The Red Wolf Conspiracy
by Robert V. S. Redick
Cover Artist: Craig Howell
Review by John Berlyne
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345508836
Date: 28 April 2009 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
[NOTE: We're re-running John Berlyne's February 2008 review.]
I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Red Wolf Conspiracy ever since I first heard whisperings of it on the grapevine many months ago. Rumours of a fantasy adventure set aboard a colossal 600-year-old ship had me (unsurprisingly) rubbing my hands together in anticipation of this new work from American author Robert V.S. Redick, the first part of a trilogy called The Chathrand Voyage.
Redick impresses significantly in many areas of The Red Wolf Conspiracy, but none more so than that of his imagined setting. The world he has conceived for his story stretches far beyond the onstage action, and there is a genuine feeling here that you're in a truly multi-faceted story. By this I mean that Redick's world has the feeling of being shaded in, not just outlined. Just like real life, you may be looking in one direction, but you know that life is also going on behind you or two streets along or in another city or country or continent. The world of Redick's novel is vibrant and alive with happenstance and magic.
And so to the story itself -- which indeed centres around an extraordinary ship, the I.M.S. Chathrand, an immense merchant vessel, perhaps equivalent to some kind of wind-powered, fictional Titanic. The ship is an antique, albeit a hardy one still very much in use, and it is interesting that in Redick's world there seem to have been few technological advances since Chathrand was commissioned some 600 years earlier. Also interesting is the notion that the techniques of her manufacture have been lost over time, making her both unique and legendary.
Almost as legendary is her captain, Nilus Rose, appointed -- to the surprise of many, for his reputation leaves something to be desired -- by the ship's owners for this particular voyage, the main purpose of which is to convey the emperor's ambassador to a belligerent, far-flung state, where it is hoped that an arranged marriage (of some prince to the ambassador's daughter) will secure a lasting peace. Rose is gruff and taciturn, stern behind his long beard and given to beating the living daylights out of his crew for little or even no reason. He's also -- it becomes clear -- not entirely in his right mind.
The aforementioned ambassador is himself very much a flawed specimen. Accompanied by his vampish wife -- an archetypal evil stepmother type -- and his tomboyish daughter, he is a man with a war-hero reputation, a hot temper and a weakness for being pampered. He is also, it seems, very much a puppet. Less willing and far more wily is the young betrothed daughter, Thasha, one of Redick's main protagonists. She displays a fierce streak of sassy independence, only rarely falling back into the brattish, spoilt-little-girl act that one might expect of her class. Indeed, the concept of class and social rank is central to life on the Chathrand, and at the bottom of the pile is the story's main protagonist, a boy with the wonderfully unlikely name of Pazel Pathkendle.
Redick has created an exceptionally likeable young man in Pazel. Honest and true, he is a boy who has, it seems, lost everything -- family, home and prospects. Having escaped to sea when his city was captured by invaders, Pazel has since found employment as a tarboy on various vessels. Buffeted on the waves of fate, he now finds himself aboard the Chatrand. His background is auspicious, however -- his father an infamous traitor and his mother apparently a witch. Pazel himself is "infected" with a particularly useful kind of magic, but, as all good magics in fiction should, this one has its costs as well as its benefits. Pazel and Thasha are unlikely allies given their social status, but together they begin to uncover the deliciously convoluted conspiracy from which the novel takes its name.
Redick gives us an extremely dense narrative that he handles with particular panache and a good deal of charm. There is a wonderful cast of secondary characters -- talking rats, miniature people, ancient evils, mysterious benefactors, crookback witches and accompanying familiars, retainers both honest and treacherous, transdimensional sorcerers, water nymphs and mercenaries. Virtually everyone who we come across is harbouring some sort of secret deceit or secondary motive. The result is hugely impressive -- a concoction rich in subtext and subterfuge and, above all, adventure, and high-seas adventure at that, which I'll gladly wager is the very best kind.
Published by Gollancz in a high-profile release, The Red Wolf Conspiracy is a genre novel that merits the considerable attention it is already drawing.