Wolfsangel is the debut fantasy novel from M. D. Lachlan, a pen name for author Mark Barrowcliffe. Lachlan’s first foray into the realm of epic fantasy is a dark and enthralling alternative history involving Norse gods, sinister magic and a unique take on the werewolf mythos.
Wolfsangel begins with Viking King Arthun leading a raid against an Anglo-Saxon settlement. However, he and his men seek much stranger plunder than mere slaves or riches. Arthun acts to fulfill a prophecy of the child witch queen, Gullveig, who assures him that in doing so he will find not only the son and heir he so desperately requires, but one that will inevitably lead his people to glory. However, things do not go entirely as planned as Arthun finds not one child but twin boys, and has no way of knowing to which the prophecy refers. Furthermore, the witches have their own reasons for aiding the king, reasons that involve an eternal battle between gods, the monstrous Fenris wolf, and the death of the god Odin at Ragnarok. Thus begins a bloodthirsty conflict that will carry through the ages and sweep up many lives in its wake.
Vikings and mad gods
Overall, Wolfsangel is a tale of human rebellion against a callous and bloodthirsty god. Lachlan’s unique take on the Nordic pantheon was particularly fascinating and stirred in me a new-found desire to learn as much as possible about the fascinating gods and monsters that feature throughout the narrative. I also enjoyed the fact that the novel focused on a mythology that remains relatively unexplored throughout fantasy fiction, especially compared to that of some other cultures and religions (such as ancient Greek, Roman or Christian). Likewise, in much historical fiction, Vikings only appear as the bad guys, so it was a refreshing change to see a story written from their perspective.
A fascinating hybrid of history, horror and myth
One of Wolfsangel‘s greatest assets is Lachlan’s ability to seamlessly blend elements of history, mythology, fantasy and horror alongside a truly human story of love, jealousy and struggle against destiny. From all accounts, Lachlan pays close attention to historical detail and adds his own spin on Norse mythology instead of engaging in mere ‘lazy borrowing’ or resorting to cliché. The horror elements of the story are also masterfully done and genuinely disturbing. In addition, I have to give Lachlan credit for creating both witches and werewolves that feel original and are capable of unnerving the reader despite the fact that the horror impact of these fantasy staples has been diluted through many different incarnations in modern literature. The novel is also very well written and Lachlan excels in creating atmosphere, whether he’s describing the eerie and claustrophobic caves of the witches, the warm hearths of a cottage, or the wild lonely places. The prose is darkly poetic and flowing, though never overly wordy or distracting, thus allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story and invested in the characters and the events that take place.
Disturbing yet intriguing magic
The bizarre and sinister magic system depicted throughout Wolfsangel is one of the most interesting and unique aspects of Lachlan’s worldbuilding. In order to obtain prophecy or perform magic one must bring themselves to the very precipice of death or madness. Only then may one walk the realms of gods and monsters. This erosion of sanity is usually achieved through pain and deprivation, and thus the witches frequently engage in various forms of self-torture. The gods, Odin in particular, also require devotion through pain and sacrifice. An exception is Loki the trickster: often an enemy to the gods but an occasional friend to mankind. Overall, I found this element of the novel particularly well-realized. Although such magic features heavily in the novel and is integral to the plot, its specifics are revealed slowly enough to maintain an air of mystery and allow new developments to still shock the reader.
Characters that come snarling to life
All in all, Lachlan’s characters are well developed and believable. The protagonists are believable and human while the antagonists are crafty and threatening. Our main viewpoint characters are Vali, an intelligent young prince who prefers the company of women to warriors and stories to warfare; Adisla, a strong-willed farmers daughter; and Feileg, a young man raised among wolves and wolfmen. Many characters, Vali and Feileg in particular, display varying degrees of moral ambiguity throughout the book. Although you may not always agree with their actions or their decisions, they manage to remain relatable and their motives are understandable within the context of the story. This attention to detail also extends to the minor characters throughout the novel, who also display quite distinctive personalities and never feel like empty plot devices. Another highlight came in the form of some particularly strong characters, both male and female, who do what they can to make their own destiny within the restrictions of their society and against overwhelming odds.
A brutal and surprising tale
Wolfsangel is a bold, gritty and thrilling work of fantasy with enough action to satisfy even those possessing shorter-than-average attention spans. It also has an admirable propensity to surprise the reader. Just as you begin to think you can see where the plot is heading, some new revelation will emerge, sink its teeth in your expectations and tear them to shreds. The events depicted throughout the novel are frequently violent and often quite gory, yet they make sense within the story and never seem to be included purely for shock value. Nevertheless, there are some particularly gruesome scenes that may not still well with more sensitive readers. Characters are also put into situations where they must make some exceedingly tough decisions. For instance, would you kill a loved one to spare them torment at the hands of raiders? Can you betray a kinsman if the occasion calls? Overall, I found these brutal elements provided contrast to the more tender moments, making them feel more poignant and helped define the characters and their relationships.
Lachlan contains a fast paced and complex story in relatively few pages so the reader must be sure to keep their wits about them if they are to keep pace with the narrative and experience this novel to its fullest. Consequently, although Wolfsangel is perfect for those who prefer their fantasy intricate, gritty and thought-provoking, I would not recommend it for light reading. Personally, I really enjoyed the ending of the novel; nonetheless, some readers may be slightly annoyed by the cliffhanger. Despite the fact that some conflict was left unresolved, I thought that this suited the overall story perfectly and set up some interesting issues for further exploration in the following books.
Why should you read this book?
All in all, Wolfsangel is a brilliant and fascinating novel that I would recommend to all fans of dark, epic or historical fantasy or those with any interest in Norse mythology. It represents a refreshing departure from more usual epic fantasy fare and breathes new life into some old fantasy staples. Lachlan’s excellent fantasy debut begins what promises to be an extremely unique and worthwhile series, and I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on the next book.