Book cover: The Red Wolf Conspiracy - Robert V S Redick (a huge sailing ship is towed out of harbour at night)The Red Wolf Conspiracy is Robert V S Redick’s debut and if it doesn’t achieve the runaway exuberance of Scott Lynch’s recent appearance on the scene, it is still good enough to knock the socks off many series/authors who have been around for some time.

The tale is set on a corner of Alifros, where the Arquali and Mzithrin (“Sizzy”) empires maintain an uneasy truce after years of conflict over spheres of influence. Caught in the sea between, the islands known as the Crownless Lands propose a formal peace, in which each empire will agree to support the Crownless Lands should the other attack – with refusal to sign tantamount to attack in itself.

Arqual dispatches the Chathrand, last of the centuries-old Great Ships, to carry the Ambassador, his daughter Thasha, and a colourful assortment of well-sketched characters to the signing at neutral Simja. Once at sea, they begin to realise that the Emperor of Arqual has other plans in motion to ensure Arqual gains dominance across all the lands this side of the Ruling Sea, peace agreement or no…

Told from the perspectives of Lady Thasha and of tarboy Pazel Pathkendle of the recently-conquered city of Ormael, The Red Wolf Conspiracy leaps into action from the start, introducing the web of alliances and violence that shape the tarboy’s existence. The tale evolves to encompass the hierarchies of shipboard life, the dark depths of Arquali policy, racial prejudice and the evils of the past, laying solid foundations for future high-octane instalments to come.

The novel is well-written, Redick showing a pleasantly light touch and a good feel for characterisation. Pazel and Thasha are excellent leads, their good intentions sadly unmatched by common sense; the supporting cast are sparky or villainous by turns, but leap off the page to accompany them.

Redick’s only real flaw is in pacing; after a good pick-up and reasonably well-sustained central section, the climax is oddly protracted. After an action-packed underwater adventure, Redick packs two further climaxes into the closing pages to tie up red herring storylines and confirm the identities of the heroes and villains for the next book. The final mega-climax and follow-up in particular feel forced, and out of synch with the rest of the novel. In spite of this, the book is a success overall, thanks to lively characters and boundless (sub)plot, with a good balance of humour, adventure and gathering darkness.

If Redick’s debut does not instantly make him a fantasy great (and it doesn’t), it does provide great, easy-to-read entertainment and carves him out a comfortable place amongst the solidly-reliable fantasy authors on the shelf. I patiently await the sequel (The Rats and the Ruling Sea) due early next year.

And for those of you (you know who you are) who place importance on these things as I do – the cover is very pretty too 🙂

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This review was originally written in 2008 and published on LiveJournal.