Brian Ruckley’s debut The Godless World trilogy got its foot in the grimdark door a few years before the idea really took hold in epic fantasy. Something of a misfortune for Ruckley, his trilogy remains one of the better in the sub-genre, but under-read due to the later success of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Luke Scull, Jeff Salyards, Brian Staveley, and others. Possessing a strong Scottish-ish (or at least Medieval loch and highlands) feel, Ruckley proved able to do something beyond plot and set scenes: endow story and character with something resembling real emotion—not something typically on the grimdark checklist. Moreover, his gritty style is more natural, more organic. Unlike the manipulations of Abercrombie or the contrived cheese of Scull or Salyards, the fates of Ruckley’s characters unravel inherent to plot rather than being insular events intended solely to shock or surprise. Smaller in scope and the emotional edge perhaps blunted slightly, Ruckley’s 2014 The Free marks a return to grimdark.
A stand-alone novel (very welcome in this day of never-ending series), The Free is the story of a band of mercenaries fulfilling one last contract and the young man who joins them as contract bearer. That contract the capture of a man who committed the most grievous of injustices against a small village, the leader of the Free, Yulan, has personal interest bringing the man down, and thus he and his motley group of clevers and battle-hardened fighters go about the commission with teeth set. But when a nearby school of magic undergoes internal upheaval, a rogue sorcerer throws a wrench in the Free’s plans. For Drann, the contract bearer, life goes from chaotic to outright frightful as everything collides in a powerful climax that shakes and trembles the story to its very foundations.
While the tangible details of setting could have been fleshed out a touch more to give the story full tactility, The Free remains a well-paced tale of vengeance and honor, battles and magic. The latter earth-based, items like trees, snow, blood, birds, dirt, and hair intertwine with individual talents to twist the laws of nature into unnatural abilities. But yet, like much of Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand, the focus remains the hard details of sword and spear in militia-sized fights. Featuring no kingdom-sweeping, epic battles, Ruckley keeps his plotlines honed to the group of mercenaries, towns and villages, chieftans and farmers, and the small armies and fights they choose to get involved in or have thrust upon them. Able to top itself a few times, the conclusion of the story is worth the wait and, ironically, is the centerpiece of the novel.
In the end, The Free is grimdark epic fantasy, but becomes slightly more for its emphasis on the “realist” instead of the manipulative side of the sub-genre. Having much more of a David Gemmell than Joe Abercrombie feel, Ruckley doesn’t rub the reader’s face in nihilism, rather he takes a more “honest” look at the blood and guts of heroism, successful or otherwise. He also makes the story his own in the Scottish-ish setting, relevant characters, and band of brothers sentiment. Overall it may not be the most original nor progressive story ever written, but in context with the writers of other such fiction, does at least poke its nose out.