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Wolfsangel
M.D. Lachlan
Gollancz paperback �12.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

In his 1943 philosophical treatise, Being And Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre describes human existence as a riddle. On the one hand, we are radically free and can make anything of our lives (and indeed ourselves), but on the other hand, acting upon that freedom involves making choices. Choices to be one thing rather than another; choices that ultimately close off possibilities and so deprive us of our radical freedom.

For Sartre, the meaninglessness of the world and nothingness of our existence is both claustrophobic and agoraphobic; it is agoraphobic because we are inundated by choice and giddily liberated, and it is claustrophobic because we feel the weight of that freedom pressing down upon us. We are inflated by possibility and crushed by it as well.

This attitude towards the universe is beautifully expressed by Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007), and many of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. These are works that stress how huge and filled with strangeness the universe is, but also how terrifying that vastness can appear to such small and limited creatures as we. It is also the animating principle behind M.D. Lachlan's Viking-inspired fantasy novel Wolfsangel.

Wolfsangel begins without any clearing of throats. We are thrown straight into the final stages of a quest in which a terrifying Nordic king and his companions are approaching a village in order to kidnap a child. A child who, it has been foretold, will secure the future of the king's people. The king knows that his companions must die in order to complete this quest, this does not concern him. However, upon reaching his goal, the king finds not one child but two: twins born to a woman with a scarred face. Twins destined to play a key role in the end of the world: Ragnarok.

From this breathless and beautifully cold opening, we move into magical territory. We are first shown the conception of the twins and then we are introduced to the Witches of the Troll Wall. As we move from one chapter to the next the changes in prose style are noticeable; as quest gives way to divine conception the vocabulary becomes more florid and the writing becomes more mythologically evocative than brutally descriptive:

"The axe jammed momentarily in the man's collarbone, and another West Man had a free swipe at Eyvind's arm. Eyvind saw his right hand come off at the wrist. He tried to draw his knife with his remaining hand but the enemy were too quick for him. An axe split his temple, another bit into his neck, a third sank into his thigh - the blows were rapid, tight as a drum roll." [Chapter one, page 12]

"He descended to the earth, and the cloak he had been wearing became a carpet of white feathers that covered the glade, deep as midwinter snow. She lay down upon it and, having only ever known straw before, was overwhelmed by its comfort." [Chapter three, page 27]

A further movement from a romantic encounter with a god to an introduction to the realities of mortal sorcery sees language stripped of its courtly flourish and its high-fantasy romanticism. In its place is a tangible sense of raw power born of madness and suffering and death, a power born of the realities of life on Earth:

"All the dead queens were there, some naked and smeared in muds and vegetable dyes, some finer than she was, calling, jabbering, singing and weeping in the dark. They begged her to give up, spat at her, tried to rip her from the water, but she would not relent. The witch queen was on the way to her answer. On the seventh day there were voices and she knew the gods were near. On the eighth day there was just blackness, an absence of thought nothing, as she stood on the edge of death." [Chapter six, pages 54-5]

Wolfsangel is a book of moods, moods in the Heideggerian sense of the word. For Heidegger, moods were not just fluctuations in one's internal psychology; they were conditions of the world dictated as much by our culture and values as by the balance in our neurotransmitter levels. Lachlan neatly embodies this idea by sculpting the world his characters move through to fit the demands of the mood and the moment.

So, when it is time do battle, the world becomes a cold and dangerous place. When it is time for unearthly romance, the world becomes a beautiful and dream-like paradise. When it is time for great magics to be worked, the world becomes sinister, twisted and disfigured. However, Lachlan does not allow an equal balance between the various moods his world contains as, having turned on the style for the opening chapters; he slips into a more traditional fantasy-adventure style in order to deal with the main narrative, that dealing with the twins.

Vali is the boy who was recognised by the great northern king. Dispatched to the house of a rival king in order to build alliances, Vali grows up to be a perverse young man. He is perverse as he would rather sit at the fireside of a local farmer than at the table of his lord. He is perverse as he prefers to chase girls than practice fighting. He is perverse as he prefers thought over action.

Indeed, Vali is a profoundly modern man and Lachlan's decision to make him the viewpoint character works very nicely as his detachment from Viking culture not only serves to keep that culture from becoming overly familiar to the reader, it also makes Vali seem sympathetic despite the fact that he's essentially an aimless, lazy and priapic rich kid.

