The quest narrative is as old as storytelling and -- whether written, spoken or filmed -- is one of the most satisfying forms of entertainment. However, its popularity means it is incrementally more difficult to carry off with any convincing air of freshness and vitality. In recent years few series fantasies (the most common storytelling style in the fantasy genre) have managed. Daniel Abraham's "The Long Price Quartet" (which concludes this summer), Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda series and Paul Park's Roumanian books come to mind. With the publication of his invigorating debut, "The Red Wolf Conspiracy," Robert V.S. Redick's "The Voyage of the Chathrand" can be added to that short list.
Pirates have been all the rage in pop culture fiction (at least when zombies and vampires have left them space to appear) but Redick isn't after such simple fare. He casts his tale off from the historical period so well detailed in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin novels and then seemingly tosses in every fantastic idea that has ever crossed his mind. (Yes, there are zombies.) But there is never a moment when Redick's masterful storytelling wobbles; even his throwaway lines deepen and open out the world he has created, moving the ever-more involving story onward.
The only forgettable parts of the novel are the title and the cover, but the generic illustration signals readers that although this is a debut, the contents will be comfortingly familiar. Which, in that an orphaned boy unexpectedly makes good in a weird and wonderful world, they are. But oh how much fun and how different from the by-the-numbers pastoral European fantasies Redick makes that tale.
Redick quickly introduces almost every character of import: from the tarboy Pazel Pathkendle to his sometime benefactor, Imperial surgeon Dr. Ignus Chadfallow; from the soap maker Ket (who is "a name worth remembering, worth jotting down") to the Lady Oggosk, either a doddering fool or one of the secret powers behind the scenes. The novel is immediately and satisfyingly complex. Characters are introduced in passing in the middle of events. They have personal histories and relationships, many of them not at all friendly. The reader is dared to keep up with the never-ending stream of action and it is both a delight and a challenge that does not end until the final page.
Older science fiction writers are worried that their genre is being subsumed into the increasingly popular fantasy genre, which is deemed less rigorous. But "The Red Wolf Conspiracy" appears to be science fiction disguised as fantasy as there is a mention of (shades of Anne McCaffrey) ancient satellites still orbiting the planet and the author's website posits one of the character's theory that humans (and rats!) are transplants to the planet Alifros, where the book takes place. The reader is left to wonder if this gun on the mantelpiece will go off in one of the next two books in a planned "Voyage of the Chathrand" trilogy.
Pazel Pathkendle is ostensibly orphaned when the Arquali invade -- or, in a nice turn of phrase recognizable to readers still stung by the Bush administration's doublespeak "rescue" -- his home country of Ormael. Pazel is sold off as a tarboy and works his way on to the Imperial Merchant Ship Chathrand. Before the invasion, his desperate mother had worked a spell on him so that he can understand any language that he sees or hears. Her gift has a price and Pazel occasionally suffers seizures: not a great outcome for any teenager, never mind a lowly foreigner on an imperial ship. Pazel is lucky but can't keep his mouth shut so is soon put off the ship and sold yet again, this time to pirates. How he returns to the Chathrand and what he and his fellow questers will have to do to save their world makes up the rest of the novel.
Redick can't resist reheating genre tropes, and the poetry-spouting nonhuman races seem a little too familiar. But for the most part, "The Red Wolf Conspiracy" energetically rejuvenates whole swaths of tired ideas from big, boring fantasies. There are talking animals (including a nervous, verbose rat and an otherworldly wizard in the shape of a mink), mermaids, a book that writes itself, a nigh-impassible whirlpool that isolates this part of the world, a race of tiny people -- whose lives are filled with pathos and tragedy -- searching for their lost homeland, the ancient and massive ship of the series title; myths and legends from all and sundry, and haunting them all, a mad king who once declared himself a god. In "The Red Wolf Conspiracy," Redick has shown himself to be as inventive as anyone else writing today.
Grant is the publisher of Small Beer Press in Easthampton, Mass.