The Adamantine Palace - Stephen Deas
One complaint that I've often heard voiced about Novik, McCaffrey and other writers of dragon-centric fantasy is this: DRAGONS ARE NOT PONIES. It's a fair point. You've got basically a huge, razor-toothed fire-breathing monster, and its main purpose is as a domesticated mode of transport? The dragons in Deas's novel do, initially, seem to be of the Pony variety, but I'm pleased to announce that this impression changes rapidly when one of them gets loose.
With such a promising setup, it's slightly disappointing to find that the core of the plot lies elsewhere, in the Adamantine Palace of the title. The incumbent Speaker (a kind of over-king) is about to retire, and there is much squabbling among the lesser royals over who will succeed him. Queen Shezira, the favoured successor, has bartered one of her daughters and her finest dragon away to gain support for her claim, but the schemes of the younger and matricidally-ambitious Zafir threaten to derail her carefully-laid plans, and the dragon goes missing in transit. There's also nasty young prince Jehal who may or may not be poisoning his father, and some rather suspicious representatives of a rival nation who have given Jehal a special gift for reasons unknown. The intrigue is decent enough in its own right, but compared to the bigger story suggested by the unravelling history of the dragons, it seems relatively flat; I was much more interested in the alchemists' dark secrets than who would ultimately end up in the Speaker's chair, and only part of this is ever revealed.
There's still some reasonably good characterisation here, though; Queen Shezira in particular is an interesting portrait of a strong ruler, not entirely sympathetic, who still feels the shame from being traded in marriage as a child, but who is still prepared to do the same thing with her own daughters. The younger women are slightly less convincing; evil Zafir is a flaky, two-faced bitch, and youngest daughter Jaslyn is the Standard Tomboy Princess rather too prone to foot-stamping displays of petulance, whose blind hatred of Jehal seems to come out of nowhere.
Clearly the first instalment in a series, the only resolution we get at the end of this book is the contest for Speaker; the International Skulduggery, Mysterious Mountain King and Terrible Dragon History ones are left to tick over for future episodes. This is a shame because a) the book's already quite short, and I'd have liked to get a bit further into these new mysteries before it finished, and b) I'm getting very sick of bloody trilogies; can someone write a book that ENDS please? Still, I'm intrigued enough to read on once Book Two is out, so at least it works in a cynical marketing kinda way. In short: dragons, intrigue, poison, mercenaries and a Big Dark History. If you like that sort of thing then this is definitely worth a look.