Novella Review: City of Wolves by Willow Palecek
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Tor.com (July 26, 2016)
Length: 112 pages
Author Information: Website
Out of Tor.com’s big lineup of releases for this summer, City of Wolves was one that immediately caught my eye and I’m glad I got a chance to read it. New author Willow Palecek has written an outstandingly well-developed and complete tale in a brisk 100 pages or so, while still managing to leave me salivating for more. I’ve always had a penchant for paranormal Victorian mysteries and detective stories; throw in werewolves too, and I am totally game.
The story’s protagonist is Alexander Drake, an investigator-for-hire in the bustling Victorian London-esque city of Lupenwald. A former soldier who fought on the losing side for a deposed king, Drake now prefers to stay under the radar, taking on modest opportunities while staying away from jobs offered by the nobility even though they often pay a lot better. He’s forced to reconsider that position, however, when he finds himself ambushed one evening by Lord Colin Abergreen’s hired goons. Cornering Drake in an alleyway and dangling a large purse as an incentive, the nobleman makes our detective an offer he can’t refuse.
Drake, now retained by the Abergreens, agrees to investigate the strange death of the family’s patriarch, Colin’s father. The older man was found dead in the gardens right beneath the shattered window of his chambers, his body completely naked. Old Lord Abergreen was also fond of keeping dogs, a large wolf-like breed that Lupenwald is famous for, and apparently the dogs were fond of him too, as indicated by the canine teeth marks on his corpse. Curiously, the man died without leaving a will, which is rather unusual for a nobleman. The easy thing to do would be to chalk this up to an inheritance dispute, but Drake thinks there’s something more to this case, especially when a werewolf follows him home afterwards and tries to kill him…
I’m impressed with all that Palecek was able to pack into this very slim volume, which features well-crafted characters and a fast-paced plot. Hardly any words are wasted here, as in, blink and you might miss something.
There are both positives and negatives to this, of course. City of Wolves feels very much like other paranormal mysteries of its type, except it accomplishes everything in one third the number of pages. The story is very streamlined, with hardly an ounce of fat on it. The mystery takes off at a fast clip and never falters, and I liked that there was never a dull moment. Still, just because the plot is so efficient, doesn’t mean things aren’t tough for our detective. There are plenty of suspects to consider, and just as many scenarios to ponder in the face of perplexing clues and unexpected twists. There are even a couple scenes of thrilling action and chase sequences to shake things up.
As for the downsides, the world-building feels a bit lean, admittedly. Drake zips from one place to another, and aside from a few cursory observations about his surroundings, we don’t get to see much of the city, and I feel like I’ve been robbed of the opportunity to experience Lupenwald in all its glory. I also failed to get a sense of atmosphere from the writing, which to me is such an important aspect of Victorian-era style fiction.
Furthermore, Drake identifies himself as a Loyalist, something that’s clearly significant to his character and goes back to the War of the Wolves, a fight for the throne between two would-be kings. The book doesn’t dwell much on the conflict, but what little background was revealed about it was very intriguing. If the story could have been a little longer, I would have liked to see more of Lupenwald’s sights and sounds and for the narrative to fill in more of the world’s history—especially since the war was so obviously a defining event for our main protagonist.
Needless to say, I would love for there to be a sequel. I wouldn’t hesitate to read another Alexander Drake novella, especially if future installments will be as enjoyable as this one. City of Wolves was a quick, entertaining read and what I saw definitely left me wanting more.