The Free by Brian Ruckley. Return to form. Long Live Heroic Fantasy
I have always maintained that Brian Ruckley is a terribly underrated talent in Fantasy writing. His Godless trilogy was a blend of unique world-building, some intense magical systems topped off by frenetic action throughout. Agreed the trilogy ending was a little weaker than the start, but a lot of readers wrote him off as a wannabe-GRRM. Heck, if you are writing epic fantasy, there is not much room to manoeuvre around, especially with knights and castles being the centre of that universe. Brian definitely brought his own stamp of gritty dark feel to the Godless World and I certainly enjoyed the books.
The Free marks a return to epic fantasy for Brian and I definitely was among the frontlines of cheering. The last company of honourable mercenaries in a world gone to the dogs making a last stand against everyone else. Heroic. Bloody. And Brutal. I was in for the ride.
And once I started reading The Free, the sheer fun element trumped everything else. Yes it is medieval fantasy with a mercenary company led by the enigmatic soldier with a haunted past. Yes it has standard villains; evil royal prince with ego-issues. Probably standard fantasy tropes done to death and yes this book probably doesn’t cut new corners in a genre that is bursting with new talent. But once I got reading, the story was unstoppable.
So Brian cleverly drapes the story through the lens of a newcomer. A farm-boy who unwittingly finds himself to be a contract-holder for the most fearsome mercenary company – the last of such – known simply as the Free – on their last ever contract before they disband and go their separate ways. Reminds you of Scourge of the Betrayer – by Jeff Salyards? Where Arki gets to witness the deeds of the famous Syldoon troops led by Braylar Killcoin? Actually maybe the similarities end there. While Arki initially comes across as a naïve scribe out to be witness the fell deeds of the Syldoon troops, Drann is a soldier by choice and decides to rough it out – in the dull hopes that one day the songs in the beer taverns might feature his name, fighting alongside the Free.
Yulan, the Captain of the Free is the easily the best etched out character in this whole book. Fully realized and in terrific form, as Captain, Yulan feels of the burden of leading his company into a last stand – he has only lost two soldiers in his whole time as Captain. And now has to lead his company in a last stand on the edges of the Kingdom. A man burdened by the haunting past and a hopeless future, Yulan perfectly embodies the brooding captain torn by his choices and makes for the perfect man to root for and die.
Drann is a good choice of a cipher. A lot of the back-story and worldbuilding happens because of Drann. However the focus is not on the world, fascinating as it is or even the characters like Drann or Yulan, the Captain of the Free. It stays firmly on the last contract that Yulan has to fulfil. To bring back an old enemy and wash off the stains of a mistake in the past. And the story rumbles on towards that spectacular set-piece climax without taking on any baggage. A pity that Ruckley doesn’t build on the hints dropped. Who are the Orphans of the Empire? How did The Bereaved come into this world? Such questions may or may not be answered.
Anyways Ruckley claims to be no Shakespeare ; his prose is light and doesn’t burden the reader with much of philosophical navel-gazing that bloats the fantasy stories into trilogies. Written in a warm style that never gets too clever with the reader, Brian just presses hard on that gas pedal and doesn’t let go until the end. The magic – a Brian Ruckley staple - as usual is pretty intriguing stuff. Clevers, are people endowed with powers to manipulate nature (Here referred to broadly as entelech) and thus fashion and shape physical beings that are deadly and destructive. The catch is, the theme of balance in nature. It saps out something from the user as well. (“It’s a river that flows both ways. For us to put more pattern into the world, some has to be lost. Something has to go back. More often than not, is us. Our bodies, our minds, our souls.”)
Overall, I would heartily recommend The Free as a standalone read - heroic fantasy bursting with all the goodness you come to expect from this genre. A rich tribute to the Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven in fantasy vein, The Free deserves to be remembered and revered. Magnificent battles – vivid and visceral, a full-on well realized magic system that is almost hauntingly real and memorable heroic characters that live well beyond the last pages. It’s a juicy treat packing in so much into just one slim standalone book. I know for sure, this will definitely have fans clamouring for more stories set in this world. Mr. Ruckley, are you listening?