"Some grow in light and others in darkness. Feileg - the boy the witches had taken - was not raised on the sunlit coast but on the mountaintops with the wildmen and the wolves." [Page 90]

As much as Vali is an outsider because he is more 'civilised' (from our point of view) than the people around him, Feileg is an outsider because he is more savage and wild than even Lachlan's terrifyingly unhinged Berserks. Raised initially by a clan of Berserks, Feileg is then left to the care of a wolf shaman who brings him up to live as a kind of hybrid of wolf and man; a huge hulking savage clad only in skins, capable of killing armed men with his bear hands and driven by a mind stripped of the inhibitions and constrictions of language.

As different as the two boys are, there is also a very clear sense in which their destinies are intertwined. This is nowhere clearer than in their shared desire for the farm girl Adisla. Adisla is initially introduced as the love interest of Vali, the reason for his refusal to practice fighting and for his tendency to spend all of his time hanging around a local farm. What is interesting about Adisla is that she is really nothing more than a pretty face. Lachlan points out that she is pale and an excellent swimmer but she is no Helen of Troy, she is just a pretty farm-girl.

When Feileg makes his way to civilisation, he immediately falls in love with Adisla. As was the case with Vali, Adisla serves to modernise the men that fall in love with her. So, just as Vali moves from being a Viking prince to being a middle-class layabout, Feileg is called upon to move from being an animal to becoming a man:

"'What is your name?' she said.
'I am a wolf.'
'Don't wolves have names?'
'No.'
'Well, wolf, I am Adisla,' she said.
For the first time he broke from staring at her to look at the ground.
'My family called me Feileg,' he said, 'but I lost my name when I lost them.'
'You seem unused to kindness, Feileg.'
'I am a wolf,' he said. She found herself looking into his eyes again. They were like Vali's, without the humour but also without the discomfort that so often radiated from the prince.
She sensed he wanted to ask her something. Was this it? The spell that enchanters work, was it coming over her?
'What?' said Adisla.
'Marry me,' said the wolfman."
[Page 158]

Adisla's unexceptional beauty and her role in civilising and bringing together the twins is reminiscent of the triangular relationship described by the French thinker Rene Girard in his ground-breaking analysis Deceit, Desire And The Novel (1961).

Girard argues that, far from being a simple internal appetite, desire is actually more of a group dynamic. The subject's desire for the object has less to do with the inherent desirability of the object and more to do with the extent to which the object is also desired by others. Girard dubs this process 'mimetic desire' and explains that depending upon the social status of the third party (known as the mediator), the subject can either come to loathe the mediator or deify them.

For example, someone may desire a fashionable item of clothing simply because said item is considered desirable. If the item is out of reach to the subject then the mediator comes to take on almost mythical status like the 'beautiful people' in the world of high fashion. But if the object is attainable to the subject but the subject does not have it then the mediator becomes a rival, a blockage on the road to fulfilling desire. The true emotive expression of desire, therefore, is not love or lust but envy and jealousy. It's the desire for status, the desire for dominance.

M.D. Lachlan sets up a love triangle between Vali, Feileg and Adisla and places Feileg as the subject, Adisla as the object and Vali as the mediator. Initially, Vali is a prince and so far out of Feileg's social league that Feileg assumes a passive role, serving as Vali's muscle as he tries to escape various traps and pitfalls.

However, as Vali's social position moves from prince to outlaw and finally to werewolf, Feileg's social position begins to rise. From declaring himself but a wolf (absolutely an outsider), he is then seen as a Berserk (a marginalised but respected known quantity) and, finally, as he dons human weapons and clothes, as a potentially good husband. As the status of the twins shift, so too do the dynamics of their relationship and, as Girard predicts, as Vali's social status declines and Feileg's rises, Feileg's attitude moves from one of masochism and debasement to sadism and a desire to act against his increasingly savage and uncontrollable brother.

"This was Feileg's chance to kill the beast. It was momentarily stuck, its back legs scrabbling at the ground, its shoulders crunching and cracking in the narrow gap, its head twisting and straining forward. He raised the Moonsword but could not strike. His mind went back to the escape from the beach, to the water. Vali had saved his life. It was more than that though. The prince had been his double, the person he could have been but for a twist in the Norns' thread, and now he felt bound to him." [Chapter 55, page 423]

What stays Feileg's hand and what complicates the nature of the group dynamic is that while the social statuses of the two men are changing (one falling as the other rises), so too are their places in the 'grand scheme of things' and within the unit that is the twin-ship. Indeed, though Vali may be little more than a monster in the eyes of men, a beast to be hunted and slain, he now has a role to play in the end of the world. Feileg may well be a good man and might well make a fine husband for a comely farm girl but he cannot compete with a mythical being.

