In The Red Wolf Conspiracy, Robert V.S. Redick manages to overcome several flaws and some conventional character types to create a mostly compelling and complex novel that leaves the reader eager to continue on to the next installment.
The plot is far too complex to go into any detail here, but the major set-up is this: two great Empires, Arqual and Mzrith, are in a period of uneasy peace after having fought several wars, the most recent a few decades earlier. The massive (and I mean massive) ship Chathrand, last of the Great Ships built with skill and magery, sets sail from the Arqual Empire bearing an ambassador and his daughter Thasha — promised as a truce-sealing bride to a prince of Mzrith. Except in reality, the Chathrand has a secret mission as ordered by the Emperor. But others, including a talking-minx mage from another world, a long-dead mage of this world, and an imprisoned prince who thinks himself a god (among others) have their own ideas for how to use the Chathrand.
We also meet tarboy Pazel Pathkendle who has the gift of understanding any language and whose homeland was recently brutally conquered by Arqual (the invasion led by Thasha’s father the ambassador; Pazel’s mysteriously inconsistent benefactor and Emperor’s agent Dr. Ignus Chadfallow; Sander Ott, the Emperor’s spymaster; Thasha’s “dance tutor” Hercol (former student of Ott);
the soap maker Ket who turns up in odd places; Lady Oggosk who seems to have some knowledge/power of her own; Lady Syrarys, Thasha’s scheming stepmother; and the Chathrand’s captain, the menacing and somewhat insane Captain Rose. Add in a clan of diminutive people (think the Borrowers) called Ixchel or ‘crawlies’ who have boarded the ship for their own reasons; a group of “wakened” sentient animals — the rat Felthrup Stargraven, the falcon Niriviel, and Sniraga the cat; and a lengthy scene involving a type of merfolk and you have a huge mix of characters and conflicting or paralleling ambitions/goals.
Pazel is clearly the main character, with Thasha getting nearly as much text time and later Felthrup the rat becomes a major point of view (probably my favorite of them all). At first, as Redick shifts POV and introduces many of the characters, the book starts a bit slowly, but the shifts are easy enough to follow, if a bit disconnected, and the book soon settles into itself and becomes quite compelling. Many of the humans are conventional fantasy characters, but they have enough uniqueness to them (such as Pazel’s gift of languages) and are likable enough that the familiarity isn’t any great problem.
Redick is served far better and more imaginatively by his non-human characters, especially the tragic Ixchel and the wakened animals, in particular Felthrup who steals the scene whenever he appears. I look forward to seeing more of these and learning more of the phenomenon in later books. And the minx mage Ramachni is also intriguing, adding a nice bit of mystery to the plot.
The complex plot of The Red Wolf Conspiracy is mostly enjoyable in its labyrinthine fashion, but it seems to careen a bit haphazardly, wrap up climaxes a bit abruptly with some clunky exposition, and then meander on anticlimactically a bit longer than it should have.
The worldbuilding is solid, with a good sense of history and mythology, references to other places and events, and some sharp detail about other groups and races. The shipboard setting feels like a shipboard setting without us getting bogged down in backbreaking nautical details, say about knots (I’m looking at you Melville!) A book that seems to be writing itself, a menacing iron statue, and a terrifying magical object whose horrific descriptions vary from culture to culture add some other nice touches of imagination (though that last one fell a bit flat for me at the end).
Structurally, Redick adds some variety to the basic multiple POV narrative with some journal entries, letters, and even a newspaper broadside. It was a welcome touch and one I would have enjoyed more of.
In the end, though the book disappointed a bit in its last 50 pages or so, and despite some overly-familiar character types, I found The Red Wolf Conspiracy to be mostly engrossing, and the flaws of familiarity were more than overcome by his more original creations. I’ll certainly pick up book two when it comes out and happily recommend this one.
The Chathrand Voyage — (2008-2013) Publisher: The Chathrand — The Great Ship, The Wind-Palace, His Supremacy’s First Fancy — is the last of her kind — built 600 years ago she dwarves all the ships around her. The secrets of her construction are long lost. She was the pride of the Empire. The natural choice for the great diplomatic voyage to seal the peace with the last of the Emperor’s last enemies. 700 souls boarded her. Her sadistic Captain Nilus Rose, the Emperor’s Ambassador and Thasha, the daughter he plans to marry off to seal the treaty, a spy master and six assassins, one hunderd imperial marines, Pazel the tarboy gifted and cursed by his mother’s spell and a small band of Ixchel. The Ixchel sneaked aboard and now hide below decks amongst the rats. Intent on their own mission. But there is treachery afoot. Behind the plans for peace lies the shadow of war and the fear that a dead king might live again. And now the Chathrand, having survived countless battles and centuries of typhoons has gone missing. This is her story.