March 23, 2006


The Edge Chronicles VII: Freeglader. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $12.95.

     Every few books, the amazing and enthralling Edge Chronicles pulls back a bit, gathering itself for what will come later in the 10-book series.  Freeglader is a pullback of sorts, though it does not lack for excitement and is far more successful than the previous “pullback” book, The Curse of the Gloamglozer (Book IV).  The enormous climax of Book VI, Vox, led to the destruction of the built-up areas where all the books had primarily taken place.  Survivors of the monster storm and conflagration were forced into the wilderness, toward the distant and danger-filled Deepwoods, in the hope of reaching the Free Glades and beginning a new life.

     Freeglader is the story of that trek to the Deepwoods and what happens afterwards.  Unlike the earlier books, it introduces no major new characters, though it does bring in one who has a significant end-of-book revelation to provide.  The primary focus here remains on Rook Barkwater, a young Librarian Knight who has been the crux of the plots of several novels now.  But almost equally central is Xanth Filatine, Rook’s onetime friend who turned traitor, then realized the error of his ways and tried to make amends – by, among other things, saving Rook’s life more than once.

     The plot of Freeglader creaks a bit where Xanth is concerned – one sign that author Paul Stewart and illustrator Chris Riddell are taking a breather here.  For instance, Rook alone knows to what extent Xanth has reformed – so Rook conveniently (for the plot, not for Xanth) loses his memory of recent events and recalls Xanth only as evil.  Later, before a battle, Xanth befriends a warrior who learns of his courage; and Xanth finds a sword with which to show just how brave he is.  Indeed, Xanth strikes the crucial blow that brings victory.  But then he is found with the sword, which it turns out was supposed to be Rook’s – and the friend who could prove that Xanth found it innocently and used it bravely has died in the battle.  All this is a touch more obviously manipulative than Stewart has been elsewhere.

     Riddell’s illustrations are as gorgeously detailed as ever, but they have less grandeur here than in earlier volumes, focusing more on individual characters than on geography and the surroundings in which events take shape.  The scale of some is off: there is a lovely full-page one of Rook astride his prowlgrin mount, but when it comes to showing several huge and vicious war machines, the illustrations are the size of postage stamps.  And a few of Riddell’s pictures are simply odd: Stewart writes in detail of the three-member Free Glade Council, but the vertical illustration shows only two members and part of an ear of the third.

     Notwithstanding its lacks in these details, Freeglader strongly advances the story being told in the Edge Chronicles series by bringing to a head the conflicts between the Free Glades and the various forces that would enslave them: shrykes (great warlike birds driven by blood frenzy), goblins of various kinds (not all of whom prove warlike – a crucial development), and the Foundry Glades (an industrial center whose heart is slave labor).  By the end, Freeglader has shown us the triumph of rural communality (the Free Glades exist as a kind of utopian Marxist society).  But there is still a trilogy of Edge Chronicles to go, and readers already entranced by this wonderful series know that if there is calm now, a storm is sure to follow.

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