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.

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