By Robert V. S. Redick
Gollancz have an impressive track record over the last couple of years; first they snapped up Scott Lynch and watched the hype reach a crescendo, then they repeated the trick with Joe Abercrombie and enjoyed similar results. Both Abercrombie and Lynch delivered debuts that generally garnered much critical acclaim. When Gollancz announced they had tied up a deal with first-time American fantasy author Robert V. S. Redick, the question was on everyone's lips: could they do it again?
Although it was only released in January 2008 in the UK, Redick's The Red Wolf Conspiracy has already caused a bit of a stir, including - whisper it softly - more than one prediction that it could be the debut novel of the year, and that Redick could be -whisper it even more softly - the Next Big Thing. Big words, but hype is a double-edged sword. While it helps sales, it can make it harder for the book to meet expectations. So, the key question: does Red Wolf deliver? Read on to find out...
Straight away it is clear that this is not your typical fantasy novel. As the story progresses however, it becomes obvious that there are more familiar fantasy elements involved than were first made apparent, however the setting is not so standard. Red Wolf follows the voyage of the great ship Chathrand, a 600-year-old behemoth of a vessel that is the last of its kind. The ship is on a mission of peace, to strike a truce between two mighty empires. At least that is what everyone is meant to believe. The truth is far different, and may instead plunge the world into war.
From what I'd read in advance, I was expecting something resembling a political thriller at sea. I'm fond of a bit of backstabbing and political machinations, so had high hopes that Red Wolf could deliver an intriguing storyline full of twists and turns. Sadly, it doesn't quite deliver. The actual conspiracy, when unveiled, is completely plausible (and actually quite clever) but the much-hoped-for political blood-letting and treachery never really materialises. Instead, the plot then goes on to follow a relatively standard course treading more familiar fantasy ground (magic artifacts, evil sorcerers, etc). It's not a bad plot by any means, but not what I expected, or hoped for. There are a few surprises, but too few in my opinion.
The nautical nature of the novel gives Redick a broad canvas to create some really memorable characters. Much like the plot, the characters on first glance sound interesting. And much like the plot, they don't quite deliver. The characterisation was one of the main disappointments for me, and I'll tell you why: because there are so nearly some fascinating characters here, but most are not fully realised. For example, Nilus Rose, Chathrand's captain, is clearly bordering on insanity, but I don't feel Redick quite gets under his skin enough. Similarly, Sandor Ott, Chief Spymaster of the Imperium, could have been a really interesting customer, but once again we don't see enough depth to quite flesh out the assumptions we form about him. The main protagonist, Pazel, is easy to sympathise with and root for, but his co-protagonist Thasha comes across as a minorly irritating, forthright tomboy.
Other reviewers have been quick to point out the vivid, well-realised world that Redick has created, and I won't dispute that there are many interesting aspects to his world. Yet for some reason I wasn't as drawn into it as I could - or maybe should - have been. I think the main cause was the fact I noticed several quirks (I hesitate to call them inconsistencies) that were a little bewildering. For example, the ships use cannons (and have done so for centuries, it seems) so gunpowder is common currency. Gun technology should therefore be well developed, yet pistols are non-existent and crossbows are used instead. I never got the impression that Redick's world was medieval, yet neither could I pin it down as early-modern. It seems to borrow a bit from both time periods. Subsequently, I never managed to envisage the world as effectively as I might have done.
There are many aspects of the novel that I liked. The idea of the Chathrand - a 600 year-old-ship - was really interesting, and it was refreshing to read a novel that mixed familiar notions with a less conventional setting. Redick certainly isn't afraid to introduce some fresh ideas, such as the Ixchel (which admittedly I wasn't keen on) and the 'woken' animals (which I thought was a nice touch - the rats especially are really well worked). Redick's prose flows well, though Pazel and Thasha do come across as younger than they are meant to be.
The plot structure is sound and builds to a satisfying finale, although the end, with everything set up nicely for book two, does cause the book to end on a bit of a flat note. Still, The Red Wolf Conspiracy is a decent, enjoyable debut, even if it doesn't live up to its potential. Redick however has shown a glimpse of real ability, and if he can add more depth to his characters and a little more surprise to his plots, he could go on to do good things in the genre. This debut is not as explosive as those of Lynch or Abercrombie, but you can't help but think that Gollancz might have pulled off another coup. Only time will tell.