After some of the encounters I had with fantasy novels last year, I approached The Red Wolf Conspiracy with no little trepidation. But, unlike many authors, Redick has woven influences beyond the default Alternate England—including those from the Middle and Far East, and even echoes of Le Guin's Atuan—together to form a seamless and inventive tapestry. The originality of creatures such as the Flikkermen—people with electric eel-like qualities glimpsed for barely a dozen pages—will doubtless win Redick many readers; yet ultimately the very quality of his work was why I felt so ambivalent when I finished the book.
The Red Wolf Conspiracy's hero is Pazem Pathkendle, haunted by the infamy of his traitorous father, who serves aboard a ship as a conscripted deckhand. Like many fantasy heroes Pazem has a gift, but his is also a curse; with the gift of tongues come periodic seizures that render him unable to understand or speak any language, even his own.
After one such episode, Pazem is stranded ashore, where he is again press-ganged, this time into serving aboard the Chathrand, a vast floating castle of a ship. Redick has an eye for detail, and has clearly researched the eighteenth-century sailing ships on which the Chathrand seems to be based, even if he has subsequently stuffed his version with magical enhancements.
As the Chathrand prepares to set sail, the crew gathers. Captain Rose is an infamous sadist who brags that he once had the mouth of a chattering tarboy stitched shut with twine. First Mate Uskins is a toady, and a conspirator. Only Quartermaster Fiffengurt seems to be trustworthy. Some of the passengers boarding are equally unsavoury. There's Ket, the oleaginous soap merchant. Latzlo the animal seller, and Pacu, niece of the ship's owner, a chattering lackwit given to tactless comments. Lady Oggosk, a duchess whose cat has a taste for both rats and the Ixchel (midgets reminiscent of Tim Powers's Spoonsize Boys, who have sneaked aboard the Chathrand). Brother Bolutu, veterinarian and spiritual companion to the captain—at the Emperor's insistence. And there is Ambassador Isiq, his wife Syrarys, Isiq's daughter by his first marriage, Thasha, and her "tutor" Hercól, who can identify the captain of the ship's militia as the master spy Sandor Ott.
The militia are ostensibly there to protect the passengers, but their real purpose is to guard the last passenger that the conspirators bring aboard, one whose presence—when announced—will start a civil war that will soak the world in blood.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of The Red Wolf Conspiracy is its set pieces, some of which are breathtaking in their detail, their scope, and their language:
Just inches wide, the tunnel ran straight through the clock and onward—forty feet onward—through wall and adjacent cabin, and the cabin beyond that. It should have ended, roughly, in the centre of the first-class dining room. A cold draught flowed from its mouth, carrying a hint of cedar smoke and a few grains of dark sand that fell from the clock to scatter among Thasha's rings and bracelets.
But at the same time the tunnel was not there. He passed his behind the clock and felt nothing, looked and saw nothing but the plain cabin wall. The tunnel existed only within the clock.
And at its far end glowed a room. It was just visible, sharp and tiny, like the view through the wrong end of a telescope: crackling firelight, a three-legged stool, a bookshelf. Just that, and the sound of a desolate wind that was not blowing around the Chathrand. (p. 176)
Not that The Red Wolf Conspiracy is without flaws.
For example, while there's no doubting the epic scale of Redick's vision, his kaleidoscopic use of multiple viewpoints makes the opening fifty pages comparatively uninvolving—although it works once the book is underway. Alternating between seven different viewpoints (hero, heroine, two of the plotters, and supporting cast) in the opening seven chapters, and oscillating from limited to omniscient back to limited viewpoint in the same scenes, may move the story along quickly, but it also delays the reader's emotional investment in the hero and heroine.
And Redick's inclusion of the near-default adolescents as hero and heroine, with their companions, is so cliched that it compromises the book's strengths. In a book that, judging by the chapters written from the plotters' perspectives, is intended as an adult novel, I can't help but suspect that he's deliberately depicted them as teenagers with an eye to reaching young adult readers and gaining "crossover appeal." Redick includes a tutor who is also an ex-spy and trained killer to provide the muscle and ruthlessness that adolescents would lack, and a shape-shifting mage for wisdom, thereby ticking another fantasy archetype box, that of the talking animal.
