In debut author Robert V. S. Redick’s shipboard epic fantasy, readers will find the watery world of C.S. Forester, the action-adventure of Alexander Dumas, and the political complexity of George R. R. Martin. The Red Wolf Conspiracy follows a ship named the Chathrand and the many souls aboard her. The Chathrand is the Titanic of the seas of Alifros, a huge sailing ship that dwarfs all others. Aboard it there are a panoply of characters, from the lowly tarboy with the gift of tongues, Pazel Pathkendle; to the captain with an unsavory past, Nicholas Rose; the dance instructor who fights like a warrior, Hercol; the young girl who is to be married to a prince, Thasha Isiq; the strange, small stowaways known as the ixchel; the deadly assassin Sandor Ott; and the intelligent rats. All of these are caught up in a political whirlwind, caught between two empires vying for world domination. But there is a third unstable element, a supposed dead mad king who will upset everyone’s well-laid plans.
As you can imagine from just the few characters mentioned above, the story is complex indeed. Fortunately, this book is the first in a trilogy and therefore is able to take its time setting the world and developing the characters. I will admit to struggling in the first two or three chapters with getting used to Redick’s writing style. The writing is archaic in its structure, something that adds a great deal to its quality and powerful voice, but takes some acclimatization. But once you get used to it, you’ll find it wonderful, having much the same tenor as Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Redick is also careful to move from character to character often, usually between chapters, and sometimes even within them. Because of the number of characters, each character perspective is always able to have some sort of action or intriguing character development, so though the book is a hefty 464 pages it is never dreary, dry or tiresome.
The characters themselves are absorbing. Each has a well thought-out background, though only a few are revealed to the reader. The air of mystery and suspense surrounding the people aboard the Chathrand kept me turning pages. The world of the narrative is fascinating, and this first book only seems to have touched the surface. There is a lot there to explore, much of it magical in nature, because we only finds hints of it in the intelligent rats, the ixchel, the mermaids, and in the final conclusion. Redick’s magical elements, while not distinctly codified, are so integrated into the warp and weft of the story that they do not stand out.
The story has all the trappings of great epic fantasy. The heroes are flawed but noble, they seek the good of all humanity, and the events that are unfolding will have an effect on the entire world. Redick does not fall into the trap of repeating what has come before or including many tropes. For one, the world is unique, as is the shipboard setting. Even better than that, Redick’s narrative understands that even “the best-laid plans of mice and men/ often go awry.” In traditional epic fantasy, plans often go exactly as laid out, with only a few variations for small issues that arise. In the case of Redick, his band of heroes almost never succeeds in their plans, and in truth, I often wondered if this book was going to end with evil in triumph. It doesn’t, but then again, good doesn’t actually win either. That sort of twisting of the expected plot course is key to what makes this novel so wholly original.
Readers who like C. S. Forester or perhaps even Patrick O’Brian may find this a fantasy they want to read. Fans of James M. Ward’s Halcyon Blithe character (itself modeled on C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower) will find a grown-up version of those tales in The Red Wolf Conspiracy. Readers of George R. R. Martin are going to love the complexity of the story. The unusual way in which the story is concluded has all the earmarks of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. There is no other novel quite like The Red Wolf Conspiracy in speculative fiction today. Superb world-building, intriguing characters and a well-paced plot combine in the finest and most original novel of the year.