Truth and Fear, Peter Higgins. Orbit, March 2014, ISBN 9780316219723. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Vissarion Lom, former policeman, and Maroussia Shaumian, daughter of a terrorist or possibly of an ancient, primordial being, are on the run from the totalitarian forces of the Vlast. They challenge the power of the state merely by existing, but they may yet do more: if she can reach it, Maroussia may be able to open the Pollandore, the mysterious receptacle of possibilities that has baffled the Vlast – and all its attempts to destroy it – since they took it from the Lezarye. There is the forest: ancient, primordial, older than the world. And there is the world of the Vlast. The Pollandore can open up new possibilities – or close them away forever.
The Vlast is changing. Its leader, the Novozhd, is dead. Power has fallen to a committee of four. Among their number is Lavrentina Chazia, half-mad commander of the secret police. Despite its tanks and weapons of dead angel flesh, the Vlast cannot hold against the armies of its external enemy, the Archipelago, as they advance on its capital Mirgorod. Chazia means to abandon Mirgorod and rebuild a new, purified Vlast in the east – but Josef Kantor, terrorist-turned-general, takes Mirgorod for his own. If every single person in the city dies, Kantor doesn’t care. He only cares to win.
And in the east there is Archangel. Unprecedented Archangel: a living angel fallen from the heavens, dragging its toxic progress across the forest, killing where it touches. The angel that talks to Chazia, and to Kantor.
When Chazia captures Maroussia, and takes her and the Pollandore north and east by train, Vissarion follows, in concert with the wolf Florian. Their desperate chase – by seaplane and on foot – culminates in a terrifying showdown at a secret industrial complex for developing nuclear weapons: angel flesh and Pollandore and atomic weaponry and the explosive changing of the world.
Truth and Fear is the sequel to Peter Higgins’ acclaimed 2013 debut, Wolfhound Century. It shares Wolfhound Century‘s claustrophobic tension, the oppressive sense of creeping doom. Higgins is extraordinarily good at evoking the background fear and strain associated with having things to hide under a regime that runs on terror: a regime of torture and police spies and informers and labour camps and people who simply disappear. But Truth and Fear broadens its focus slightly from Wolfhound Century, gives us more viewpoint characters, links its narrative drive less to individuals and more to the fate of inchoate futures. As a result, the tension may be an ever-present background mood, but the pace has slowed.
What Higgins does well, he does very well indeed. The prose treads a delicate line between the spare and the ornate, never quite tipping over into the latter – although at the moments when he lets moments of weirdness, bubbles of the bizarre, shines through, it can lean perilously close. There’s something almost Miévillean about Higgins’ combination of magic and the machinery of 20th century industrial totalitarianism: an innovative slipping-through-the-interstices…
Unfortunately, there’s still no evidence that Higgins can do endings. Truth and Fear is the middle volume of a trilogy, the final instalment of which is expected sometime in 2015. It concludes less abruptly than Wolfhound Century, but it’s an ending that resolves nothing, and opens more questions than it answers.
But if Higgins can stick the dismount, he’ll cement his place among the list of writers to watch. For all its unsatisfying conclusion and occasional narrative drag, Truth and Fear builds upon Wolfhound Century‘s imaginative weight and power. I’m looking forward to book three, and to seeing how he manages to draw all these threads together into a finale worthy of the name.