Robert V.S. Redick

Gollancz (2009)

ISBN: 978-0-575-08177-2

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

The Red Wolf Conspiracy
does one of the things I utterly loathe in a novel – it doesn’t tell you until the end that it is the first of a trilogy.  Around about page 300 I got the nasty feeling that this was either a badly written novel that was going to end too abruptly or that it was going to turn out to be the first of a series. On the last page (around 460) it was revealed as the first of a trilogy. I hate this. The last third of a novel reads with a rhythm that’s slightly wrong if it’s an unannounced trilogy; and it just doesn’t feel like it’s playing fair with readers, particularly those who are giving an author a try for the first time.

So these were problems for me with the novel; the rhythm of a substantial part of the novel felt wrong, and the ending – such as it was – felt like something of a cheat.  Fortunately, the novel also has strengths.

The novel tells the story of a number of people on board the I.M.S. Chathrand, the last of the Great Ships.  (One of the trading families starting killing off shipbuilders to stop them taking the secrets of the great ships to other merchant families, and were regrettably thorough.  Now no-one knows how to build such ships.)  These range from the lowliest of the tarboys, to the highest – the captain and titled passengers.  You know from the moment you pick up the novel that something bad is going to happen, because the first page is an announcement of the ship’s disappearance at sea with all hands. One of the things that made this novel feel a cheat is that that event is not reached within The Red Wolf Conspiracy, despite it being a long book.  You’re given the impression that this novel is going to tell you what happened, and in fact it only describes events that – presumably – lead up to the disappearance. There’s a lot still to be revealed in the next volumes.

And there is a lot going on amongst the diverse people associated with the Chathrand. This includes a conspiracy to start a war, as well as a whole lot of personal concerns – survival, unwanted arranged marriages, love affairs, deception… Most of the concerns are pretty base, really.  However, among the large cast Redick has provided some vivid characters who are fairly sympathetic, and as their concerns tend towards survival rather than scheming, it’s not too hard to cheer them on.

The main character is Pazel Pathkendle, a tarboy who is little more than a slave.  He is essentially friendless, being the product of a nation now invaded, destroyed and occupied.  Doctor Chadfallow may be his friend, but then again he may just be using him as a tool. It’s hard to be sure, even for Pazel.  And Pazel has plenty of challenges.  Even before the invasion he had problems, being the son of a man branded a traitor. And trying to help, his mother infused him with a spell that brings more problems than benefits.  So Pazel spends a lot of his time focusing on simply surviving, aware that if he’s thrown off the ships he crews, his future is bleak and likely short.  He winds up on the Chathrand due largely to his lack of choices.

On the Chathrand he finds himself in the company of many people with their own agendas. It’s not clear that Captain Rose actually intends to sail his ship safely to its’ proclaimed destination.  The spymaster Sandor Ott and his men are definitely not up to what they say they are – whatever claim they happen to be making at any given moment. The ambassador may mean what he says, but he probably doesn’t understand it or its’ implications.  His scheming wife manipulates him and others.  Thasha, the ambassador’s daughter, is horrified to discover she is to become a bride as part of a Treaty.  These are only a few of the people that Pazel will come in contact with on this journey.

I never really got caught up with this novel. It may be that the rhythm was off and I didn’t know why until I discovered it was a trilogy.  In part I think it was that although the characters were vivid,  they also weren’t entirely real. Pazel, for example, is remarkably lacking in any romantic or sexual thoughts, and that didn’t really ring true for me given the life he leads and his age. He’s also fairly soft-headed about his own survival, and although that’s necessary for us to empathise – the reader might not like him too much if he left a trail of bodies in his wake simply because he didn’t care to exert himself enough to help – it again didn’t ring quite true given his background.

There also isn’t any real sense of closure with the novel.  Although some relatively minor things have been resolved, the novel more or less pauses in the middle of the action.  It’s very unsatisfying, while at the same time not being intriguing or involving enough to really make me interested in the next instalment.

I suspect this novel may be better suited to those more like Pazel – young males, and particularly those who enjoy a forthright adventure with little in the way of emotional shading.  There is a lot of scheming and deception, but it isn’t that hard to follow (or that tantalising for more experienced readers) and the characters are generally quite uncomplicated.  There really wasn’t anything major wrong with this novel; but it failed to strike a chord with me. The world-building is solid and effective, the plot appears well worked out, and it’s not hard to keep track of the large cast.  There will be readers who enjoy The Red Wolf Conspiracy – but for me it lacked the something extra to set it apart.