‘The Red Wolf Conspiracy’ by Robert V.S Reddick is the first of a trilogy which, according to its jacket, ‘is destined to take its place among the classics of epic fantasy’. Time will tell whether that’s true or not but ‘The Red Wolf Conspiracy’ is not a bad start.
On the world of Alifros, a fragile peace exists between two empires. The Arqual in the east and the Mzithrin in the west. After a long and bitter war, a truce has been struck but tensions and hatreds still bubble beneath the surface. Tasked with a vital mission, the imperial ship Chathrand must sail to the Mzithrin empire and deliver a young girl whose marriage will secure the truce. However, not everyone wants peace and there are those onboard who work to destroy it. The ship has a secret mission that will see an ancient evil unleashed on the world.
The majority of the book is set onboard Chathrand, a gigantic ship belonging to the Arqulai empire. Built by ancient shipwrights, hundreds of years old and the last of its kind, it dwarfs all other ships and is a fantastic setting for the story that unfolds.
Pazel Pathkendle, a lowly tar boy, who has lived and worked onboard ships ever since his people were brutally subjugated by the Arqual empire, finds himself on the Chathrand and at the centre of the conspiracy that shrouds it. He was plucked from slavery by the enigmatic Dr. Chadfallow, a mysterious benefactor who manoeuvres Pazel for his own ends. Pazel, too, has his secrets. Given strange gifts by his magical mother, Pazel can instantly learn any language. Able to converse with the multitude of races onboard the ship has its price with terrible seizures that leave him weak and vulnerable.
Thasha Isiq, the daughter of the Arquali ambassador, the man who conquered Pazel’s home. She has been promised to the Mzithrin empire in marriage. Thasha is a tough and fiery character, quick witted and trained to fight, she bucks against the constraints put upon her because of her sex. Far from happy with her impending marriage, Thasha fully intends to get out of it. However, she and Pazel find themselves with far more to worry about: The Red Wolf Conspiracy.
Conspirators within the Arquali contingent are working to disrupt the peace and bring about a civil war in the Mzithrin Empire, a war that will leave it weak and vulnerable. How they intend to do this is a dark and intriguing tale. Thasha and Pazel find themselves the only ones who can foil the plotters. Along the way, they gather strange allies such as Ramchini, a weasel wizard from another world, Hercol a valet with a shadowy past and Felthrup, a talking rat.
Pazel and Thasha are likeable characters, a young boy who is thrown from one desperate situation to another, always just ahead of disaster, and a young girl who is far from the normal helpless princess stereotype. I liked them both, their responses always seemed real and very human. Unlike your average fantasy characters, they have flaws and fears.
The other characters were more varied. I liked the Ixchel, small pixie-like men and women who you would normally expect to be revered in any normal fantasy book. Here, though, they are vermin and, in the sailors eyes, lower than rats. Nicknamed ‘crawlies’, the sight of one is enough to have a ship condemned and fumigated. Also the idea of ‘woken’ animals was really cool. Animals who had spontaneously reached self-awareness and could talk, think and reason. This led to some very interesting characters not the least of which was Felthrup, a heroic rat who risks himself many times for the greater good. He led to a little side story about life amongst the rats onboard which would have made an interesting book of its own.
Slightly less appealing were the conspirators. Without giving the game away and revealing who they all are, I would say that perhaps because they must remain secret and didn’t really get a sense of who they were or why they were there.
Nilus Rose, the captain of the Chathrand and a man who hears voices, was clearly insane, but this was never really explored. Equally, Sandor Ott, the Arquali spy master and chief architect of the conspiracy was a bit bland. Although as the book progresses, more villains are revealed. I won’t spoil it by telling you who they were but, to suffice to say, they were a bit more interesting. Other characters such as the old woman Oggosk were confusing, I never really knew whose side she was on or why she was even there. I think she was supposed to keep the reader guessing but, she did so little, she felt rather superfluous. Her sole purpose seemed to be all knowing after the fact.
The pace of the book never lets up as the heroes are plunged from one crisis to another. The book rattles along at a break neck pace. Which does serve to paper over some of the cracks in the story leaving little time to dwell on the many lucky coincidences and meetings that get the heroes out of trouble. Too often a crisis is averted by the intervention of a new character with just the right skills required. I feel these would have been a greater annoyance had the tempo of the book been slower. As it is, you are never given long before something new has happened and you are dragged back into the story. There was also a tendency for pivotal events to happen ‘off-screen’ and delivered as news by another character which could be frustrating at times.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I felt the ending didn’t quite deliver. Rather than giving a satisfactory conclusion to this story, I felt too much time was devoted to setting up the next book. Having said that it did leave me wanting to know more and I will definitely be seeking out book 2, ‘The Rats And The Ruling Sea’.
I found ‘The Red Wolf Conspiracy’ to be fun. A good old-fashioned adventure story that put me in mind of the ‘Narnia’ books and, although it had some of the usual fantasy tropes, they were given a unique twist. Taking all your characters, good and bad, and throwing them all together onboard a ship was a neat idea and it lead to an easy, entertaining read.
(pub: Gollancz, 2008. 538 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08177-2
pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2009. 452 page hardback. Price: $26.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-345-50883-6)