Wolfsangel by M.D. Lachlan (Gollancz, 2010)
Wolfsangel (German = ‘wolf’s hook’): A symbol found in German heraldic devices perhaps originating from a mason’s mark. In the twentieth century it was adopted by various Nazi and neo-Nazi bodies. The symbol is said to represent a stylized wolf trap and is sometimes used to symbolize the werewolf.
M.D. Lachlan’s fantasy debut has all the essential elements of a rollicking historical fantasy: action aplenty, vivid description and strong characterization. The setting is unmistakably that of ninth-century Scandinavia; Lachlan has obviously researched the period with some care and lovingly re-creates both the heroism and the barbarity of the Viking way of life. There is a lot to like about his descriptions, but if I had to single out one thing in particular it would be his vivid portrayal of berserkers as drug-crazed psychopaths.
The novel begins with a night-time raid on a Saxon village. Childless Viking chief Authun has been told by the witch queen of the birth of a miraculous child among the Saxons, and he has determined to make the child his heir. But when he reaches the place of the prophecy he finds not one child but twins. He decides to return with both, and the novel is an account of what happens as a result of that decision.
Authun adopts one of the twins, Vali, and hands the other, Feileg, over to the witch queen. In time, the twins will be reunited and both of them will love the same woman, Adisla. At one level, the story is about the tragic consequences of their love.
However, the love triangle of Vali, Feileg and Adisla is only the first layer of the novel. At a second level, it is the tale of a life-long conflict between the witch queen and a northern shaman. Each sees the other as the epitome of evil and as a very real threat to their way of life. Each views the twins as an apt weapon to use against the other. And each is prepared to sacrifice all they hold dear to prevail in the struggle.
But there is yet another level to the story. Behind the warring magicians, we find warring gods. The witch queen and the shaman are merely proxies for Odin and Loki (though which is proxy for which remains to be seen). And at this level of the story, Vali and Feileg are to be instrumental in the incarnation of Loki’s son Fenrisulfr, the great wolf who is destined to destroy Odin.
I enjoyed Lachlan’s very distinctive approach to magic. In the world Lachlan has created access to magic is by way of suffering. The witches wrest knowledge of runic magic from the unconscious by suffering to the point of madness or even death. Judging by the ravages wrought upon the shaman’s body, he too must suffer in order to wield power. What I particularly like is that Lachlan has taken the trouble to root his magical systems firmly in Norse mythology (with the paradigm of Odin sacrificing himself on the world tree to gain knowledge) so that they have the ring of truth to them.
And what is the significance of the Wolfsangel? This new rune is revealed to the witches when they first divine the birth of the twins. Seen from one perspective it signifies ‘thunderbolt’, from other perspectives ‘werewolf’, ‘Protector’ and ‘wolf trap’. And in various ways in the course of the novel, one or other of the twins could be said to fulfil aspects of that prophecy. However, it too has another dimension, which points forwards to future novels in the series. Near the end of the story, in a final act of hope, Adisla steps off the edge of a precipice bearing the body of her beloved . . . and some time later hunters find a feral child in an old wolf’s den.
Lachlan manages to weave the different levels of the story together to create the most powerful and original fantasy I have read for some time. My only complaint is that now I must wait for the sequel. Definitely a ‘must read’ for 2010.