Most fantasies quickly settle on an itch and proceed to scratch it all the way to the last page. A ring that must be returned to sender. A lion destined to be reborn. A grail that has to be found. A kidnapped wife who must be retrieved. So on and so forth. In these tales—fine tales—there are local plot complications, but the overall arc is as inexorable as Jupiter's gravity. Robert Redick's vision is grander. This is not so much a saga about the tedious war between Good and Evil (just get a room already) as it is about the power of language to turn things human and inhuman.
In volume 1, The Red Wolf Conspiracy (2008), the story's main protagonist, Pazel Pathkendle, an Ormali tar-boy with a magical gift for languages, is headed for Simja on the super-ship Chathrand. There are four major species on the ship—humans, rats, ixchels (creatures about the height "of a man's open hand"), and mages—and each group is in conflict both internally and externally. Thus there are two mages on the ship, the good mage Ramachni and the evil one Arunis. The rats led by Master Mugstur are in conflict with the not-quite-rat rat Felthrup. The humans of the Arquali empire are in conflict with those of the Mzithrin. And the empathic, kind-hearted ixchel, Diardelu, is in trouble with the rest of her ixchel clan, led by her nephew, Taliktrum. The ixchel and humans don't get along, the mages interfere with the humans, and everybody hates the rats.
Pazel's friend, the flaxen-haired, feisty, and fair-bosomed Thasha, is the "Treaty Bride," whose marriage to Prince Adin, a Mzithrin general, in Simja, was to quite literally consummate a peace treaty between the warring Arquali and Mzithrin empires. At least, that's what her father, Ambassador Eberzam Isiq, had been told by his emperor.
But Pazel, Thasha and friends had realized en route that the Arquali Emperor and his spymaster, Sandar Ott, intend war, not peace. Ott's plan involves the rebel Mzithrin king Shaggat Ness, imprisoned in the holds of the Chathrand. Thought to have been killed in the first Mzithrin civil war, Shaggat Ness is remembered by his exiled people on Gurishal as a God-King destined to return when "a Mzithrin lord marries his enemy." Ott intends to make this prophesy true, raise Shaggat from the dead, and use the ensuing civil war over the revenant King to fatally weaken the Mzithrin empire.
Shaggat Ness was aided in his delusions by a master sorcerer, Arunis, supposedly hanged and quartered at the end of the first Civil war, but who turns up towards the end of Volume 1 as a merchant-passenger on the Chathrand. Arunis is searching for the Red Wolf, a stone statue fashioned by Erithusme, an ancient sorceress. Inside the Red Wolf is the mysterious Nilstone, "death given form" as Ramachni, a master-mage from another world and Arunis' mortal enemy, puts it. Needless to say, the Nilstone is at the top of Arunis's list of desired Christmas presents. Volume 1 ended with the finding of the Nilstone and its consequences.
Volume 2 of the Chathrand Voyage series—The Rats and the Ruling Sea or, in its U.S. edition, The Ruling Sea—begins briskly by disposing of one dangling sword. Thasha's marriage to Prince Adin is broken up thanks to the help of a useful death-faking potion, courtesy Diardelu. The resulting chaos leads to a variety of consequences. Though Thasha avoids fulfilling the prophesy needed for the Shaggat's return, her high-borne maid of honor, Pacu, is substituted in her stead, thus keeping Sandar Ott's plan on track. Pazel's long-lost sister, now revealed to be a Mzithrin priestess, nearly loses her life; Ambassador Isiq is kidnapped by Ott's men and imprisoned in a secret hell-hole on Simja. The crew flee to the Chathrand and Captain Nilus Rose sets off for Gurishal, on the other side of the Ruling Sea. The rest of Volume 2 is taken up with various intrigues that complicate the passage over the Ruling Sea. Such as giant mutant talking rats.
It turns out that the Nilstone, now stashed in the ship's hold, also has the power to enhance the consciousness inherent in all things. First the fleas in the hold awaken, and then the rats. The sudden awakening, a twisted deformation of the universe's gradual process, results in the rats going mad. The stress of the long voyage is also beginning to tell on the crew members. They're cut off from civilization, headed for unknown lands, divided amongst themselves by doubt and secrets and tormented by magic. Lady Oggosk, Captain Rose's mysterious witch/aunt/confederate, forces Pazel to quarrel with Thasha. Diardelu loses control of her Ixchel clan. Felthrup the rat continues his pilgrim's progress. Fiffengurt the quartermaster loses his precious diary. We learn that the Nilstone's penchant for killing people can be controlled with the help of a magic scepter. Meanwhile, the maddened rats attack and all hell breaks loose. Volume 2 finally ends with a death and a discovery. Both events are poignant, and to Redick's credit, both feel necessary. Of course, to paraphrase David Shulman, any summary, of a plot that so far has needed some thousand pages for its development, can only be its own apology.
