Tuesday, 15 December 2009

M D Lachlan, Wolfsangel (2010)

I sniff this book with my doggy snout. It smells of classic. Now of course classics are made by posterity, and the consent of many readers, not by reviewerly fiat. Yet nevertheless I feel, having just read it, as if I’ve drunk a strange-smelling mushroom-and-reindeer-piss soup that has given me just enough of a view of the future to say that that’s how posterity, and its many readers, will take it.

Wolfsangel is two novels, one cunningly superposed upon the other. The first is a crowd-pleaser; a more-or-less conventional SFF adventure providing the big meat and potatoes satisfactions (no, wait: this is pre-Walter-Raleigh era stuff; so, let’s say—meat and turnips) Fantasy fans crave: narrative drive, likeable characters, lots of violent fighty-fight, hair-breadth scapes, reversals, brothers separated at birth, magic, slavegirls, quests to the mystic North and a love story between a prince and a farmgirl. It also adds-in the sorts of grace-notes hard-core readers of Fantasy appreciate; little riffs on the standards of the genre. These Berserkers? An Orc-eyed view of Middle Earth! And now look—our heroes are escaping their dangerous captivity by hiding Bilbo-like inside barrels, I kid thee not. Most of all, it works a sort of Wolfman Begins reboot on the tired-old werewolf concept (in the immortal words of Mel Brooks: 'werewolf!' 'werewolf?' 'there wolf!'). And Lachlan does that very well indeed: it’s as far from Lon Chaney in side-whiskers as it is conceivable, a feral, brutal, bloody and thoroughly convincing account of the Being-in-the-world of the lupine. It’s certainly a cut above the usual Fantasy fare; and a big Viking axe cut too, whilst also being recognizably that sort of tale for all that. Which is precisely what many fans want.

If this were all the book did, then it would be a good book; and I’d hold up my number-card like Len Goodman and shout ‘seven’ (or, maybe, say ‘six!’ brightly). What lifts it to a nine is the second novel, the one that haunts the first. This is not a run of the mill Fantasy text; nor, really, is it even a riff upon those worn-smooth tropes. It is something genuinely estranging, eerie, evocative. This is the portion of the novel (woven, closely, in with the other) that deals with magic—something Lachlan handles very cannily, purchased by its characters with bitter suffering and endurance and as cold, parching, or starveling as it is powerful. It's the part that brings in the norse gods. His witch queen is a splendid creation, and I believed wholeheartedly in the divinities. Very striking and atmospheric stuff, I thought.

