by John Flanagan
Review by SF Winser
A young orphan is chosen for a life he never expected.
Why would I read those? A series of over-marketed, clichéd, badly-titled crap.
But, a while ago I was helping in a literacy programme in a Primary School. One of the eleven year old boys told me that this was one of his favourite series. Being a dedicated librarian (I read three Twilight books and the newest Dan Brown, for goodness sake!) I try to check out recommendations and see what various people in other demographics like. Especially kids, because some of the best stuff written these day is YA.
And I got a lovely little reward for my adventurousness. Having read them I've talked to many boys in late primary/early high school who love them. I know one 17 year-old girl who loves them. I now know many, many people love these books. I count myself one of them. These are fun and exciting reads. More importantly, they're well-written.
The best part is that the Ranger's Apprentice books do what good fantasy should – taking tropes and re-examining them, doing new things and doing them well.
Because Will – the protagonist - is not destined for anything. He's just clever, funny and physically adept. He's not strong or tall. He's a skirmisher and tactician. He's good at hand-to-hand but swords and war are not his specialty. He's definitely not a king in disguise. There are no prophecies about his life. He gets picked as a Ranger (a cross between forest warden and cop and spy) because of what he's good at – not the circumstances of his birth.
There is a secret around his origins. But it's a normal, real sort of secret. Hidden for good reasons. He isn't hunted by A Grand Evil because he holds the Secret of Plot-Device and Wields the Mighty Sword 'Deus Ex Machina'. He's just a good kid with some well-trained skills.
What Will does, along with his friend Horace and mentor Halt, is just go around solving problems by being clever, funny and physically adept. And failing at times. Sometimes, Halt is the real hero of the book. Sometimes Horace is. Sometimes it's other characters. Because Will is not infallible. Nor are his companions. They are just people doing their damnedest in hard circumstances.
Magic is treated very cautiously in the books. One of the best explanations I have for the tone of the series is that it's fantasy without magic. There are some odd creatures. Strange plants. People with interesting knowledge of unusual arts... but magic is either background or pretty much non-existent. These books are about derring-do and cleverness. There are cool swordfights, horse-chases and political wrangling. There's even a bit of romance. But the Ranger's Apprentice books have more in common with Robin Hood than King Arthur. In this world, Merlin would get his nose punched in, and the Lady of the Lake would turn out to be a charlatan with a very clever snorkel and permanent prune-fingers, desperate to offload a stolen sword to gullible royalty.
Flanagan is very good at this – setting you up to see a typical fantasy idea, and then doing something else with that starting-point. Not always something earth-shattering, but often something interesting.
The world the stories are set in is a rough analogue of medieval Europe. The mandatory fantasy map would almost align perfectly with a map of our world. There are Viking-like people. Scots-types. All in the parts of the world in which you would expect them. But this feels like a deliberate choice, rather than laziness. And they are rarely all 'the bad guys'. There are political and social reasons for enmities and although these aren't deeply explored this is YA and not adult socio-political literature. These details are often explored to a deeper point than might otherwise be expected. Just don't expect too much.
There is one odd quirk in the series. Flanagan originally wrote the stories as an encouragement to his son to read. He expanded them and worked on them until they were ready for print. Which meant they weren't all published in chronological order. Readers are advised that book 7 should be read after book 4. Which really screws up the order on the bookshelf. This is particularly upsetting to Northern Hemisphere readers: Book 7 was only just released there. (Lucky Antipodeans have just gotten book 9 and are expecting book 10 later this year! Die, US cultural hegemony! Die!)
This has become one of my go-to recommendations for unwilling pre-teen boy readers (for teen boys I usually go for Robert Muchamore's 'Cherubs'. But that's another review), for adults who want a new fantasy series or anyone just after an exciting read. I'm almost embarrassed to admit how desperately I searched out copies to buy once I tried them (that's right, I work in a library and I BOUGHT these books) and then waited like a sad fanboy for book 9 and the conclusion to book 8's cliffhanger. Almost. Even though that hunt often involved traipsing through bookstore after bookstore in two states and four cities as everyone had sold-out of the volumes I wanted. Fans will understand why I would go to such lengths. Once you read them, you'll most-likely be hooked, too. Warn your bookstore in advance.