What is Redick really up to with this tale of rats and ixchels, sorcerers and ships, plucky princesses and gifted linguists? The saga echoes the theologian Tielhard de Chardin's notion that the universe is evolving along the axis of increasing consciousness; evolving to become increasingly aware. As the mage Ramachni explains to Felthrup the rat:
"True waking is . . . emerging from one cage into a larger, brighter, less lonely cage . . . No animal, no man, no thousand-year old mage is perfectly awake . . . In fact, merely to think so is to fall a little asleep." (Vol. 1, p. 264)
In this view, evil is not lack of awareness itself, but that which would move life towards unawareness. Like fear, for instance. It explains why the Nilstone, "death given form," is evil: it is an instrument of fear. So complete is its annihilation of creatures with fear in their hearts, even stones are more alive than something touched by the Nilstone. It explains why Arunis desires the Nilstone so fervidly; what use is it except to make him the most feared of mages? It explains the woken rat Felthrup, for whom sleep and terror have become indistinguishable. "Drowning, always drowning," Felthrup sobs to Ramachni. And the good mage responds with a laugh: "Never fear, sir! You'll be soon dry enough" (Vol. 1, p. 188). It explains a curious scene involving Sandar Ott, who shows a "strange device of wood, bronze and iron" to a fellow conspirator, describes it as a pistol, and while gazing rapturously at it remarks: "You are looking at the invention of our age. In time it will end all wars, for the alternative—can you imagine it, Alyash?" (Vol. 2, p. 294). Ott envisions a future peace not because he can imagine a better world but because instruments of fear can effect an infinitely worse one. This is the pistol's pedagogy. Redick's solution to the pedagogy of fear is an Arquali word, idrolos, "the courage to see." Fiffengurt can overcome his hatred of rats and ixchel because, as Felthrup points out, he has this quality. Sight and language (thought) are tightly linked in this book. For example, when Felthrup assumes the form of a man in his dreams, what he remembers on waking are the gold-rimmed spectacles rather than the bodily changes. At another point, Diardelu remarks to Fiffengurt that all forms of courage spring from the courage to see (Vol. 2, p. 406). Of course, the relation between sight and thought is also buried in our metaphors ("see the big picture," "a brilliant idea," "the dark ages") and our words ("seer," "theory," "foresight"). Redick's saga can be read as an attempt to imagine a world where language becomes life's right and not its privilege. When all of life has a voice, we may start to listen. It explains Pazel Pathkendle, the hero with a thousand languages.
The book can be enjoyed in other ways. For me, much of the book's pleasure came from the ancillary characters and scenes. The rat Felthrup is delightfully Dickensian, as is Fiffengurt, the ship's quartermaster. There is in fact a very Victorian wit running throughout the text, as evidenced in Dr. Ignus Chadfellow's predilection for writings texts like "Parasites: An Appreciation" or the sober encyclopedia entries that begin "Rats: One of creation's great failures . . ." or Captain Rose's schoolboy-perfect epistles or the self-important editorial footnotes. In The Rats and the Ruling Sea, scenes like Captain Rose's Ahab-like motivational address to his crew (Chapter 12) or the great sea-battle scene in Chapters 28 and 29 capture perfectly what sea-adventures are all about.
My main criticism of the book is that it suffers from the Hollywood curse of confusing motion with action. Characters get kidnapped, attacked, rescued, chased, tricked, and magicked, and then they get to do it all over again. Redick's development of Captain Rose, Diardelu, Felthrup, and Fiffengurt is excellent, but the other characters are handled less well. Take young Pazel and Thasha, for instance. The Rats and the Ruling Sea deals with them with the practiced eye of a sheep farmer, pushing them into various Indiana Jones situations, using their dialogues to transmit info to the reader and interrupting their first kiss with a plot twitch. I found the villains unconvincing, especially Arunis, who's been a failure for 3,000 years.
The large number of characters with independent agendas means the plot is rich in degrees of freedom. But there aren't enough constraints, and so the plot is complicated rather than complex. Consequently, the characters are forced to spend a lot of time updating each other on what's happening. The lack of constraints is also seen in the handling of magic. Bolutu may remark that "What one gains in power and wisdom is taken away tenfold in other ways!" but it's never explained what these tenfold ways are. All too often, magic is used as a miracle-generator, an easy no-explanation way to get out of sticky situations. Arunis is hanged and quartered, but lo and behold, he can switch bodies. Bolutu has his tongue burnt out, but lo and behold, he is an alien with a regenerative body. The ship is caught in a death spiral in the Vortex, but lo and behold, a Red Storm calms the sea. Felthrup the rat is tormented by Arunis, but lo and behold, Ramachni sends a magic bear to stop that. Characters may get poisoned, shot, transformed, lost, or even killed, but there's always a Red Storm or Master Words or Scepters or anti-Blane or whatever to redo the undone. Redick manages the plot's complications amazingly well, but I would have been happier if he had eliminated a few.
The writing is always skilful. Some parts, like the epistles of Captain Rose or Fiffengurt's diaries or Filthrup's musings, are marvelous, but their very excellence highlights evidence of haste in other places. Consider the following paragraph:
Pazel could scarcely breathe. He turned to Thasha, and she looked back at him, alarmed and uncertain. Neeps was studying Bolutu, his face blank with shock. Wheels within wheels within wheels, thought Pazel. (Vol. 2, p. 448)
In one short para, Pazel is breathless, is aware of three other people, has noted their reactions, and also made what Sir Geoffrey Vickers would call a "reality judgment." Far too many paragraphs are made to carry such bulging suitcases. Redick's at his best when he shows us the inner lives of his characters, but curiously, he often holds back.
My snivels aside, I can see readers loving the action-packed scenes, the plot's intricate twists and turns, and the sheer vastness of Redick's canvas. This author is a true world-builder. There's a promised third volume in the Chathrand Voyage. I know I will be on board. Fore and aft topsails, Mr. Redick, if you please.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From The Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.