Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Free Lance Trilogy by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

Most readers know the author/illustrator combination of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell for their Edge Chronicles series, and rightfully so. That series is truly wonderful. However, Stewart and Riddell have collaborated on far more than that, and Free Lance (also called A Knight's Story) is a great example. Though it only amounted to a trilogy, it's a very entertaining collection that would be perfect for that reluctant reader who yearns for a rougher breed of adventure. There's blood, frightening villains, and a certain lack of sentimental wandering that many readers find profoundly off-putting.

It follows the story of an unbonded knight and his horse as they make their way through medieval life without the support of a lord. The knight has a strong personality and takes great pride in his free lance status, insisting that answering to a lord would only prevent him from doing what he wanted to do. Despite his rough exterior and his business-like approach which makes him seem more like modern police detective than a medieval knight, he is a genuine character that will completely win you over even as circumstances push him into one difficult decision after another.

The first book, Lake of Skulls, is decidedly dark and gritty. After unwittingly wandering into a rural tournament and unintentionally offending the local lord, a series of double crosses by some locals and some run-of-the-mill thuggery leads our protagonist, the wandering knight, into a perilous agreement to retrieve a cursed crown from a haunted island from which no one has ever returned. Our knight is adamantly opposed to superstitious belief, and refuses to accept that the curse of the crown exists, but he does begrudgingly embark on the journey to retrieve the crown. This, of course, is where the story takes a turn for the dangerous. I don't want to spoil it for you, but his quest to retrieve the crown is no walk in the park, and despite the fact that he succeeds the quest doesn't wrap up as cleanly as you might expect.

Book two finds our friend, the knight, in a big jousting tournament. He's the same bitter, independent character that we remember from his first adventure, but he's caught amid an entirely new crowd of deceitful swindlers. In this go-around, a money-hungry, corrupt nobleman is out to control the tournament through bribery and strong-arming the competitors into letting his champion win. In this book, there is a damsel in distress for the first time, not that the knight is all that excited to have to come to her rescue. In fact, he leans heavily toward letting her fend for herself. There's a whole internal battle for him about whether to do the right thing for him or for everyone else. I think the highlight of this volume is the squire that he takes on. He's kind of bumbling and goofy, but he's absolutely loyal and endearing.

The final book in the series takes us away from the jousting tournaments again. This time, our knight is hard up for cash and is escorting a skittish merchant from one city to another. His squire is laid up with a broken leg and Free Lance is on his own again. Of course, he's not transporting the merchant across your run of the mill countryside. Oh no, this is cursed land that is supposed to ensure untimely death to all who don't heed the warnings of an old legend. If you've learned anything about the knight though, it shouldn't surprise you that he doesn't buy the story despite his client's numerous pleas and warnings. After dropping the merchant off at his appointed destination, circumstances involving a new damsel in distress and some excessively superstitious townsfolk lead Free Lance back into the fabled field of death and an unintentional face-to-face encounter with the dragon creature from the story. Not surprisingly, a perilous battle ensues. Sadly, this encounter also brings about the conclusion of the series. Free Lance decides to give up the wandering knight life and settle down with the damsel and the newfound wealth he fell into during his fight with the dragon lizard.

We can hope for a series of stories revolving around the squire, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart have both moved onto bigger series since then, so these three books have to stand on their own. While they could support a few more volumes or at least a spinoff series involving the squire or the knight's child, I'm willing to give my vote of approval to this series without that. It's brief and bold, but also brilliant if you are the reader that holds out hope for a tough adventure with real grit. Free Lance is a singular sort of character in the genre, a medieval version of the Lone Ranger.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hitting the History Books

I've taken to reading history a lot lately. I'm not talking about multi-volume biographical tomes or sum everything up in a paragraph a decade complete histories, but books that look further into events so I can really get a grasp of where people were coming from. I do not know where my motivation for this comes from. It's certainly not from my wife, who regularly derides my constant anecdotal tales as irritating and dull. I've told her that I do it for the benefit of my teaching history, but I'm not sure that's really it either. Sadly, I think it's a personal fixation I have with things making sense and moments that don't seem logical being explained. So I've been reading up.

What I've found most vexing is that I've reached a point in my reading where I've started being comparative. I've read more than one text on the same moment in history and the same person, and I've noticed that they don't always agree on the details or even the broader themes. I've learned that politics plays a part in the reporting of history, something I believed before reading it firsthand. But I've also gotten a sense of another more frightening reality. We just don't do our homework. Most readers don't know enough background to say if we're being fed the truth or the justification for some convoluted rant laden with misinformation and distortion. The same applies with some historians. They spend so much time gathering material, they ignore the more important analysis and verification of what they write. When I read something that I find interesting or surprising in a history text anymore, all I want to know is where and how the writer found that out. I guess that is me growing into a better reader, but I do miss reading with a profound trust and astonishment at every page turn.

Here are some of the texts that gave me the goosebumps that I was talking about.

Lies My Teacher Told Me
This was the original or grandfather text of a lot of my history reading. I read this and scoffed and was intrigued and grew addicted. I think I even mentioned it in an earlier post on this blog. The pages on Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson were especially fascinating. I have to admit, when I read the title, I was not that impressed. I thought, "Great, another attack on the public school system. Just what we need." Then, I read about it in Chris Crutcher's book, Deadline, and I picked it up right away.

That's Not In My American History Book
This seems to follow the same theme as the one above it, but equally interesting. I'm not sure about how credible it is all the time since I have read some dissenting reactions in reviews, but I tend to believe it is credible most of the time and if not, there are at least a few other books I've read that corroborate the stories that the author told. Of course, there are also a few books I've read that contradict details, but oh well. I liked the book. I annoyed my wife with at least a few different stories I've read in here. Sorry, dear, if you read this. I didn't mean to annoy you. I just don't comprehend that everyone else isn't fascinated by this too.

Don't Know Much About History
Kenneth Davis has written more of these Don't Know Much books that than I thought could be created. Just how many things can any one person not know much about? However, these are the sort of books that intrigue the newfound history buff in me. I read these and learn so much and compare what I've read here to what I learned there and before I know it, I'm the fly in the ear of that lovely woman, my wife, once again. Mr. Davis begins many of this books the same way: with some introduction that speaks briefly to the negative experience he had in history class. Seems kind of ironic to read that in the beginning of a book by a bestselling historian, but I have to say that I get what he describes and I like where he's gone with his own books. I hope that by reading them, I've prepared myself to avoid the pitfalls his teachers went through.

Lies You Learned At School
This one is simple and to the point, though not completely focused on history.  Still, every page is a new supposed truth overturned by a very concise explanation and citation of facts. I like the book, though it leaves me with more of an appetite for more books like it than a satisfied feeling at the end. I guess that works for the author, but it's certainly a departure from the other books I've mentioned. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes their reading to be broken into small doses that don't require a significant devotion of time or a strong commitment to reading in order since the book is not arranged in a particular order chronological or otherwise.

Weird History 101
This one has the wildest stories I've ever read. And it's completely fun. I'd recommend this one to anyone. You don't have to like history to like this book. I think I picked it up on clearance in a warehouse-style bookstore. I never expect much from the books I get in those places, but I really loved this one. It was so well put together. Easily a favorite. I love any story that is full of oddities and this one is built on them.

So this is just a nice starter list. It's not the end-all-be-all list by any stretch of the imagination. There's so many more books that I could and probably should mention, but there's only so long that a person can stare at the same screen and tap, tap away at a keyboard. If you know a better book and you want to mention it, feel free to comment. Until next time, happy reading.