This is the fourth of a six-part series of connected stories set in the same world, which can supposedly all be read as stand-alones. There are references to earlier events, and foreshadowing of the larger picture, but this does read quite well as an independent story, even though it is probably more sensible to read the books in sequence.
Many of the same characters reappear, of course, not just Hadrian and Royce, the likeable rogues now royal protectors, but also Arista, the feisty princess, Thrace the village girl turned puppet empress, Esrahaddon the thousand year old wizard, and a whole raft of others. The plot concerns an intercepted message, which necessitates Royce and Hadrian becoming (rather bad) sailors and a great deal of - well, splicing the mainbrace and climbing the mizzen, or some such, with pirates and storms at sea and all the usual shenanigans. All good, exciting stuff.
We also get to see something of the southern coastal reaches of Elan, including the dwarvish tower of Druminor, built on a volcano, and the goblin homelands of Calis, all of which is far more interesting than the vaguely medieval world we've seen so far. The political plotting is still going on in the background, but it takes second place to the action, which is all to the good.
The whole series has been enjoyable to read, but this episode really sees the author reaching a new level. The plot is much tighter, with a neat twist at the end, the main characters acquire new depth and complexity, and there are far fewer quirks and anachronisms in the writing. There is less humour, perhaps, but that's inevitable as the story changes from amusing capers to defending the world. A good 4 stars. [First written August 2011]