This is a beast of a book. A substantial, meticulously crafted alternate reality, populated with a fully-fledged society and acres of exhaustive backstory. Think American Gods meets Bernie Gunther with overtones of Orwell, a collision between myriad strands of mythology and the hard-bitten cynicism of an under-dog who struggles to survive the grinding oppression of a fascist state.
So take 1984, blend in some Animal Farm, set it in Philip Kerr’s Berlin noir and throw in sorcerers, demons, tricksters and succubi – and some other supernatural surprises. In a time roughly equivalent to our mid-20th century, ruthless totalitarian states are at each other’s throats and humanity is trampled under the brutal jackboots of the military elite. The old-fashioned gentleman’s army has been sidelined by the state secret police, intent on developing mystical superweapons to wage genocidal war.
Our hero is Axel Geist – a wily rogue condemned as a political prisoner, sent to a gulag and thence into a penal battalion to face the withering onslaught of the conflict’s frontline action. Axel is every bit as witty and world-weary as German Bernie, and equally conflicted. Faced with slaughter on the battlefield, he takes the only option which might help him live a little longer… and signs on as a herald of the old god, Bassarus, a deity of deceit. From then on, things get complicated!
The first quarter of the book is a little bit of a slog – inevitably, because you have to learn the world and its complex mix of semi-familiar history, industrial alchemy and a pantheon of possible gods. It really gets going around a third of the way in, when Axel is melded into a new man by the forces at play. From here the story progresses in leaps and bounds as Axel faces physical destruction – his survival dependent on taking greater risks, wading deeper into murky moral quagmires.
While the action sequences are extremely intense, there’s also depth and subtlety in Axel’s ethical and emotional conflicts. He might hate becoming a decorated military hero, wearing the uniform of the oppressor, but part of him also enjoys the influence it brings and his new stature. Axel’s evolution perfectly demonstrates that old axiom about power and corruption…
Author Dominic Adler also quietly comments on our own social history, most obviously the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. In Timberwolf too, the aristocrats of the establishment initially turn a blind eye to the extreme behaviour of the populist regime. Patriotism, nationalism, betrayal and treachery: all aspects of the struggle – all true, dependent on your perspective.
But don’t get the impression that this is heavy going – in fact the action bounces from one battle to the next, from moments of high-wire tension to acerbic humour. Amid all the activity, Adler even makes space for the odd existential observation, like this one:
‘How do luck and fate differ?’
‘If Fate is the sea, Luck makes the waves.’
There you go: the meaning of life in a throwaway one-liner.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Timberwolf by Dominic Adler is available at Amazon