Illustrated by Chris Riddell
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 discovers the reason 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, wide spaces between lines of text and detailed illustrations. The first person narrator places the reader right into the action of the story, making us feel as though we are joining Free Lance on his adventure. Since Lake of Skulls is aimed at young readers, the choice of character names is significant. 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 read comfortably 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 too challenging for them to read.
Chris Riddell wonderfully illustrates the story with edgy and brooding images. With at least one sketch on every double page, they prominently feature the array of characters Free Lance meets on his journey, as 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-demensional and the detailed images of the ferocious hags; it is clear that 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 also the world around them. The amount of images in the novel never feels excessive and they certainly do not distract from the words around them.
Lake of Skulls is the third book in the Free Lance series by Stewart and Riddell. Unlike a lot of book series, the reader is not required to have read the previous books to understand what has happened in the novel. They work as standalone novels, designed to entertain and capture the imagination of its younger readers. It is a series of books that will hopefully continue for a long time.