Indeed, while the opening to Wolfsangel is characterised by jarring shifts in register denoting movements from mundane to divine to sorcerous modes, the end of the book sees these registers blurring together just as the distinctions between Vali and Feileg come to disappear. The pair are not merely twins, they are part of the same soul. The conflicts within themselves and between them are the conflicts within one person. Wolfsangel is primarily a book about the birth pangs of a great soul. A soul divided, turned in on itself, at war with its very nature; a soul that snaps at the established order with teeth like daggers and a hunger for apocalypse. The soul of a werewolf...

When 13th century Christians first transcribed the Nordic myths they were so shocked by some of the similarities between the two bodies of lore that they airbrushed out many of the details of Odin's death. Lachlan understands this overlap. He understands the shock of recognition that so horrified those doctors of the church. Indeed, Wolfsangel is not merely an effective fantasy novel, it is a book that combines atmospheric prose with exquisite characterisation and an insightful grasp of the dynamics of human relations to erect a magical 'big dumb object' so ornate in its complex beauty that it seems to punch through the merely fantastical and achieve the outright theological.

This is not a novel that uses magic as mere thematic underscoring. Nor is it a novel that deploys magic as a form of ersatz physics whose otherness was long hammered out by the clomping hobnails of debilitating nerdery. This is a novel that taps into the same sense of pre-scientific sensawunda that pervades works of medieval theology. The big dumb object that fuels this novel has all the beauty and horror and complexity of the crucifixion but without the need to actually convince anyone that it is real. This is a novel that breathes magic like we do air. It lives on it. It burns in it.

However, much like the werewolf itself, Wolfsangel is a book with two natures: the mystical and the mundane and while the mystical elements of the book are compelling and almost extravagantly cool, the mundane elements seem rather... well... mundane, if only in comparison.

Wolfsangel dwells most heavily upon its metaphysics and mystical elements at the beginning and ending of the book. The middle section - which takes up most of the 440-odd pages of the edition I read - is given over to a rather traditional fantasy narrative full of battles, chases, near-escapes and sword fights. Indeed, Feileg and Vali are forever either being captured, escaping or attempting to set other people free. On a chapter-by-chapter basis they traipse about the place encountering various secondary characters who turn out to be unexpected friends or secret enemies. All of this generates plenty of plot and plenty of action that is all handled with a good deal of aplomb by an author who knows exactly how to pace a novel so that it comes across as action-packed without seeming dumb and character-driven without seeming talky.

However, while I applaud Lachlan's technical skill (given how thin on the ground decent genre thrillers are, Wolfsangel would be a real achievement even without its metaphysics) I did find myself struggling to care about the outcome of these battles and daring (Hobbit-esque) escapes, and because I found myself struggling to care about so much of the book, I did find myself losing patience with it at times. The problem is that Lachlan does such a good job of sketching out the metaphysical structure of his world and of stressing the role to be played in this structure by his characters that the more mundane threats faced by the characters never seem like anything more than speed-bumps to be overcome.

Vali is a character whose humanity is gradually crushed beneath the heel of the universe; first he is denied the right to marry the woman he loves and then everything is carefully stripped from him until he is nothing more than a beast and a tool of the gods. For a character so utterly beaten down by the universe, the idea of being killed by pirates is farcical. In fact, it would almost be a release! Novels written on an epic scale require threats that function on an epic scale and while Wolfsangel does contain such threats, much of the novel is devoted to much more mundane dangers. Dangers which, in the shadows cast by the large mystical threats, feel like busy-work for the characters.

This disconnect between the mundane and mystical aspects of the novel is partly a question of incompatibility between the demands of an action-packed Viking yarn and the kind of high-minded metaphysical epic that Lachlan seems most interested in writing. Indeed, rather than deploying the usual fantasy tactic of having the characters undergo trials by accumulating plot coupons and jumping through hoops as a part of their 'hero's journey', Lachlan has the bildungsroman aspects of the book play out on an emotional level with the relationship between Adisla and the twins providing the fuel for the development of the characters and the process through which they come into their powers.

Stripped of any mystical significance, these mundane plot points seem almost cynical, a bums on seats attempt to keep the action-loving fantasy fan sweet while Lachlan goes all 'arty'. This lack of mystical significance also translates into a comparative weakness in some of the supporting characters. Do we really need an evil Berserk? Do we really need a cynical merchant? I could not help but feel that the book's focus would have been much improved had these secondary plot strands and characters been more ruthlessly cut back, but I suspect that someone more used to and tolerant of plot coupon-based fantasy narratives would be much more forgiving of Lachlan's admittedly well-written action sequences.

On the whole, Wolfsangel is a magnificent metaphysical epic full of atmosphere, human drama and big ideas. It is just a shame that it also has to be an adventure novel at the same time.

Wolfsangel by M.D. Lachlan



copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press