Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Review of "Wolfsangel" by M. D. Lachlan

While I care passionately about literature and the genre of fantasy in particular, a good review can be difficult work. Frequently I've been disappointed by a great number of "must read" fantasy novels of the past several years. So what I'm left with is either silence or pouring scorn on some otherwise enthusiastically praised books. Simply because fantasy falls into a popular and oft denigrated genre, I don't believe that such novels and their authors should be held to any less rigorous standards. Others apparently do, or are fans first and reviewers by a long second. And of course, the eternal caveat of tastes do vary, does apply. In the case of M. D. Lachlan's brilliantly crafted viking epic, "Wolfsangel," I've made an exception to my policy on reviews while happily not having to make one at all regarding my high expectations.

From the onset, "Wolfsangel" is a deceptively straightforward read. Not to damn its author with faint praise, we'll come to this point again later. For now, let me state that M. D. Lachlan's prose is clear, precise, and strikes a balance between modern readability and the tone of an ancient edda so skillfully that we hardly notice this impressive feat at the onset. The clarity of the writing is deceptively simple - some readers might be forgiven for mistakenly thinking it plain - readers who are used to a glut of other contemporary fantasy authors who have made it popular to deliberately use a sprinkling of willfully obscure vocabulary and not always well chosen stylistic flourishes to make their not as accomplished prose seem a more deliberate choice and less a signal failure of skill.

There is nothing of this in "Wolfsangel" and it is all the stronger a book for it. Like the bottom of the Whale Road glimpsed through crystal clear waters, the lucid prose holds up a well crafted tale that resonates with classic themes and which while are for the most part ones well known to any lover of fantasy or the eddas which long pre-date them for that matter, never feels derivative or stale. The ordeal based magic of its witches and shamans is as old as such things get and yet I can't recall reading another work of fiction which so movingly captured this as an effective means of unleashing the supernatural.

The lack of obfuscation in the writing, as I've already mentioned, allows the build up of stark beauty and horror in equal measure. And horror and beauty there is aplenty in this weird and wonderful retelling of both the classic story of the Norse gods and the more contemporary myth of the were-wolf. Some online readers have complained of this latter point being a spoiler, mentioned as it is both in reviews and on the dust-jacket, but considering that ample comment is made of the creature in relation to the fate of the tale's two main protagonists, the kidnapped twins Vali and Feileg, early on in the story, it is hard to see how any careful reader would be surprised by its eventual appearance. That said, it is not the foreknowledge that the were-wolf will be emerge, but the manner and twisted tale of its birth which is so deftly handled.

This is a theme that is repeated throughout the story, and one on which almost all the threads of the book turn so dramatically. It is both startling and terrifying in a way that few tales of the supernatural have recently achieved welded onto the back of a good fantasy yarn. Just prior to reading M.D. Lachlan's "Wolfsangel" I had by a happy act of coincidence consumed both Kit Whitfield's "Bareback" and Tom Fletcher's "The Leaping" in short order. They are similarly tales of were-wolves with their own unusual twists added to the classic myth of the wolf-man. While both books have their strengths, and their flaws, neither one I thought came close to the sheer visceral shock and haunting majesty of what we find in the pages of "Wolfsangel" - where the were-wolf is a true monster in every sense and yet one of the most sympathetic and tragic examples of a man being transformed by forces beyond his control that I can remember reading.

Again, much of the success of M.D. Lachlan's fast moving tale of raids, slaughter, witches, and berserks, comes from the style in which it is told. The clarity of the writing not only allows for maximum horror when the story's twists and gory reveals come to the fore, but also builds a world of stark and even poetic beauty around it. The Troll Wall of the witch-queen, the pool where Vali searches for answers, and the characters' travels across the snow shrouded icy forest, are all rendered in sure, simple strokes which like individual snowflakes seem plain, until gathered en mass or viewed closely they create something moving and beautiful.

It's a relatively short book and while a sequel is in the works, "Wolfsangel" stands alone as a fully formed and fleshed story. It didn't take long to get through it, though I wish just a little that I'd enjoyed it more languidly. While I look forward to another such effort from M. D. Lachlan who I think has much more to delight us with, his "Wolfsangel" is in my mind destined to be a quiet classic.

There is something for just about every reader in this remarkably well executed book, not least among them a stirring adventure novel replete with bloody battles, viking ships, escapes and reversals, golden hoards, murderous witches and meddlesome gods. That would have, combined with M. D. Lachlan's excellent prose, been enough, but there is more there still, something darker lurking which like the monsters in Beowulf crawl to the surface from a night-black tarn or which writhe under mountain and in the shaman's call to spirits beyond mortal knowing. Odin in particular is well brought to life, in at least one way quite literally and as movingly as another modern favourite of mine involving the duplicitous Norse god, Neil Gaiman's "American Gods."

In conclusion, I think that "Wolfsangel" is an impressive accomplishment by a seasoned writer on his first foray into fantasy. It doesn't depend on unnecessary frills or tricks of language. Instead, it inhabits a clear, classically constructed adventure story that has more than a breath of old Norse gods with their all bloodthirsty tragedies and bog-soaked weirdness whispering throughout in one's ear. A fine, enjoyable read and if I had a complaint it's that I didn't get to read it in the depths of a snow-bound winter with a dram of smoky, peat-flavoured whisky in my other fist.

A fine effort from newcomer to fantasy, M.D. Lachlan, and highly recommended both for lovers of adventure and Norse-styled myth in general.


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Saturday, 2 January 2010

Welcome to All the Worlds' Books

Welcome to All The Worlds' Books. If you're interested in quality Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and associated Speculative Fiction, then you've found a small, sheltered port of call for unsparing reviews.

I'll be looking at providing the occasional highly opinionated reviews of mostly new books which cross my horizon, along with the occasional return to classics from yesteryear.

I hope you enjoy.  And steer clear of the whirlpool.



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