia, but the word Russia doesn’t appear in it anywhere. It’s a book steeped in 20th century history – totalitarianism, revolution, modernism, grinding global war, governments that spy on and murder their own citizens – but Lenin and Stalin and Hitler are nowhere mentioned. The world of Wolfhound Century has a detailed geography – a vast continent, a capital city, an endless forest in the east – but it’s not a geography you’ll find in any real-world atlas. And there are things in Wolfhound Century that aren’t in the real world at all, like giants and dangerous sentient rain.
So is it really a book about twentieth century Russia at all? Or is it an SF fantasy thriller sprinkled with Russian-sounding names? And if it is about Russia, why write it as an SF fantasy thriller?
To take the second question first: the answer, for me, is story. A story takes you into a world you can't reach any other way, and you experience that world through characters who are living vividly, intensely, on the edge. Stories put people under pressure, to show you what they’re really like: not just the everyday details of lifestyle and personality, but are they strong? will they take risks and confront their demons? what’s their true capacity for sacrifice or love? And genre stories – any genre, not just SF fantasy thrillers but historical romances, zombies, serial killers, anything – can do this brilliantly, because they go beyond the boundaries. They bend the rules of normality. They're extreme. Genre stories at their best can compress and simplify and take you directly to the heart of new things, raw experience and real emotion.
Wolfhound Century is meant, first and last and always, to work as a story: a thriller, an investigation, a race against time, a struggle against the overwhelming power of the state. A story of what it means to be human. The Russian-ness of the setting – artists and dissidents, informers and political police, the endless steppe, the rolling birch forests – are there to let the story do its work. But they’re also there to give it depth and meaning. The setting should be more than just stage scenery.
So how is Wolfhound Century about what happened in Russia and central Europe in the twentieth century, if it doesn’t mention Soviet Russia?
I’ve said that genre stories bend and compress and break the rules of what can actually happen, to bring out rawness of character and feeling. It can work in the same way with place and history. When you’re building a different world, you can change reality to get to the essence of things. You can pack a lot into a small space. Go to extremes.
The world of Wolfhound Century – marching crowds, propaganda posters and slogans, radio, cinema, newspaper articles, modern art, the smells in the street, the food they eat – is based on long hours of research, but the reality behind it is changed, distorted, magnified. Re-imagined. It’s not historically authentic in any literal sense. The ruling regime, against which the heroes struggle to win the right to be themselves, has an ideology, but it’s not called communism, and it’s never described in any detail. The historical Soviet Union and the real Stalin are in there, as a kind of undercurrent, a dark shape that reaches the surface from time to time.
You don’t need to know anything about 20th century Russia to read Wolfhound Century but some of that dark history is inside it, drumming away like an engine, if you want to look for it.
About Wolfhound Century
Orbit Books, March 26, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 380 pages
Inspector 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 terrorism 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.