Robert V. S. Redick, The Red Wolf Conspiracy (ARC)

May 12, 2009 at 9:27 pm (ARC Reviews)

Now, THIS is the good stuff.  A deep, layered fantasy world, with rare magic, Industrial Age economics, and an excellent mix of personal and political plotlines.  And it isn’t all about the ship, either.

Of course, a lot of it is about the ship: the Charthrand, a 600-year-old relic of a bygone age of magic-enhanced technology.  Not really as big as a city, but certainly comparable in size to a modern cruise liner – although this is a true sailing ship.  It is more than impressive enough to convey the peace mission from the Empire of Arqual to that of the Mzithrin, and more than large enough to hold a lot of secrets.  Which it has to be, given all that’s going on.

What can I say that won’t spoil the plot?  There are multiple point-of-view characters, and the author shifts smoothly between limited third-person and omniscient.  The most prominent characters are Pazel Pathkendle, a young ship’s boy and victim of international politics and well-meaning maternal magic, and Thasha Isiq, upper-class daughter of an Admiral and likewise a victim, at least potentially, of politics.  But there’s also Captain Nilus Rose; Imperial assassin Sandos Ott; and many others.

The world contains many humans, but also multiple other races: amphibious flikkermen; aquatic murths; and the miniature-human ixchel (one of these, Diadrelu Tammariken, is also an important character).  There is even a mention, early on, of creatures that live in the clouds, but only the hawk sees them.  And speaking of the hawk, there are also “woken” animals: ones that have somehow achieved human understanding.  One of these, Felthrup, plays an important role – I will leave you the surprise of finding out exactly what species this fascinatingly original character is.

There is a lot of human history at work in this book – not only the war between the empires that has just ended, but complex Mzithrin internal conflicts, and the past and present actions of paranoid Arquali emperors.  The larger plot takes a long time to unfold (the meaning of the title does not become fully clear until the last chapter), but in the meantime the other characters’ problems and conflicts carry the story forward most delightfully on their own.

And there is also general exploration of the world itself.  The wildly varying humans carry around prejudices against another ethnic groups (though none quite so vicious as that of most humans against the ixchel).  The book periodically takes the time to explore aspects of the world that have little to do with the plot; I was particularly taken with the description of the steerage passengers at the end of Chapter 13, full of the kind of telling detail that makes an imaginary world and place come alive.

I have a suspicion, based on admittedly limited information about flikkermen’s and murths’ knowledge of history, that humans are actually immigrants to this world.  I think there is support for this in the existence of the shape-changing mage Ramachni, who actually visits from another world.  If one mage can make such a trip, why not a larger group of humans?  Or it could just be that the humans have been more successful than the other species.  It’s hard to say.  Perhaps it’s not even relevant to the story.

But I do look forward to finding out what’s in store for this cast of characters; whose plots will succeed, and whose will fail.  A theme that winds through the novel is one of loyalty: who deserves it, who does not, and the difficult decisions that an honorable being sometimes has to make.  In that context, I wonder most of all what will become of Admiral Eberzam Isiq.

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