Where to begin…
Okay, let’s start with the fan-rave.
First of all, I have been back and forth over the entire length of Wilderland, and I have never encountered characters quite like those of Ranger’s Apprentice. (Cookies for everyone who gets the reference in that sentence. And not the follow-your-computer-creeper kind, the yummy kind… only they’re virtual. Sorry.)
By order of appearance (Morgarath, you aren’t eligible, since you’re a villain):
- Will. Will is the main character, and it’s basically his coming-of-age story. However, Will is the sort of person (rather like Hiccup from How To Train Your Dragon) who has to fight to be a hero. It doesn’t come naturally to him. What does come naturally to him?
Curiosity. Friendship. And, often getting him into trouble, intuition, a quick mind, and a sharp tongue.
Will isn’t your average fearless fantasy hero. He gets jittery at times, all right. He has a hyperactive imagination. And, when he’s under pressure, he snaps at people, sometimes very bitingly indeed. He’s a bright boy, but he needs a guiding hand, and he’s nearing the age when he has to leave the life of a castle ward. Deep down inside, I think that Will is plagued by the feeling that he’s useless, and more than anything else, he needs a purpose in life.
Will is an orphan, but that didn’t define his character; it was merely part of his backstory and gave Will’s character depth without dominating his character. This is especially incredible, seeing that orphaning your characters is often a path directly to the realm of the Mary Sue. Will is an orphan, but there is much more to him than just that.
(I refer to Will, Gilan, Jack Frost, Obi-Wan, Garen, Hiccup, Peter Pan, John Watson, Merlin, and the collective heroes of several of my stories as “my boys.” Being one of “my boys” guarantees getting hugged a lot, and used for an example in blog posts frequently. Several characters from Lord of the Rings would be “my boys” too, but they’re all too mature and dignified. 😉 )
- Horace. The Ruins of Gorlan isn’t just Will’s coming of age story. It’s also Horace’s. Horace was an orphan and castle ward alongside Will, and he and Will consistently picked on each other throughout their respective childhoods. However, Horace isn’t an archetype bully. Battleschool helps Horace to reach his potential, and also partially takes away his enmity toward Will, and they leave their differences behind them and become friends after saving each other’s lives.
Though Will and Horace are roughly the same age, it’s hard to always remember that. Sometimes, seeing that Horace is so much taller and broader than Will, people assume that Horace is much older, and the audience occasionally thinks that as well. And when Will mouths off at Horace, you get the impression that he’s the elder. However, Will isn’t actually “more mature” than Horace at the beginning of the book. They’re equals, but in different ways, if that makes sense.
- Halt. Oh. My. Goodness. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here, I think. How to describe Halt?
Well, Halt… is Halt. He’s taciturn and strong-willed, and does not bare his heart to anyone, ever. He never says exactly what he means when it comes to how he feels; you have to read between the lines.
Halt is his own person. He has his own style. And I think that frankly, whichever actor who they picked to play him getting the character down would be the biggest roadblock they’d come across if they ever tried to make the series into a movie.
Halt, as Gandalf or Mr. Beaver would say, isn’t safe, but he is trustworthy. And that’s probably the best way anyone will ever come up with to describe him.
- Tug. No, Tug isn’t a person. He’s Will’s pony. (If you make a Brony joke in the comments, I will find you. But you won’t see me. You won’t even know I’m there, until I brain you with my frying pan, and you’d better count yourself lucky I wasn’t using my bow.) Ranger horses are a breed apart, as Horace remarks toward the end of the book. They’re extremely intelligent, loyal, and brave animals, even if they are on the small side.
Tug isn’t just a horse, though. He has a personality, and a mind of his own. Not that he ever rebels against what Will wants to do, he just has opinions. And, like Bill, the pony from Lord of the Rings, he shares them.
Ranger horses are trained to communicate with their riders when someone or something else is approaching, to only allow people they know to mount them, and to stay where their riders tell them to. Each Ranger horse has a code word that basically asks for the horse’s permission before they accept a new rider, as Will finds out the first time he mounts–or tries to mount–Tug. Without a polite “Do you mind?”, Tug will just buck you off. And Tug is fast. Tug would give his life to protect Will. It’s not surprising that, after a while, Rangers start to hold whole conversations with their horses, is it?
- Baron Arald. (Okay, this one is out of order, but cut me some slack!) The Baron of Redmont Fief is a kindly man who loves a good joke, but unfortunately for him, everyone always seems to take him seriously. If only the common folk of his fief would realize that he was only joking!
