In this crazy, new, post-Eddings world, authors have been freed from the high fantasy tropes that have plagued them for decades. No prophecies. No orphaned-children-that-are-secretly-the-High-King. None of that. Suddenly, realism is in again. Instead of wading, scimitars blazing, through a sea of 1hp minion Draconians, our heroes bleed. Sweat. Cry. Lose.
If we start plotting this on a line, a lot of authors have landed in one particular direction of this new-found 'realistic fantasy'. They're dialing up the fluids (blood, sweat, tears and... more). Joe Abercrombie. Richard Morgan. George R.R. Martin. Knights that lose their grips on sweat-slick swords. Blood that stings your eyes. Heroes that lose limbs and shag whores. Inglorious battlefield death. There's escapism, but it is (if you'll forgive me), nasty, brutish and short.
The other end of the spectrum is a quieter type of realistic fantasy. Scott Lynch edges this way, with his tales of wit-over-steel, but his books still resolve in a flurry of bloodshed. Patrick Rothfuss is even further along - a seemingly endless coming-of-age story, in which the enemies are largely schoolyard bullies and hunger pangs (but still, on occasion, demons). Calling them 'literary' is an easy, lazy way of describing it.
So, where am I going with this?
Robert V.S. Redick's The Red Wolf Conspiracy is a book that takes the 'realism' as far as possible in the 'literary' direction. Despite the setting, the story reads more like a contender for a Booker Prize than a Nebula Award. A displaced migrant worker struggles against an oppressive, misogynistic society. Set against the backdrop of the horrors of war, he bands together with other outcast minorities to forge a new family (in a triumph of the human spirit, naturally).
The setting is overtly - ostentatiously - fantastical. Tribes of tiny humanoids (Ixchel) scuttle around. Sorcerors and mad doctors practice their mystical arts in tandem. The overarching plot (when finally revealed) is similarly decadent. Two ancient empires, colliding in battle. Insane god-kings, long held captive in magical bonds. Ancient evils battle heroes from other worlds, etc. etc. Blah blah blah.
All of that, no matter how grandiose, is incidental. The real story of The Red Wolf Conspiracy is merely that of Pavel, a little boy on a big boat. Of no actual importance, his one SuperSecretHighFantasy ability is a magical ability to understand languages. He doesn't fight. He's not a wizard. He's just a cabin boy with bad headaches and an ear for dialects. He is, quite possibly, the least spectacular fantasy hero of all time. (Redick strikes me as the guy who played the Bard in his D&D group).
The earth-shattering events that surround Pavel are largely ignored by him - he's too busy trying to find a place for himself, in his own tiny world. Pavel is a real person, with real problems. He's got a good heart, so he's eventually pulled along in the meta-plot for understandable, altruistic reasons, but his primary motivation is often just to keep his head down.
The larger context of The Red Wolf Conspiracy is also completely independent of the book's fantastic surroundings. Although two mighty fantasy empires stand poised at the brink of war, Redick is less concerned with ancient war-related-prophecies than he is with describing the horrors of being a displaced migrant. Multi-dimensional wizards are facing off in battle, but the book is more interested in detailing the depressing, degrading status system. Or the misogynistic marriage practices. Or the unfortunate realities of slave trade economics. Ancient relics of unspeakable power someone else's problem - the heroes of The Red Wolf Conspiracy are more interested in getting out of their indentured labor contracts.
As a result, The Red Wolf Conspiracy is a very modern, very... almost overly... mature piece of fantasy. Instead of swords and sorcery, the reader gets etiquette and policy. There's no question that this makes the book a slow and often cumbersome read. The author's intent - and talent - seems to lie in complex world-building, as seen through the eyes of the world's most insignificant character. The occasional burst of action (and conventional 'plot') feels forced, and often drags both the reader and the characters away from the surprisingly interesting minutiae.
The resulting book is not always an entertaining work, but definitely an ambitious one.