Why a 9, and not a 10? Because deep down I’m Craig, darling, and not Len at all. And because there are various places where the tone, generally expertly maintained, wobbled. Lachlan has done his homework; but that only makes occasional lapses of tone and fact the more jarring. Talk of ‘evolution’ [59] for instance, doesn’t fit; and there are moments of awkward exposition (‘if he defies me,’ says Vali to Adisla at one point, ‘the gods’ final day they call Ragnarok starts here!’—which is rather as if I were to say to my daughter, ‘if you’re naughty then the mythical, red-coated deliverer-of-presents Santa won’t bring you anything on the noted Christian festival they call Christmas’). Generally, as regards tone, L. pitches the dialogue into that safely neutral place, halfway between prithee my lord thou’rt in excellent fooling on the one hand and we is in your base killin your doods on the other—picking a path between that Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary Fantasy. Mostly this works nicely, but the romantic banter between Vali and Adsila is a bit wincing, and some of this dialogue just didn’t strike me as, well, very Viking (‘ “What appears to be the problem?”’ 70) Much of the descriptive prose is very nicely handled, though; and it really does feel like nitpicking in me to say that this aspect, good though it often is, didn’t feel terribly Viking either: ‘Adisla lifted the side of the sail [and] looked out around her. The light was jellyfish grey, the sea a gentle but stomach-churning swell’— jellyfish grey is excellent, but no Viking would so much as think it. But that is to nitpick. My main reservation was a sense that the novel is built around one Big Anachronism, Vali’s amour fou et passionel for Adisla was simply too medieval-Provençal, or 21st-century Lurve Story, to fit the otherwise carefully constructed Norse setting. (‘Adisla I will find you’ gasps Vali, like Daniel Day Lewis in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans). And I’d say this probably is a problem; although from time to time Lachan tries, usually nicely enough, to defuse it:
‘You seem possessed by [love for Adisla]. It does not do to love women too much … an Umayyad merchant told me one story of a caliph, a king of many lands, who fell in love with a slave girl. He could demand from her anything he wanted but that wasn’t enough for the idiot. She had to give it freely. He saw the wrong sort of look in her eye one night when they were in bed together and threw himself off a tower.’
‘What is a tower?’ asked Vali.
‘A high building, too high to jump off, big as a cliff. They have them in the east, like a fort but not for war.’
‘What’s a fort not for war?’ [248]
It's the first of a trilogy. OK. My slight trepidation as far as that goes is that one of the next two books must needs lumber into the territory, marked 'Beware! Danger of Offensive and/or Laughable Ridiculousness!' on the map, of Nazi Werewolves. As in: 'fucking hell [covers face with hand and speaks with infinite weariness] a novel about Nazi Werewolves.' But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Maybe Lachlan's Nazi Werewolves will be cool. [Update: I leapt to conclusions; apparently there's no call for Nazi Werewolves after all].


Mark said...

I don't know if you welcome comments from authors you have reviewed but here goes.
First, thanks for a terrific review. It means an awful lot, as I'm sure you know, when someone likes your work and even more when it's a fellow author.
I'm particularly pleased you liked the magical sections as it was a risk to stick them in the middle of an adventure story and I was nervous about how they would be received.
A couple of notes on the text.
What you have is an uncorrected proof and I will get rid of 'evolution' in the final version. It crept under my radar. I'll also have a scan for similar inconsistencies.
That said, if you limited yourself only to words derived from, or understandable in, Old Norse you'd have a very different sort of book. No Norman influence at all on the language. There have been experiments in this sort of writing and, while they are interesting, they would put a block between the reader and the story, I feel.
More on my response to your review at my blog at www.mdlachlan.com. I have no arguments with you - it would be difficult to disagree with a review as good as this - but you raise some very interesting points.
One thing, though, you'll get no Nazi werewolves from me!

Adam Roberts said...

Mark, you're very welcome! And you're gracious, too, in the teeth of some shocking nitpicking on my part.

"That said, if you limited yourself only to words derived from, or understandable in, Old Norse you'd have a very different sort of book."

You're quite right, of course. As with (eg) dialogue, it's a balancing act between a sterile purity on the one hand and crashing anachronism on the other. I'd say you get the balance right most of the time. And I ought to be more cautious in criticising anachronism: the novel is, as a form, inherently anachronistic as a way of telling this sort of story. Still, like I said: I'm fundamentally a twisted preening Craig, not a generous hearted Len.

miladawley said...


Matt said...

"...a feral, brutal, bloody and thoroughly convincing account of the Being-in-the-world of the vulpine."

Doesn't "vulpine" mean "fox-like"? (While we're being nitpicky, heh.)

Adam Roberts said...

Matt, you're absolutely right. I'm ashamed of myself; have corrected.

Matt said...

My turn to be ashamed - I probably would have corrected to 'canine', which would also have been wrong!

Michael said...

>>and some of this dialogue just didn’t strike me as, well, very Viking (‘ “What appears to be the problem?”’ 70)

A contemporary catchphrase from a mead promotion perhaps: Bloodwiser?

Matt Powell said...

Several months pass, and Erasmas falls in love with suur Ala, another avout at Saunt Edhar. Immediately after this, the Sæcular Power removes her along with several other avout, and Erasmas expects never to see her again. Erasmas, still upset about Orolo’s banishment, throws himself into his work.

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