Ruckley's latest, The Free, has been on my pile of books to read since last fall, but something always got in the way of my reading it. It was a bit too heavy to bring with me to the Philippines, so I promised myself that it would be the first book I'd review upon my return. The author's previous work, The Edinburgh Dead, was much different from his first series. But this new novel is a return to the sort of stories with which Brian Ruckley originally made a name for himself.
The Free is a cross between Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold and Glen Cook's The Black Company. Fans of the grimdark subgenre should appreciate this fine tale of vengeance.
Here's the blurb:
THEY ARE THE MOST FEARED MERCENARY COMPANY THE KINGDOM HAS EVER KNOWN. Led by Yulan, their charismatic captain, the Free have spent years selling their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder -- winning countless victories that have shaken the foundations of the world. Now they finally plan to lay down their swords. Yet when Yulan is offered a final contract, he cannot refuse -- for the mission offers him the chance to erase the memories of the Free's darkest hour, which have haunted him for years. As the Free embark on their last mission, a potent mix of loyalty and vengeance is building to a storm. Freedom, it seems, carries a deadly price.
The worldbuilding is not that well-defined this time around, and Ruckley keeps his cards close to his chest for the most part. You get just enough information to know what is going on, but the author seldom elaborates on the world and its people. I was a bit disappointed by that fact, as there are some fascinating concepts in this book. Chief among them the Permanences, those dangerous and powerful manifestations of elemental magic with ominous names such as the Bereaved and the Clamour, and anything that has to do with sorcery. The magical system is quite mysterious. Sorcerers are known as Clevers and their talents always focus on one particular element. The author offers very few details regarding how it all works, other than showing us the heavy toll a Clever must pay for each use of their mystical arts. The more powerful the spell, the heavier the toll on their bodies. The Free focuses on the last days of a legendary mercenary company and as such that plotline takes center stage to the detriment of everything else. But the setting appears to be rich enough to warrant a return to this universe for additional tales in the future.
The POVs are all over the place, which can be extremely confusing. You jump from one point of view to the next without any break in the text. One sentence you're in someone's head and all of a sudden you find yourself in another's. I have an advance reading copy, so I'm not sure whether or not this was fixed in the final edition. . .
The tale is told from the point of view of two very disparate protagonists. Yulan, experienced captain of the Free, is a battle-hardened man and a keen strategist who has the respect of his entire company. Drann, on the other hand, is young and inexperienced and pretty much in over his head from the very beginning when he's ordered to follow the Free as the contract holder. Other than Hamdan, we don't get to know a whole lot about the other mercenaries. Which is a shame, as most were intriguing, especially Akrana. I was expecting more out of the characterization, probably something akin to that of Cook's Black Company or Erikson's Bridgeburners, which would have allowed us to get to know each member of the company a bit more and perhaps be able to relate to them more as individuals. In addition, the "villains" are a bit too black-and-white, which I felt was a case of the author's taking the path of least resistance.
This might be a quest for redemption for Yulan, but at heart The Free is a tale of revenge. There is a lot of action, with enough blood and gore to satisfy grimdark aficionados. There is one truly memorable scene, as Kerig, one of the Free's clevers, is tied up to a tree and uses his arcane arts to help protect the others. That was just plain awesome! Such scenes are the reason why I hope we'll get to learn more about this universe and the way magic works in future novels.
Holding back on the worldbuilding keeps the pace moving briskly. The Free is a dark and brutal work that grabs hold of you and keeps you turning those pages. It's a fun and fast read, with characters that remain true to themselves. Even better, it's a stand-alone novel!
Although it doesn't show the sort of depth that made the Godless World series such a quality read, The Free is nevertheless another solid effort by Brian Ruckley and is the perfect book to read while you wait for the next GRRM, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, or Scott Lynch titles.