The Matthew Corbett books have historically been hefty affairs—Speaks the Nightbird, the first in the series, clocked in at over 800 pages, and the others have gone 400 or more. The lone exception was the fifth book, 2014’s River of Souls, which was a lean 256 pages. It’s my personal favorite of the series, the perfect mix of Robert McCammon’s incredibly detailed world building and action/thriller pacing.
Freedom of the Mask has put some of the weight back on—my advance copy hit 530 pages—but maintains the breathless pace of its predecessor. There’s enough story packed in it for two books, but it’s filler-free, and for good reason: there’s a ticking clock hanging over McCammon’s head now. He’s announced that the series will go nine books and no further, which puts us deep in the overall Corbett story arc at this point. McCammon is very calculated in the way he handles each book’s immediate plot while moving all the pieces toward the series conclusion. (I won’t even talk about how McCammon has been hinting at retirement after the Corbett series, because it feels like we just got him back and I don’t want to think about losing him again.)
Freedom picks up in the immediate wake of River of Souls. Matthew has gone missing, and his friend Hudson Greathouse and would-be amore Berry Grigsby set out to find him. From this simple beginning, McCammon spins a plot that’s ambitious in scope, moving from a disastrous boat trip across the Atlantic to the depths of a London prison; through the back alleys of a London slum to the private retreat of Matthew’s greatest enemy, the mysterious Professor Fell. Along the way we are treated to a thoroughly researched, intricately detailed examination of the hellish conditions endured by colonial-era prisoners; the presence and influence of corruption in organizations both official and criminal that still rings true hundreds of years later; the manipulation of the masses through the illicit drug trade; the perils of vigilante justice; and a rollicking adventure tale full of swordplay, fist fights, puzzles a-plenty, and even some crude (but effective) explosives.
It’s no secret that the Corbett series is where McCammon’s heart lies in this, the second half of his stellar career. Although he has also eased back into the sci-fi/horror realm (with books like The Border and I Travel by Night) that brought him his earliest success and acclaim, you don’t devote nine novels’ worth of work to a single character unless that’s where you feel your legacy will reside. The combination of imagination and research McCammon pours into these books is staggering, and while this series may never knock Boy’s Life or Swan Song or Stinger from the top of the heap in the eyes of his old-school fans, I think it’s a group of books that will become increasingly adored with time. Freedom of the Mask ends with some very big question marks, which is to be expected as we enter the third and last act of the series, and McCammon is gambling big on his own ability to bring things to a satisfying conclusion. If I were a betting man, I damn sure wouldn’t bet against him.