The Red Wolf Conspiracy is Robert V.S. Redick first epic fantasy novel. It was released in February 2008 and is the start of a series named The Chathrand Voyage. The series is a quartet and the final volume will be out in May 2012 (the book is followed by The Ruling Sea, The River of Shadows and The Night of the Swarm).
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 hundred 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.
Ships are not for everyone. I'm acquainted with a few people who would turn down a novel because of their presence. However, in the case of The Red Wolf Conspiracy, even though the ship aspect is almost adamant or inherent to the tale, it's mostly used by the author as a setting for an epic fantasy story. That story is full of collusion, scheming, spiritual fervor, prophecies, magical artifacts and special races. So, even if you're not into nautical horizons, you can get you share of enjoyment.
Admittedly, I was slightly skeptical at the idea too. I think that Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch reconciled me with seafaring life in fantasy. Moreover, the idea of the last of the great ships, a transport that can accommodate 700 souls and is the sole embarkation capable of crossing the Ruling Sea is quite compelling. The magnitude of the vessel is felt form start to finish. Now that you know in what waters we're standing, let's get on with the characters.
The Red Wolf Conspiracy is essentially the experiences of Pazel and Thasha. There are additional third person perspective points of view and a score of important sidekicks and significant counterparts, but it's them who drive the plot. Aside from his directness, the young tarboy is unique in the fact that a spell was performed on him, making him understand every possible language in the world, learning it forever instantly. There's a drawback to this but it's actually quite a good idea. Elements like these are woven throughout the story, via fantastical occurrences and magical powers.
However, this is a double-edged sword, mostly so in the way Redick chose to take advantage of it. In extremist survival is a nice twist in a story when the unexpected is at the rendez-vous. In the novel, the protagonists are saved by Ixchels (people the height of rats), by Murths (a mix between a mermaid and a sea snake) or by a special spell or text. These secondary characters are great but, as I said, using fantastical phenomenon to save day again and again can eventually seem like evasiveness in term of denouement.
Coming back to the characters, to which Redick affixed great names overall, they come in a large variety. Along a meta storyline encompassing a complex but comprehensive scheme forty years in the making, the multiple conspiracies created and breaking up in the mix of that diversity of social classes, age, genre and race is simply astonishing. Creative, the story is not arduous to follow, thanks to the author clearness and conventional writing (excessively at times). Since we are given glimpses of the tale from each of the factions, we are aware of the whole plot but the heroes don't feel dumb by discovering the intrigue at their pace.
Speaking of pace, since a voyage that long on a ship could be boring at times, Redick inserted a couple of catching ups in the form of journal extracts from the diaries of the Captain of the ship or the quartermaster. Nice idea, moreover in a seafaring setting where you want to get to the tumultuous parts.
The woken animals, Pazel himself and his fellow tarboy Neeps also incorporate a small dose of humor. When I think about it, the book is combination exciting, funny or earnest situations with a mix of colorful or cliché characters (sadly) in a world inhabited by strange races and ordinary human beings. Completed by plenty of fantasy touches (countless), Robert succeeded in creating an enthralling plot of epic proportion where the life of simple but dedicated characters becomes gripping more often than not. On the counterpart, it's too bad that some aspect of this are over exploited.
Technically, the Gollancz edition of the book offers a nice illustration of the great ship standing beside 'normal' vessels (though I'm not sure I like the style). The other cover feels more like classic fantasy art but looks sharp. The paperback edition stands at 462 pages and the book includes an appendix and a map of Alifros. The audiobook is narrated in 19 hours and 16 minutes and is performed by Michael Page, still with a gorgeous tone.
The Red Wolf Conspiracy review score :
Characterization............. 8 /10
World building............... 8.5 / 10
Magic system................. 7 / 10
Story.............................. 8.5 / 10
Writing........................... 7.5 / 10
Overall (not an average) 8 / 10
Robert V.S. Redick page
The Chathrand Voyage page