The Magnificent Seven. Seven Samurai. These action-packed, adventure movies supposedly inspired Brian Ruckley when writing this tale of a band of fantasy land mercenaries taking one last contract before retiring.
I’m sure that doesn’t wow many of you. Truthfully, it didn’t excite me either when I got this ARC. But after finishing The Free, I have to admit it was a fun, exciting adventure with lots of interesting ideas and concepts.
The story is set in a land ripped apart by civil war, as a rebellion of the nobility sweeps aside the royal line of kings who have kept the ominous “Orphans” of the south at bay using the threat of a Permanence known only as The Bereaved.
Remaining neutral in this epic societal clash is the realm’s “clevers,” or magic-users, who use a very exotic form of elemental magic to cause mass destruction.
One group that does take sides (albeit for a price) is the mercenary company known as the Free. This legendary band of warriors, clevers, and their horrifying Permanence, the Clamour, are completing their final contract, fighting for one of the nobles in his struggle against the remaining kingsmen. And as the war nears its end, its members are eager to disbanding for good; their leader, Yulan, being the one most ready for his companions to drift off into retirement and enjoy their well-earned gold.
But wait! Yulan is offered a final contract. A very lucrative one. A deal that will not only pay an ungodly sum of gold to the company but also allow them to rectify an old failure. And though he resists the idea, ultimately, Yulan cannot pass up the gold or, more important, the chance to legally slay (there is a contract after all!) the member of the royal family who dealt the Free its only embarassment.
Accompanying the mercenaries on their final mission is Drann, a young peasant who is a volunteer in the noble’s army. He has little training, less worldly experience, but more than a little respect and awe for the legendary Free company. And through good luck (or bad, according to your point of view) Drann finds himself riding among his childhood heroes, bearing the noble’s contract, sworn to witness the completion of this business arrangement and report back such news to his lord. But nothing in Drann’s past has prepared him for the wild adventure he has stumbled into!
As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of interesting elements in this novel. Let me list just a few.
What are clevers, and how do their powers work?
Who are the Orphans that everyone is afraid of?
What are the Permanences that are so carefully guarded and only whispered about in awe?
What is the terrible failure that the Free are so eager to rectify?
And how will the School of Clevers get involved in the whole situation, and how?
The story that slowly reveals the answers to all these questions is a well-written, tightly-woven, and exciting adventure. There are lots of intense battles, some cool “clever” action, and more than a few exciting characters. And while the world building is sparse, it is satisfying, revealing a very intriguing land with lots of lore and history hiding just under the surface.
The only issue I had with The Free was that the story used too many standard tropes and character archetypes for my taste. The grizzled, famous mercenary company taking one last ride into the sunset has been done before in books and movies. And the characters tended to fall into the usual categories: the naive, new guy (Drann); the haunted, well-loved leader (Yulan); the grizzled, kind veteran (Hamdan); the broken, spiteful female warrior (Akrana); and the list goes on. While none of this kept me from enjoying the story, it did cause me to read a little less closely at times, because, honestly, I could guess what each character was going to do and say in most situations.
Sounds a lot like watching The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai, doesn’t it?
That is because it is, except you are reading (as opposed to watching) an action-adventure extravaganza that might not overwhelm you in its complexity, but will definitely keep you entertained until the end.
I received this ARC from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them both for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.