Book Review: “Fenrir” by M.D. Lachlan

M.D. Lachlan is the only author who’s made me involuntarily swear out loud twice. The first time was at the end of Wolfsangel, and now he’s done it to me again with its successor, Fenrir. I think you should give him a chance to do the same to you, but to properly explain why, I have to dance around spoilers for two books.

Fenrir is the second instalment in Lachlan’s exploration of the brutal cycle of strife, power and death prophesied to end (along with most of the world) when the Norse god Odin is killed by the monstrous wolf Fenrisulfr. You can certainly read this book without first reading Wolfsangel, but you’ll deprive yourself of the joy that comes from watching Fenrir‘s main characters rediscover who they were when they were alive before, in the pages of that first book. The echoes of those previous lives – glimpses of golden fields and icy ocean spray – will merely be beautiful, and will lack the joyful hints of recognition you might feel while scanning a crowd for a friend you haven’t seen in a few years.

Despite Fenrir‘s deep connection to its predecessor and its focus on the inevitability of fate, Lachlan isn’t one for foreshadowing (beyond the scope of the existing Norse mythology, anyway), and his poetic, almost detached prose belies his skill with unexpected and staggering plot developments. One such sucker-punch was the cause of my “loud cuss in a quiet place” moment, and it comes fairly early on in the story. I won’t give any specifics, but the scene involved an hitherto mild-mannered character accidentally being forced to rediscover one of his (or her, no spoilers) core competencies. Suffice it to say, motherfuckers die. This character’s sudden connection to her (or his) previous incarnation came so suddenly and took me by such surprise that I found myself making a fist and shout-whispering “oh FUCK” to the full cabin of an otherwise silent red-eye flight. These are the kinds of delights that Fenrir holds for people who know enough about Wolfsangel to groan at this terrible t-shirt suggestion I made to Lachlan on Twitter.

Fenrir side-steps the tropes often found in stories about prophecies and inescapable futures. Its characters react to the revelations of their (often terrible) fates not with rebellious bombast – there are no Sarah Connor moments – but with resignation, patience and, in the case of one schemer, an ingenious attempt to “hack” the whole group’s future lives by using one of the most powerful tools available at the time. Fenrir isn’t a “guess this character’s past identity” mystery or a Paul W. S. Anderson “SURPRISE loud noise” thriller, though. Once all of the characters are in motion, the narrative thread leads down a path of love, resignation and devotion that alternates between stoicism and aching melancholy. Fenrir is a thriller, but Lachlan always makes sure the reader knows – and more importantly, cares – what’s at stake.

If Fenrir has a shortcoming, it has more to do with the stage than the actors on it. There’s a lot of travel in this book, and while the terrain is described beautifully, the locations feel slightly disconnected from each other. It might be a natural consequence of Fenrir‘s setting (9th century northern Europe) being a little easier to identify (Paris is on fire, and the Vikings did it) than its predecessor’s, but the world never quite bloomed for me like I wanted it to. When Lachlan lets the characters rest, though, the surroundings are beautifully rendered, however briefly we might be staying there.

Beauty? Yuck! Don’t worry, for all the sun-dappled forests and verdant gardens surrounding them, the people inhabiting Lachlan’s Medieval Europe are still doing terrible things to each other. Returning after its profoundly creepy debut in Wolfsangel is an order of magic that rewards its practitioners for their suffering… or the suffering of unlucky bystanders, who become fodder for producing visions and carrying out little odd jobs like murder. In terms of sheer results it easily outmuscles the Christianity that spurs on the book’s Frankish faithful, and it even unsettles the spiritually mercenary Vikings. I don’t know if this concept comes from Norse history or if Lachlan just made it up, but it’s disturbing and does a great job of reminding the reader that secret knowledge and far sight come at tremendous cost. It’s also made me really nervous about certain kinds of birds.

The book’s other source of suffering (and the reason I’m able to post about this book on this site) is the werewolf. Everything I loved about the physicality of Wolfsangel‘s werewolf – the transformation, its playful ferocity – is back, but in greater quantity, perfect detail, and presented in a way that will make readers squirm with conflicted emotions. You will suffer as the beast suffers, exult with it as many (many, many) men die under its claws, and share in the disgusted horror afflicting the werewolf’s small but bright human core. Reading about Fenrir‘s werewolf is like reading about a sentient knife that knows it is sharp, and loves to cut.

Despite its darkness and unflinching brutality, Fenrir is full of beauty, humour and exhilarating action. Fate casts a shadow over its characters, and a less skilled writer would let that shadow crush the story into a grim march of futility, but Fenrir‘s characters are bright even in the darkness. They laugh with broken limbs, cast riches into the sea, embrace God while gulping down bloody snow, and scheme to do better the next time they live. May we all do so well with our own days!

Buy, borrow or skip?

Buy, and see if it doesn’t make you swear out loud too. Lachlan’s Wolfangel series has usurped many of my favourite book series. The trilogy’s concluding volume is right here on my desk, and I’m starting it tonight.