A. Quinton — Sep. 5th 2011
Back in June, my copy of Wolfsangel sat unread on the coffee table, the topmost book in a stack that comprised my reading list for the summer. A visiting friend saw the references to Odin and Vikings on the back cover and proceeded to give me a thorough lecture on Norse mythology. I was charmed by his enthusiasm, but I was also secretly terrified: was Wolfsangel going to be just as convoluted and grandiose? Was I going to have to memorize a catalog of runes? Would I need a map of Yggdrasill the World Tree?
Now, on the other side of summer, having read the book and finally having the time to write this long-overdue review, I can tell you that Wolfsangel requires no note-taking or Wikipedia visits, but you may want to accessorize a bit before you read it. I recommend a boxing helmet and mouthguard, or maybe some body armour. This book will bruise you, and you will like it.
At its core, Wolfsangel is the story of Vali and Feileg, twin brothers separated as infants and raised under radically different circumstances to be as wolf-like as possible: Vali a warrior prince and leader of men, Feileg a feral “wolfman” with the body of a human and the mind of an animal. We know from the outset that one of these young men is destined to become an incarnation of Fenrisulfr, the giant wolf fated to kill the mad god Odin, but which of the two it will be and how his metamorphosis will come about remains a mystery for much of the book.
There’s a lot I want to say about Vali and Feileg, but getting into too much detail would spoil the story, and there are lots of other reviews you could read if you want that. What I will say is that the evolution of each character forms a wonderful arc, each fascinating on its own and unsettling (and sometimes terrifying) where they intersect. Lachlan is careful to sidestep the usual “long-separated twins reunite” tropes and focus on the way each man’s actions, no matter how calculated or impulsive, draws them deeper into their respective fates.
Of course there are larger forces at work, each vying for control of the brothers – forces both worldly and supernatural. The former are employed in standard adventure “quest”, “betrayal” and “escape” plot threads that are conventional but entertaining, and serve as a convenient framework with which to illustrate Vali and Feileg’s development and regression. As fun as the action and gore is, though, Lachlan’s treatment of the supernatural is what really made Wolfsangel a “it’s 2 A.M. but just one more page” book for me. A story so deeply rooted in Norse mythology could have become a tedious lecture or who’s-who of Asgard, but the gods as written by Lachlan are every bit as vivid and chaotic as the humans who worship and fear them. I enjoyed the presentation of Loki in particular – it would have been easy to write the trickster god as a smug asshole, like an omnipotent Dane Cook, but in Wolfsangel he is tempered with solomen passion and a stoicism borne of agony without end. I liked him, but he earned it, especially with the snake venom.
Much less likeable but written oh so well is the witch queen Gullveig, whose prophecies foretold the coming of Fenrisulfr’s worldy incarnation. I’m not even going to try to be fancy here: she fucking terrified me. Early on Lachlan establishes a system of magic in which one’s power is proportional to the suffering one experiences, and the tortures Gullveig and her sisters inflict on themselves are made worse by the unflinching ease with which they are endured. She exists in a realm so far removed from light and life, is driven by motivations so alien, that she seems more like a force of nature than a character with agency of her own. Though she seldom interacts directly with other major characters, her presence lends the story a sense of looming danger.
The disparate perspectives of prince, feral human, god and witch combine to provide most of the novel a dense, unpredictable momentum. As a mechanism for keeping the pages turning, it works wonderfully – I often felt like I was being shoved around by the story, dragged into pits and up cliffs and across chilly seas with no regard for how late it was or how much work I had to get done that day. The downside of those shifting viewpoints is the accompanying change in tone and pace. Some chapters span two or three carefully-documented days, while others condense months into a paragraph. Some scenes are detailed transcriptions of a character’s dialogue and thoughts, others are presented as an omniscient narrative wherein we read about a single character’s actions in terms suited to… well, a Norse epic. None of these shifts ring false, but the switch from one style to the next can cause a bit of whiplash, especially towards the end of the book.
Okay, I have to get a little spoilerish here, but this site is about werewolves so I would be remiss in my duty to you, a fan of werewolves, if I didn’t break this down: the brothers’ fates don’t deliver an actual werewolf until deep into the last third of the book, but brothers, sisters, when it appears, the payoff is perfect. Simply put, Wolfsangel contains the best psychological perspective of a lycanthropic metamorphosis that I have ever read. The physical details are there too, of course, but Lachlan puts the werewolf’s thoughts into your head with such subtlety and guile that you don’t need to read about what the beast’s claws look like – you know what they look like and feel like because they are yours. The deftness of the werewolf-perspective scenes do much to establish the werewolf as a figure worthy of fear and pity, but also scarily authentic empathy. This sets up a final act that… well, lest I get too spoilerish, allow me to quote a tweet I posted right after I finished the book:
It’s not often that I read the last page of a book, close the cover, sit quietly for a minute and then say “holy shit” to an empty room.
Suffice it to say, as a vehicle for delivering an excellent tale, Wolfsangel succeeds on practically every level, and does so in a way that is both neatly self-contained and tantalizingly open-ended.
Buy, borrow or skip?
Buy. Wolfsangel surprised me in all the right ways and has earned M.D. Lachlan another devoted fan. I have the second book in the series, Fenrir, ready to go – and now that I’ve finally posted this review, I’m going to get started on it. After all, it’s only 3:55 A.M.