Volume 30, Number 1, Fall 2011

Wolfsangel & Fenrir

Written by M.D. Lachlan

Pyr Books, 2010 & 2011
Reviewed by Karen Brown

“Warriors, he thought, had too much of the world. If it was ruled by merchants there wouldn’t be half the killing.” These, the thirteenth and fourteenth sentences of M.D. Lachlan’s Fenrir, echo sentiments from the first book in this werewolf series, Wolfsangel. A merchant proves to be a pivotal character in each book, both of whom view their craft as the peaceful alternative to the warfare overtaking their worlds by the Northerners, the Norsemen, the Vikings. In both books, the introduction of the merchant character in these terms—which is stated more prominently in the second than the first—leads the reader to think it will be a theme of the stories. Unfortunately, that is not the case, but the repeated notion that trade creates a better chance for peace makes these books worthy of mention. In fact, Lachlan (a pseudonym for mainstream author Mark Barrowcliffe) makes a remarkable (if unintentional) case for the merchant’s craft (and therefore, peace) is undermined by the whims of the powerful.

But we get ahead of ourselves. The series is first and foremost a story about Odin, the god of gods in Norse mythology, who is entertained throughout the millennia by his self-created destiny with a werewolf, also of his own making. Odin has created his own “Groundhog Day,” in which the story repeats itself throughout all time until Odin finally meets his ultimate demise to the werewolf, presumably in the third book to come. The main characters repeat themselves as well. The great mystery, though, in each book, is which character will play Odin, and who will play the three mortals: the werewolf, the werewolf’s brother, and the werewolf’s lady interest (who unknowingly finds her way to Odin and then becomes the werewolf’s bait). Odin, apparently, likes to keep such details unknown even to himself, making the game that much more entertaining.

This mystery is the heart of each book, and the reader is meant to be kept guessing for substantially the entire length of each novel. Unfortunately, such a feat in a novel is a very difficult one to pull off, when the characters themselves do not really know who they are. In his first book, Wolfsangel, Lachlan attempts to achieve this complex goal with much character introspection. For fast-moving, action adventure novels, featuring berserkers and werewolves, this introspection—usually chapters at a time—causes continual drags in the action. The introspection in some cases is so repetitive and mind-numbing, that even though it actually moves the complex concepts forward, it does so at a snails-pace.

Fortunately, in its second incarnation, Fenrir, this introspection (in which the characters, and the reader, try to figure out what role they took in the first book and what role they will take this time) takes place at the same time the characters also are moving forward physically in the book. Fenrir could be read independently of Wolfsangel. But having read the books in the correct order, it’s hard not to imagine that the characters are thinking about Vali, Feilig and Adisla from Wolfsangel. It doesn’t help that Lachlan purposefully uses these Wolfsangel names periodically throughout Fenrir to remind us that these characters are simply new physical manifestations of Vali, Feilig and Adisla. Oh, and of course, Odin. Consequently, either because the reader already has met these characters and knows they will be searching for their identity, or because Lachlan has learned how to tell the story better the second time around, Fenrir is an easier read than Wolfsangel.

Even so, Fenrir is a confusing book. Both books suffer from “too many characters” syndrome. Obviously, the author wants to keep you guessing, but sometimes enough is enough. The book is absolutely silent about one particular character’s motivations, one who repeatedly saves the life of Adisla and provides a guiding light for her. But why? He is then discarded about midway through the book, and we never learn anything more about him. Unfortunately, his role appears to be nothing more than a plot device.

Beware. Both Fenrir and Wolfsangel are gruesome, but Fenrir on a scale far deeper than Wolfsangel. In Fenrir, we meet one of the characters (who could be Vali, Feilig, or Odin?) feeding tender, juicy pieces of one monk to another monk (who could be Vali, Feilig, or Odin?).

But what of the merchants?

In Wolfsangel, Veles is an extraordinarily wealthy merchant (whose home features, get this, separate rooms for his animals) with critically important ties to the ruling parties of all of the lands across which his trade reaches. How a man of his talents can introduce products to the different cultures in this ancient age, thereby improving the standard of living across the lands, is very libertarian indeed. Because everyone (generally) wants the fruits of his talents, he and/or his agents are welcome just about everywhere, except perhaps a berserker boat.

Veles is a hero, ready to save the characters for whom the readers, at least by that point, have developed quite a bit of sympathy. (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT) Unfortunately, however, when the merchant’s wellbeing, if not life, is tied to the authorities who are in conflict with the characters Veles seeks to save, the merchant must take a less than heroic role. Veles jeopardizes the main characters’ lives, and then ultimately—seeking profit, of course—frees the werewolf from his everlasting trap. The result is a character very much akin to a corrupt Wall Street businessman, at least as portrayed by Occupy Wall Street and mainstream media.

Would Veles have taken this corrupt position had his livelihood, and therefore his life, not been threatened by the loss of royal favor? Probably not. Lachlan’s portrayal of Veles is a complex one. Veles is not a savior; he is a greedy businessman, albeit one whose profession could ultimately mean peace if it were not so corrupted by those in power. Fortunately, or not, Lachlan just tells a story, and is never preachy. What the merchant brings, though, is a fascinating and unexpected thread through, of all things, a werewolf story.

What a nice surprise, then, to see a merchant play a more prominent role in Fenrir. The book opens with Leshii, an eastern (likely Russian?) trader who has found himself in France, looking upon the Viking encampment outside Paris’s walls pondering the peace that merchants could bring to the landscape.

Leshii, a less than prosperous but optimistic merchant, at almost all times, thinks in terms of supply and demand. In other words, he judges his course of action by what will bring him the most profit, the least loss, and the greatest likelihood of survival. Fortunately for him, for the most part, this course of action jives with one of the characters he accompanies through a large part of the book, the reincarnation of Adisla, Aelis. Aelis, who can read emotions of the living creatures in the book, views Leshii as conniving and dishonest. Would this be less so if Leshii were not trying to sell his goods (which is none other than Aelis herself) to a king?

To his credit, Leshii is not truly a dealer in human flesh (which is consumed in great quantities in both books, by the way). Leshii begins the book with packmules overflowing with silks and eastern treasures, and a lock of Aelis’s hair he hopes to sell to royalty to make a wig. (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT) Unfortunately, when the invading Viking king Sigfrid takes possession of Leshii’s goods, Leshii has practically no livelihood left and is left with no choice but to deliver Aelis to a Rus king Helgi in return for a reward. While he is never completely straightforward with Aelis that he intends to seek a reward for her deliverance, he is otherwise upfront and honest with her: he is taking her to Helgi who everyone believes will deliver her from all the harm she faces from practically the beginning of the book. Leshii is old, a bit overweight, and not a fighter, but Aelis could do much, much worse for a traveling companion. These are not libertarian novels. They do not shed light on a free economy. But whether the author intended it or not, he portrayed images of what a free economy could be like if the merchants were left unfettered to ply their trade.

At least Lachlan pays some tribute to merchants in this ancient time, where an entire city in what will become Denmark has been built for trade, and the far-reaching port of that city is not meant for protection but to ensure fast and efficient trading for the ocean-bearing vessels. Youngsters run alongside boats selling food and drink (the forerunners of our hospitality industry), and there are lodgings for rebt; there is nothing despicable and dishonest about these portrayals. It is an admirable depiction of a free market.

Fortunately, Lachlan loves a mystery, and despises consistency. Will Leshii prove to be Vali, Feilig, or Odin, or someone better than them all? The surprise is worth the read.

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