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The Red Wolf Conspiracy
Robert V.S. Redick
Gollancz/Del Rey, 470/455 pages

The Red Wolf Conspiracy
The Red Wolf Conspiracy
Robert V.S. Redick
Robert V. S. Redick's unpublished first novel, Conquistadors, was a finalist for the AWP/Thomas Dunne Novel Award, and his essay "Uncrossed River" won the New Millennium Writings Award for nonfiction. A former theater critic and international development researcher, he worked most recently for the antipoverty organization Oxfam. He lives in western Massachusetts.

Robert V.S. Redick Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Ordinarily, this isn't a book I would have picked up. The title, the cover artwork with a blurb by Terry Brooks, that this is the first volume of a trilogy, just screams "yet another fat fantasy" and, sure enough, further investigation reveals there's a map, a good sign that charted lands may be derivative cartography.

In certain circles it's hip to knock this stuff and be more literary than thou to disdain product that "Borders 'n' Noble" stuffs into the fantasy aisle for its cash cow. And, really, I'm not knocking it, if it's entertaining and fun, and it makes some author money, fine by me. It's just not my thing. And I see no point in writing a review disdaining this stuff; the purpose of such reviews is usually to demonstrate the reviewer's superior good taste more than it is to provide any useful commentary about the work in question.

So, having stated my prejudices, why am I reviewing The Red Wolf Conspiracy, which at first glance seems to confirm those prejudices?

Well, as the saying goes, you can't judge a book by its cover.

Back in March I went to a science fiction/fantasy panel at Charlottesville's Virginia Festival of the Book that featured Robert V.S. Redick (the "V.S." stands for von Stein if you're curious). I was struck by how intense Redick was, how much he cared about his characters and the world he created and how eager he was to share it (and how he struggled to cover as much as he could within the constraints of his allotted time). He didn't strike me as a "Tolkien by the numbers" kind of guy. So I was mainly intrigued by his personality to read his book.

Tolkien, actually, isn't the chief reference point here, though there is much that is familiar territory. A boy with an unusual gift finds himself thrust into a struggle between good and evil (okay, that's Tolkien, but the idea wasn't original to him). Check. Love interest with a girl who can handle herself in hand-to-hand combat. Check. An evil sorcerer returned from the dead. Check. Talking animals. Check. Small people who can fly (though they aren't portrayed as fairies in the traditional sense). Check. A mysterious treasured object of (self) destructive power. Check. Documents such as newspaper clippings and personal journals weaved into the narrative, complete with editorial notes, that provide seeming authenticity to the fantastical events recounted. Check. A band of good guys from disparate backgrounds pledged to overcome the evil that threatens clan and country. Check. The granting of three "wishes" that must be used carefully because once used are gone forever. Check. Heroes outnumbered in dire circumstances frequently of their own making as the result of impetuous decisions, who are rescued at the last minute thanks to the just-in-time arrival of rescuers, some of whom may have given the impression that they were deceased. Check.

What's a little different here is that Redick has grafted onto these stock staples a Pirates of the Caribbean theme, with just a hint of Moby Dick and, perhaps, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, mixed with political intrigue in which the loyalties of certain characters are, if not suspect, ambiguous.

The centerpiece of the staging is the Imperial Merchant Ship Chathrand, an immense six hundred year old vessel that is the last of her kind. Because of his knowledge of certain treacherous waters, a discredited captain has been reinstated to lead a subterfuge in which the ship's sinking will be faked in order to complete a secret mission to uncage an ancient evil to provoke war between the arch-enemy nations of Arqual and the Mzithrin Empire. Enter Pazel Pathkendle, a tarboy following in the footsteps of his lost-at-sea and allegedly turncoat father whose homeland was brutally razed by Arqual, who winds up in the employ of the Chathrand. And who becomes emotionally entangled with Thasha, daughter of an Arquali ambassador offered up as a prospective bride to a Mzithrin prince ostensibly to broker peace between the two nations, but actually to inflame religious zealotry.

The book jacket description makes comparisons to China Mièville and Phillip Pullman, but that's a bit of marketing hype, I think. Those two bend the fantasy conventions to make social or political points in ways that are more, if you'll excuse the expression, literary. While Redick may seem to employ some literary allusions -- is the book that writes itself a nod to Borges, or just yet another cool fantastical concept to pile on? -- for the most part, he is telling a good yarn (no easy trick, either), frequently with some nice imagery. Here's how the tale opens:

It began, as every disaster in his life began, with a calm. The harbor and the village slept. The wind had roared all night lay quelled by the headland; the bosun grew too sleepy to shout. But forty feet up the ratlines, Pazel Pathkendle had never been more awake.
If that intrigues you, there's clear sailing ahead for you as a reader, if not for the characters (sorry for the bad nautical pun). And, speaking as one who generally disdains the "epic fantasy" genre, I'm looking forward to upcoming installments.

Copyright © 2009 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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