Free Spirits is a short story (about 28 pages) set in the mid-2000s of the Grapple Gun Universe (GGU). If you’ve been following along in the series that began with Archers and whose most recent installment is The Eye of Horus, this is 30+ years in the future from the characters and events you’re familiar with, so we are well into uncharted territory. The protagonist and almost all of the rest of the characters are new, but you’ll recognize some of the major villainous powers operating behind the scenes as Tennessee Beauregard begins to unravel the mystery of just who he’s really working for and what they’re doing with abducted metahumans.
Without getting into spoilery detail (and really, there’s little that would be a major spoiler for the GGU books taking place in the late 1970s), this story is very much rooted in the culture and events of its setting. It’s after the Iraq War and involves black sites, arms running to nefarious factions in the Middle East, torture, rendition, black budget mercenaries, and the rest. Here, the enthronement of a brooding, malevolent conspiracy of sociopathic oligarchs and ruthless puppet masters is hard reality, whereas it was a more nascent and inchoate threat in the earlier GGU books. Institutions that were merely suspected of being poisoned from within in the 1970s are here confirmed in their moribundity. In Free Spirits, the presence of superpowers and supernatural events takes a backseat–only the antagonists have superpowers, and there is no great triumph of good over evil, only the set-up for more struggle. Even so, it is not an especially dark book, and ends on a hopeful note.
If there’s a downside to this short story, it would be that it doesn’t seem to have much relevance to rest of the GGU–at least, not yet. The adventure itself feels truncated, a slice of action and moral qualms that doesn’t delve too deeply into the overarching metaplot. Nor does it really flesh out the characters and their (checkered) histories–perhaps making it easier to accept them as heroes now, but still feeling incomplete and perhaps a bit of a cheat. I wonder at Rohlin’s intentions in writing a short story set three decades in the future of the other GGU books, but I won’t criticize it: sometimes you just have to write and let an adventure reveal itself! However, I wouldn’t call it required reading if you’re really into the plots and characters of the other Grappleverse. I suspect in a few years it will be more important. 4 out of 5 stars.