Author: Paul Stewart
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
First published by Hodder and Stoughton in July 2003
Review by Miriam Atkinson
Set in medieval times, Free Lance and the Lake of Skulls is a darkly comedic illustrated story. It follows Free Lance, a down on his luck knight, and his horse Jed. Arriving in town for a tournament, Free Lance is instead challenged by Lord Big Nose to retrieve the golden crown of an ancient king in exchange for a purse full of gold and shelter during the winter months. However when Free Lance encounters two vicious hags determined to protect their treasure he realises why no one the Lord has sent to the island has ever returned.
The book is made to be accessible to all young readers with its larger font, wider spaces between lines of text and detailed illustrations. The first person narrator places the reader right into the action of the story making them feel as though they are joining Free Lance on his adventure.
As Lake of Skulls is aimed at young readers the choice of character names become important. Some characters have childishly comedic names given to them by Free Lance – such as Lord Big Nose and Potato Head – with their real names never offered up in order to entertain its readers. Other characters have simple monosyllabic names – such as Jed and the barmaid Nell – to make them easier for readers to remember and pronounce. In fact all of the language used in the novel is simplified and easy to understand. The novel is fairly short with only 114 pages and despite the inclusion of chapters it can be comfortably read in one sitting. All of these factors are deliberate choices by Paul Stewart to create a fun, fantasy story that can reach as many young readers as possible without being to challenging for them to read.
Chris Riddell wonderfully illustrates the story with edgy, brooding images. With at least one sketch on every double page, the illustrations prominently feature the array of characters Free Lance meets on his journey and well as some of the settings and key moments from the scenes. Highlights include the sketches of Jed the horse which are perhaps the most realistic and 3-dimensional; and the detailed images of the ferocious hags where it is clear Riddell enjoyed creating these creatures. The pictures enhance the story, especially for young readers, as they allow the reader to clearly visualise not just the characters but the world around them. The amount of images in the novel never feels overdone and certainly do not distract from the words around them.
Lake of Skulls is the first book in the Free Lance series by Stewart and Riddell. Unlike a lot of book series, these work as standalone novels designed to entertain and capture the imagination of its younger readers. Lake of Skulls is followed by Free Lance and the Field of Blood (previously titled Joust of Honor) and Free Lance and the Dragon’s Hoard.
*This review was first published in the online magazine Cuckoo Review in January 2018*