Maybe some of this will sound familiar: a young boy separated from his family, gifted with a power that may save the world from a great evil; a young noblewoman betrothed to a foreign king against her will; a dangerous artifact of magnificent and mysterious power; intelligent talking animals; wizards, princes and spies engaged in a shadowy war that may doom or rescue hundreds of thousands of lives. . . .

Make no mistake, the raw material of Robert V.S. Redick's debut novel, the first of a planned trilogy, has been incorporated into countless fantasy novels. But this makes only more remarkable the fact that, page by page, The Red Wolf Conspiracy feels so vibrant, fresh and exciting.

The effect is due partly to Redick's knack for tackling the scale of the story charted in this book. The Chathrand is a 600-year-old ship the size of a city, bound for the territory of its nation's ancient enemy on a mission of peace. And among the hundreds of passengers aboard the ship are agents of various powers, each with its own agenda, some who wish to see the peace secured, some who would profit from a new war.

The narrative perspective shifts deftly among a dozen characters, from young Pazel, who suffers the indignities of a ship's tarboy while trying to locate his lost family, to Nilus Rotheby Rose, the half-mad captain of the Chathrand, who believes his path to glory lies in a secret pact with the emperor. Even the fears and stratagems of an "awakened" stowaway rat are presented with sympathy and depth. What emerges is a living tapestry, always in danger of being rent by the conspiracy at the novel's heart.

And what a conspiracy it is, portrayed by Redick with a delirious love of the genre that is nothing less than infectious. When Sandor Ott, the emperor's spymaster, declares to his associates: "Rose will captain that ship, and we shall sail with her. The game's begun, lads. We'll play it to the last round," all but the most jaded of readers will be eager to watch that game unfold.

Jedediah Berry is the author of a novel, The Manual of Detection

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