- Gilan. Gilan, or Gilan Davidson as I’ve heard him referred to, was Halt’s first apprentice, and a rarity among the Rangers; not only does he use the two knives and the bow, but also a long sword. Gilan often acts flippant, but under that humorous exterior, he is always thinking ahead and watching out for danger. (If you’ve heard me talk about Xanatos as a good character rather than a villain, or if you’ve read certain stories with a good version of Xanatos, you’ll have a good idea of what Gilan is like, but only what he is like. You have to read the books to actually get Gilan. Frankly, Gilan, Tug, Halt, and Will are all contenders for the title of my favorite character of all time. Gilan is the only one of “my boys” who doesn’t try to push me away or act shocked when I hug him. Which makes him very good to cry on, as well. 😛 )
Now, for the story. While the Wargals are basically just hairy versions of orcs and the Kalkarra might be likened to the Nazgul (I, however, think the Kalkarra are more like the Balrog), this story isn’t just a rip-off of the Lord of the Rings. For instance, the Wargals are far more primitive than orcs and are completely dependent on Morgarath’s will to act. On their own, if they have no motivation, they will mill about harmlessly. But more than that, the story centers about Morgarath’s desire for revenge on certain people, the ones who were most instrumental in thwarting his takeover before. Since it has not been thousands of years since his previous attempt to take over, his revenge is more direct and immediate than a general desire to wipe out the Heir of Isildur and break the back of Elendil’s line. Much of the story, however, deals with Will’s training and his and Horace’s struggles with the common problems all young people face while growing up. The final third of the book, though, is a satisfying package as the hunters become the hunted and, despite their fears, the central cast of the book go after the Kalkarra. (No spoilers!)
Much of the story is driven forward by the interaction between the characters (which is as it should be, but sadly, in so many works, often isn’t), and there are drawbacks and consequences if we lose, and the battle isn’t determined only by the central factors. By this, I mean there are factors outside the control of either combatant, and they do play in, which is all too rare in much of fantasy. There are setbacks, and some setbacks are caused by the characters’ mistakes; actions have consequences and so on.
On the other hand, there are a few moments in which the heroes get rather brutal, but I think that that is understandable, if not acceptable; Halt lives in a harsh world, and he wants the other characters to be able to survive in it as well.
The humor is clean, and unexpected. I found myself laughing out loud several times while reading the book, which I normally don’t do. I chuckle and giggle; I don’t laugh aloud much.
After reading the book twice, there are a few problems with John Flanagan’s writing that I noticed. For instance, there were a few confusing shifts in the point of view he was using (ex., leaping from Will’s thoughts to Halt’s in a rather distracting manner), and there were a few elements that were not tied in as well as I would have liked, but all in all, the book was a good read. And, for those of you considering reading the series, don’t let those problems turn you off! They virtually disappear by the next book, The Burning Bridge. And the series does get better as you go along. *wink* *wink*
The one thing that really bugs me is (small spoiler!) Will and Alyss’s kiss at the end. If you read the first book alone, it just doesn’t seem to belong. In the context of the series, it fits in well enough, but I still think it could have been integrated better.
The only sad thing about this book and series is that it is so freaking hard to even attempt fanfiction with it. (Those among you who read this blog often will know that I am an avid writer and connoisseur of all things fanfic, especially song fiction and dark one-shot AUs.) All the loose ends are generally tied up very neatly, and it’s hard to envision, sometimes, what they’d be doing outside the confines of the books. It does, however, offer up some marvelous tidbits that would make for wonderful character-examining one-parters. (Such as the scene at the end of The Kings of Clonmel… *sobs*) The sad thing about Ranger’s Apprentice fanfiction is that, since it’s a young reader’s series, the majority of the fanfiction often ends up populated by one-dimensional OCs, or worse, Mary Sues. Some of it doesn’t even get Will’s way of thinking and personality right, and that is, to me, pretty much unforgivable. It’s sad. Even sadder are the stories where everything bad happens to Will and it really breaks him down and completely takes him out of character. Those stories just don’t make sense to me. (I’m not a fan of one-man-against-the-world fanfiction, in case you didn’t know that. Especially when it comes to Ranger’s Apprentice, which is, as I’ve noted before, very much driven by characters’ interaction and friendship.) There are even *shudders* Halt haters out there. How is such a thing possible, I ask you?!
However, there are a few people out there who write marvelous shorts for it.
I’m going to shut up now.
So, the overall verdict is:
- Marvelous characterization
- Incredible handling of otherwise-overused plots and elements, turning them over into something unexpected and brilliant
- Well-written character interaction
- A generally bright (non-depressing) atmosphere
- Lovely humor
- Setbacks are used effectively
- Some moments which I would rate PG-13, but fortunately the morality is absolute and not protagonist-centered *throws up* Protagonist centered morality… yuck.
- A few writing/editorial errors, but nothing that warrants stopping reading in my opinion.
I definitely recommend reading the books. While they are not by any means giants of fantasy, they are well worth reading.