There are contrivances in the book, not all of which work perfectly; for example, when "murth-girl" (mermaid) Klyst falls in love with Pazem, she embeds an enchanted shell in his shoulder and tells him that only when he rips the shell from his flesh will she be free of her love for him. That the device flares up when he is attracted to Thasha feels as artificial as it is.
Most of the major characters are differentiated well enough—with the exception of the Ambassador—although some of the minor protagonists such as the first mate, bosun, and the assistant assassin are little more than sketched archetypes of villainy with few redeeming features, and tend to blur into one another.
But the most frustrating aspects are to do with the book's structure, and to explain why, I'll need to digress briefly.
Most genre SF and fantasy books are between 80,000 and 130,000 words. To be outside of this range and to appeal to one of the major publishers, a book has to be truly exceptional, or a writer has to have built a major following. Clearly with a first novel, Redick doesn't have that following, but during its middle third, The Red Wolf Conspiracy shows signs it could have been that exceptional book.
I got the impression that the original story was a lot longer, and that an excess of infodumping—characters summarizing the plot to one another, and reprising of off-stage events—and the aforementioned viewpoint rotation were attempts to trim the book to a more commercially acceptable length.
But still, consider the sinewy, muscular power of the best of the prose:
Pazel obeyed, and the instant his lids closed he was gone—hurled like a leaf on a vast cyclone of sound. It was not loud, but it was deeper than the sea itself. He heard a thousand beating hearts: every one on the Chathrand, from the slow kettledrum hearts of the augrongs to the bipbipbip of newborn mice in the granary. He heard the sound of Thasha blinking. He heard Jervik laugh secretly at something, and Neeps retching at some foul chore in the galley, and the lookout sobbing a girl's name ("Gwenny, Gwenny") in the privacy of the crow's nest. He heard a rat speaking, howling about the wrath of the Angel of Rin. He heard Rose whisper, "Mother!" in his sleep. (p. 211)
Not as compact as in short fiction, but certainly trim. That Redick is capable of such writing makes the second major structural problem—the ending—even more frustrating, given that his would not have been the only eyes cast over the manuscript.
I have no inherent objections to linked works, but how books are linked can make or break a series. Because ultimately whether a series works is down to whether its individual components work. Whether it's the Discworld series—with the exception of a couple of books that are direct sequels—the Vorkosigan Saga, or almost any good detective series, what characterises all of these works is that they can all be read on their own, and more importantly have inseparable emotional as well as narrative arcs within each book. Contrast this with many fantasy series, where it now seems to be de rigeur to serialize the narrative to lure the reader back.
So with some fifty pages to go, The Red Wolf Conspiracy reaches a crescendo, and the characterisation reflects this. Everything seems to point to a resolution.
But it's not the end.
Redick extends the story by 20,000 words or so past its natural conclusion. Why this is the case is a matter for speculation—certainly, The Red Wolf Conspiracy wouldn't be the first novel to become a trilogy after initial discussions. While it's only my guess, such a decision would account for the odd chapter after what felt like the climax, which reads very much as if it should be the opening chapter to a sequel, very similar in style (albeit a diary, rather than a newspaper) to the opening chapter.
From there Redick attempts to stage the biggest set piece yet, the literary equivalent of CGI, and rather than tie the two existing arcs—emotional and plot—together, he rather half-heartedly tries to start a new one, involving the mage Ramachni, one of the Talking Animals (who is actually an off-world mage). It's an approach that simply highlights the emptiness of the finale. The last fifty pages feel as if they've been grafted on.
That extra set piece could—given all the other loose ends, like murths and a wedding ceremony that no one's told the groom isn't happening—have been held off until the next book. But it isn't, and so rather than ending with a bang the book seems to fade out with an unwritten To Be Continued...
Given how well Redick can write, and given the team he freely acknowledges, it's hard not to wonder how and why the book ended up this way. There is plenty of evidence that Redick is a better writer than this book demonstrates; the flaws feel imposed, perhaps the result of compromise in order to fit a perceived market that may or may not be the original target, or even the result of a need to close the deal between writer and reader so thoroughly that the writer deliberately leaves the reader emotionally unfulfilled.
I wanted so much to like The Red Wolf Conspiracy. For much of the time I did; but in the end it felt as if my affection was sacrificed on the altar of expediency.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance, Lightning Days, and The Silk Palace. He is currently working on Blind Faith, a thriller with the slightest speculative twist, set in Brighton in July 2005. He also has a day job, but it's not very interesting.