The Red Wolf Conspiracy is debut novelist Robert V. S. Redick’s first installment in The Chathrand Voyage series. Pazel Pathkendle is a lonesome tarboy hailing from one of Arqual’s many conquered territories. After a series of unfortunate events – perhaps, Pavel wonders, orchestrated by his mysterious friend Doctor Chadfellow – Pavel ends up on The Chathrand, a vast and ancient ship that is the pride of her country. The crew’s apparent mission is peaceful: they are to carry an important Arquali general’s daughter overseas to marry a prince of the Mzithrin, Arqual’s traditional foe. But the ship’s secrets run deep, and soon Pazel finds himself battling for more than just his own life in the midst of a conspiracy years in the making.
A completely new and sparkling world
Redick has created a wonderful and immersive world. Animals mysteriously awaken and find themselves with the powers of thought and speech. The ixchel, tiny humanoids reminiscent of the Borrowers, scurry about the holds of ships in fear of loathsome humans (giants), pursuing their own unfathomable ixchel goals. Murths, or sea-people, equate language with magic, and murder men for their own survival. A long-lost, manic god-king seeks power over every nation on the planet. Alright, so not all of that is completely new. Yet Redick’s enthusiasm for the world of Alifros is infectious, and each fantastic element is happily well-realized and serves a purpose in the plot.
Apart from the grandly fantastic, The Red Wolf Conspiracy focuses on Alifros’s most vulnerable citizens. Pazel never lets anyone forget that his home, Ormael, was invaded by Arqual and that its men were slaughtered. Neeps, a sympathetic tarboy, is similarly disenfranchised. Thasha, the general’s daughter, is being forced into a marriage against her will, while Felthrup is a woken rat and is surely one of the most miserable creatures to ever creep in fiction. The Red Wolf Conspiracy is all about the underdog; there’s no all-powerful nobility here.
Quick, playful writing and characters
And yet this novel is a riot! Redick’s crisp prose keeps the plot bouncing along despite the twists and turns, and every scene is infused with a dash of good humor no matter how grim things get. It reminded me of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series: although both series share an epic and serious adventure, the authors still manage to keep the tone light-hearted and even occasionally funny.
The light-hearted characters help. Every character in The Red Wolf Conspiracy has a ton of heart and is immediately relatable. Although, once again, the protagonists are inexperienced kids thrown in over their heads, Pavel and Thasha’s individualism makes this tired old trope feel fresh and modern. Aside from the typical third-person limited perspective, Redick also tosses in several excerpts from Alifros documents, such as the Quartermaster’s hidden diary and Captain Rose’s letters to his family. These excerpts are full of the outrageously inaccurate assumptions that only fictional characters can make, and they often had me laughing out loud even as they advanced the sinister plot.
Bit off a bit more than he could chew
Of course, it becomes difficult balancing this many characters and plot threads, and The Red Wolf Conspiracy unravels a little at the end. The last few chapters are a disappointing fizzle compared to the action-packed book that came before: the villains are unsatisfactorily scary, and the climax relies on a few too many coincidences. However, I attribute these flaws to the fact that this is Redick’s first published novel. He’s still mastering the craft; with such a fantastic opening (and middle), the disappointing fifty or so pages at the end really don’t matter. If Redick can regain the strength and exuberance he maintained for most of the novel, The Chathrand Voyage will be one of the top fantasy debut series published in the decade.
Why should you read this book?
Life at sea? Pirates? Tiny people and talking animals? You got it. This is epic fantasy at its theatrical peak: wonderful characters, swashbuckling action, political intrigue, and an enormously rich and developed world. Get swept up by The Chathrand, but be prepared for a rocky ending – here’s hoping the sequel, The Ruling Sea, achieves this story’s true potential.