BRIEF SYNOPSIS: With war drawing to a close Yulan and his mercenary company accept one final commission — to hunt down an old foe and bring him to justice before he can kill more innocents.
PROS: Intriguing setup and setting; better-than-usual revenge motivation; husband/wife dynamic; dynamic action; memorable scenes; stunning magic; Permanences!
CONS: Stock characters.
BOTTOM LINE: Brian Ruckley crafts a fun and satisfying revenge story.
It seems my choice in video games has influenced my reading habits of late. Playing Bungie’s Destiny reignited my desire for military science fiction and so I read Henry V. Neil’s Glory Main and was not disappointed. Last week I started playing Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and just had to get my hands on some quality fantasy. Fortunately Brian Ruckley’s The Free showed up around this time. This being the first time I’ve read Ruckley’s work, a nice thick standalone seemed a good place to start. I love the current state of the fantasy genre but there are so many different series that a standalone story has a special sort of appeal to it…or at least it did until I finished The Free and immediately wished I could read more about the world Ruckley has created.
The book opens by introducing us to a conflict that is nearing its end. The King has been toppled and all that is left for the victors to do is divide up the spoils of war. Well, that’s not all that is left to do. One final member of the Hommetic bloodline remains alive and is fleeing for the neighboring Empire of Orphans. There’s no telling if the Empire is sanctuary or damnation for Callotec, the dead King’s cousin, but his continued existence threatens everything the Council has bled to achieve. This is where the titular Free come into play. Yulan is captain of the last great mercenary company and has a vendetta to settle with Callotec reaching all the way back to his first days as leader of the Free. The Free take on one final mission to track down Callotec and bring him back, dead or alive.
Ruckley does a superb job hitting the right notes from the very start. Fantasy novels often feature kingdoms on the brink of war or in the midst of war but rarely ever have I read about a kingdom nearing the end of a war. It’s an interesting premise and lends itself well to the sword and sorcery nature of the story. The Free is a personal affair. Yulan has compelling reasons for seeking revenge against Callotec that go beyond the typical “murdered spouse/family” motivations. There is a dark stain on the Free’s honor and Yulan seeks to see it expunged. The rest of the Free are motivated by loyalty alone, save for the few who were present during the company’s darkest hour.
Included in this quest for redemption is Drann, a spearman of the Council’s levy turned contract holder. Drann is a young farmer and a late addition to the war. He provides the naive and innocent foil to the battle-hardened Yulan and his mercenaries. Drann is the reader’s window into the Free as well as the sentimental heart of the novel. He is easily the most relatable of the characters featured in The Free. Yulan is a strong stoic leader, a clever tactician and expert swordsman. The mercenaries themselves are a little light on the characterization. There are glimpses of humanity behind the archetypes presented but it’s unlikely that readers will grow deep attachments. The villains adhere to this same principle — they aren’t exactly nuanced. There are two characters that did grab my attention — a husband and wife, both sorcerers. The relationship between the two drives a few of the best scenes in The Free; it’s an angle I’ve not seen often explored in fantasy or genre fiction in general and would love to see examined at greater length.
Like all of the best revenge stories the real draw to The Free is the action. Brian Buckley’s action writing straddles the line between heroic fantasy and sword & sorcery. Combat is bleak and violent, with the brutal realities of war intruding with every sword swing. As the buffer between the reader and the mercenaries, Drann’s naivety and inexperience grounds the legend of the Free in the reality of the world they inhabit. The Free pits Yulan and his relatively small band of merry murderers against a few hundred armed men. The odds might seem dire but the playing field is more even than you might suspect. Yulan commands several powerful sorcerers (called Clevers) and even has access to a Permanence — but more on Permanences in a moment.
The magic of The Free is easily its most memorable aspects. Though Ruckley never goes into intricate detail about the magic system he is not afraid to show off its effects and for that I am grateful. I appreciate logical and interesting magic systems as much as the next fantasy reader but sometimes you just want magic to be…mysterious and miraculous. The best scene in The Free involves a Clever and a tree — I won’t say any more than that for fear of ruining the moment. And then there’s the Permanences! A Permanence is a spell gone wrong, a destructive force of nature and chaos. There are a number of these Permanences throughout the world. They bear ominous names like the Clamour and the Bereaved. Those with (nominal) control over a Permanence are nigh untouchable. They are a rare and dangerous prize — Mutually Assured Destruction for a fantastical age. I understand that The Free is a standalone but I would love to read more stories set in this world and largely because of Clevers and Permanences.
The Free is a fun fantasy novel — sharp, fast, and satisfying. Ruckley straddles the line between heroic and sword & sorcery fantasy, presenting a magic fueled revenge tale that is well worth reading. I look forward to checking out more of Brian Ruckley’s work.