The Red Wolf Conspiracy - Robert V S Redick
This one's all about the setting. The backdrop is a nautical empire with its various seafaring allies, enemies and subject states, and most of the action takes place on a great big ship, the Chathrand. The book opens with a newspaper article bewailing the presumed loss of this ship in Mysterious Circumstances; what we then get is effectively a book-long flashback showing us how it all came about. The Chathrand is purportedly on a mission of peace to the empire's ancient rival, but shady political machinations are in the offing; there are dark magics at work and Imperial assassins at large; there's also an irascible first mate, some jolly tarboys and an ill-omened captain. Ah, but are there pirates?, I hear you ask. Yes, indeed there are.
The nautical flavour goes a long way towards disguising the rather average progress of the plot. The political scheming is interesting enough, but it rapidly becomes clear to the reader that there are more traditional things afoot, namely the quest by Dark Forces to retrieve the Deadly Artefact of Awesome Deadly Power, long since passed into legend etc etc. The main characters also stray into the waters of stale cliché, from the Orphan Boy with Special Magic Powers to the golden-haired tomboy princess, they rarely achieve more than two dimensions. Luckily, there are plenty of unusual side-characters with ambiguous motives to distract from our bland leads, and all sorts of strange little details (for example, the concept of Woken animals, and all the semi-magical races) to keep it all feeling fresh.
The writing isn't brilliant - it's fairly clunky in places, and Redick has a slight tendency to overexplain (including a couple of bizarre footnotes by "the Editors" that looked jarringly out of place, and didn't provide any information that we couldn't have gleaned from the text anyway). One of the most awkward things is the names of characters and places, many of which look suspiciously like bunches of random syllables strung together, and caused my reading flow to violently derail on more than one occasion. Redick is apparently a linguist, and it's a shame he didn't make more of this skill, beyond giving his main character a magic gift for languages; none of the languages here seem to have much internal consistency. The dialogue flows quite nicely among the adults, but I'm not sure he's quite nailed the voice of the teenage characters; mostly they end up sounding much younger than they should. Still, for a debut novel this was pretty good and very readable, and I'll certainly be picking up the sequels.