Friday, 5 August 2011

Book Review | Fenrir by M. D. Lachlan

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The Vikings are laying siege to Paris.

As the houses on the banks of the Seine burn a debate rages in the Cathedral on the walled island of the city proper. The situation is hopeless. The Vikings want the Count's sister, in return they will spare the rest of the city. Can the Count really have ambitions to be Emperor of the Franks if he doesn't do everything he can to save his people? Can he call himself a man if he doesn't do everything he can to save his sister? His conscience demands one thing, the demands of state another. The Count and the church are relying on the living saint, the blind and crippled Jehan of St Germain, to enlist the aid of God and resolve the situation for them. But the Vikings have their own gods. And outside their camp a terrifying brother and sister, priests of Odin, have their own agenda. An agenda of darkness and madness.

And in the shadows a wolfman lurks....


Say what you will about the bible - about Christianity and Christians through the ages, and all the works (righteous and otherwise) worked in the name of "the good book" - but you would not dispute, would you, that it is a gathering together of pretty stories? Of tales, whether they be tall or true, which evince a certain beauty; stories which overlay a certain roundness upon the world: a frame of moral reference though which not a few folks see their deeds defined.

I was raised a Sunday schooler, speaking for myself... baptised and brought to church on special occasions and all that jazz. I did not find God in all that time, if I was looking for Him in the first place -- and I do not know that I was. But though I am no good Christian soldier, faith, I think, has its place, even if it is not by my side.

Fenrir is a novel about faith, in large part. And little wonder, for in Wolfsangel - the first volume of this epic historical fantasy saga - an impossible love blossomed between a wolf, a wolfman, and a woman, the object of both the brothers' affections. Call it what you will... a love triangle or a triple knot... their affair was cruelly interrupted by the mad gods, who play a game tied inextricably to these three heartsick souls, in which the world entire is no more than a board, to be set and reset as Odin and Loki see fit.

But between the lovers is a connection which transcends time itself; they knew it then, and now, a hundred years on, if they can only keep the faith, they will come into this knowledge once more... for the game has begun again.

"It was under way - the twilight of the gods. Ragnarok was playing out on earth again, an event so cataclysmic that its echoes went backwards in time, its conflicts and terrors leaking out into the world of men as history spun towards the terrible day when it would happen for real." (p.286)

Needless to say, the stakes of this particular play are high -- perhaps the highest. On the one hand, you have the mad gods, whose grandiose schemes remain tantalisingly oblique till the final curtain call has come and gone... and I will not spoil them, for though they are old, and familiar as the finest fables, so too are they new, in a sense. Best not to fret terribly over the affairs of deities anyway!

On the other, however, there are the players, arrayed about the stage; among them the three old souls who loved and lost in Wolfsangel, reborn and remade, and though their identities are slowly disclosed, what is clear from the outset is that they each espouse a different strain of faith. We have Aelis, a prudish Frankish princess who only narrowly escapes the wrath of a legion of Viking invaders -- in no small part thanks to the intervention of Leshii, a sharp old merchant whose "mind was ever on profit." (p.93) Together and apart they travel, each for their own reasons, away from one war, and one certain death, into another, and another; from the primal machinations of man into the unfathomable games of gods they go.

With them, a cripple -- though he treads a different, if equally fraught trail to the terrible destination they share. Jehan is at the outset of Fenrir "the stuff martyrs were made of." (p.93) Whereas "other men, more able men, had the illusion of taking a hand in their fate," (p.68) the grotesque confessor, a living Saint, is free of that foolish illusion at least. And so he counts his blessings. Though his body is a broken temple at best, he is, he reasons, as his Lord wills: "a cork bobbing on the tides of God's mind, as all men were. God had just granted him the affliction that let him see it more clearly." (p.68) But as the great game plays out, and his awful role in it is revealed, piecemeal, Jehan becomes "little more than a hunger trapped in flesh." (p.325)

Jehan's journey is, I think, at the very heart of this bitter but winning successor to Wolfsangel, and his three-fold transformation it is a darkly remarkable thing to behold. He is a man of the old testament God whose unflinching belief defines him, specifically when it is tested. Ultimately, however, his faith proves in part his undoing.

It is a fascinating thing, to watch this good shepherd come apart, and M. D. Lachlan - the pseudonymous author of the piece - seems utterly in control of his painful, painstaking development: a mad god of his own stories, you might say, who wields character and narrative as Thor would a thunderstorm. Deftly, confidently - responsibly, too - Lachlan stitches together the disparate threads of a tale as powerful as any bible story you please into a single, brilliant thing. Then, like every other deity, he takes the creator's privilege and tears the entire asunder.

Fenrir is a powerful novel - primordial, elemental even - and make no mistake, but I would warn those readers faint of heart or weak of stomach to keep their distance, for it is by that same token an overwhelmingly unpleasant thing. What morbid fascination one would have for Fenrir is as that of an onlooker over a scene of death and destruction, whereupon those things we and the three star-cross'd lovers at the core of this story care about are littered like bodies on the site of some vile battle. Lachlan takes no prisoners in the telling of this age-old tale forged anew in the blood of the mad gods, and though there were moments, I admit, when I would have happily given my left leg for another chapter in the cheery company of Ofaeti - a fat Viking fellow who represents the only real glimmer of light amongst a cast of horrible or hapless men and women driven like horses by the darkest of destinies - in the end I am heartened that the author resolved to brook few such compromises. For Fenrir, already a bleak and unremittingly miserable thing when it begins, resolves into a singular specimen as its endgame approaches, growing darker and darker still so that by the denouement one is left light-headed; reeling, stunned, as if struck by the hard flat blade of a Viking battleaxe, and the world went and ended while you were out for the count. 

Fenrir is a book about faith, yes, but not perhaps the conceptualisation of faith modern readers will be familiar with, to this or that degree. Its gods are passionate, crazed brazen creators who will heave the heavens and the earth in service to their elaborate schemes, which humanity is caught in the middle of. But "When Helgi spoke of the wolf and of Odin, she felt the truth of it in her bones. Look around at the world, she thought, and say it was made in the image of a gentle god." (p.477) The idea of faith M. D. Lachlan outlines in this novel, then, is as resonant and as relevant as it is, admittedly, brutal, and cruel. Some readers may find it difficult to subscribe to, or sympathise with, but even if you do not enjoy certain moments of Fenrir overmuch, be assured: this book is very, very good for you.


by M. D. Lachlan

UK Publication: July 2011, Gollancz
US Publication: October 2011, Pyr

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1 comment:

  1. I'd been feeling a little lukewarm about Wolfsangel (no good reason really, I love historical fantasy/mythology), but after reading your beautiful review, both of these books just got put on my "want it NOW" list.