I suppose, based on the name of this blog, that it was only a matter of time before John Flanagan’s popular franchise of young-adult fantasy novels came to my attention. The series is called Ranger’s Apprentice and chronicles what I like to call, “The Birth of a Ranger”. The first entry is titled The Ruins of Gorlan. It introduces us to the protagonist, Will, the eponymous apprentice of established Ranger of the realm, Halt. Halt takes Will in as his apprentice but only after Will is basically refused as an apprentice by all the other stewards. Will is a ward of the barony, a child without a parent and the book starts off shortly before “The Choosing”, the day in each wards life where they both choose a profession and are likewise chosen as a student by a craftmaster. In Will’s case, he wants desperately to be a Knight. Knowing little of his father other than that he died a hero, Will imagines his father must have been a valiant Knight and looks to follow in his footsteps. The Ruins of Gorlan is 300 pages of Will learning that his childhood fantasy is far from the truth.
Not only do we get to meet Will, but several of his friends. They include a pastry chef, a diplomat, and a knight. Over the course of the novel, his friendships are challenged along with his body and mind as he sets off down the lonely and mysterious path of becoming a ranger of the realm.
The novel builds on a solid narrative foundation by including the obligatory training montage where we get to see Will gaining competence with bow and dagger. We walk beside him as he transforms from a timid ward of the state into a confident young man, prepared to establish his place in the world. Over the course of this transformation, a parallel storyline develops amongst his friends and they too experience trials and tribulations during their apprenticeships. On the occasions that their paths cross, we see a divide forming between once good friends as each experiences the world from conflicting viewpoints. Ultimately though, these friends share similar goals and allegiances. Those allegiances are put to the test in the final acts of the story and the resolution is incredibly satisfying.
Overall, the book is competently written. The lexicon of the author is well within the realm of understanding for very young people, or those new to fantasy, without feeling restrictive to a more mature reader. I think this book would be appropriate for 4th grade readers on up to anyone interested in the subject matter. The violence in the book is couched in simple terms. Certainly there is nothing gratuitous. Yet, imaginative readers are not left wanting when it comes to some of the action and combat. A nearly complete absence of overt gore and sexuality is appreciated at this level. However, the story has plenty of heft to it. The emotional components of self-confidence, friendship, and loyalty combined with the liberal themes involving responsibility, commitment and altruism give meaning to what I had feared might just be “fantasy lite”. I was moved by the ending of the book in a way that even some of the highest quality fiction of the modern era was incapable of achieving.
That’s pretty high praise for a work of fantasy fiction that could be accurately described at “Entry Level”. But there are some issues the book has that I’d like to mention. At times the pacing wanders. The book is a very fast read so this isn’t a big problem but it’s noticeable. The secondary characters are somewhat shallow and a bit too iconic. I’d like to see some more depth to their characters and a little less predictability. Lastly (and this is purely a personal nit-pick), I’d like a little more background on the villains, particularly the enemy monsters and their ecology. The relationships of why certain beasts work together or why they are motivated was lacking. Barring that, the book was a very complete work of fiction. I felt like Flanagan does a good job with a high level introduction to the world, giving what we need and little else. I’m hoping the depth comes later though.
I’ve already purchased Book 2, The Burning Bridge. When I finish reading it, I’ll be sure to post a review.