I know you like epic, heroic fantasy books. You love magic with real results and consequences. You enjoy the ballads of small bands of fighters taking on long odds. Farmboys going to war is not a trope you fear but embrace. But you are already behind on most of the popular series, yes? Even trilogies can be a bit daunting if book one sits there unopened. So trust me, go ahead and pick up The Free by Brian Ruckley. Everything you love in one standalone volume, honestly you have nothing to lose.
I actually went back and forth on whether or not I even wanted to read this one. I read Ruckley’s debut a few years back and was left with a sense of overwhelming bleakness and not enough interest to fight through it. Now this tale isn’t all sunshine and rainbows; expect the characters to go through plenty of hell. But the bleakness never completely overrode hope. And damn did it piss me off every time life forced me to put the book down.
In a land where ‘clevers’ have the ability to cause mass destruction there is a school that keeps these magic users in check. Even as rebellion sweeps the land and ousts the royal line there is a power dynamic at play with this school. All the clevers of the land are held to a line – all but a mercenary company known as The Free. On the verge of being disbanded for good their leader, Yulan, takes one last contract. A chance to revisit an old ghost and take down the last of the royal line.
Drann is young warrior who has spent his whole life idolizing The Free. He is sent to witness the completion of the contract. Drann has no choice but to grab on and hold tight; time spent with this company makes for a wild ride.
Less is sometimes more. Who are the Orphans and why is Yulan so afraid of them getting their hands on the object his target is taking them? Doesn’t matter, what matters is stopping the man. Who all can do what with their magic? Who cares? Only those who use their clever powers for this cat and mouse game reveal to us readers. Of course we want to know more about the ‘permanences’ that strike fear into people’s hearts ; the two named versions we see are true weapons with awesome capabilities. But learning about any others that can be found in the world wouldn’t add to the story so I am fine with them being left on the cutting room floor.
Instead of excess information we get a tight tale with well-paced action, interesting battles with dynamics a bit different than your typical fantasy warfare, and subdued but interesting character interactions. The characters fit into some standard archetypes to be sure (soldier with rage issues, grizzled leader, guy who takes pity on the new guy) but in this case I found it helped me identify with them early without needing to spend a huge amount of time with them in the early pages.
A very interesting world is being built in the background here, frustratingly so if you are a person who wants to know everything about it. Only glimpses of the full capabilities of the clevers are shown. Only a glance of the larger political picture can be seen. But if you, like me, can find happiness in only hints of a larger world around a great story with a strong focus then you can rejoice. Being free sometimes come with a cost after all.
Copy for review received from NetGally