A Ranger’s Apprentice review

This Thanksgiving just past has been one where I’ve been truly thankful for the fortunes of others. I have a friend I admire very much who was impacted by hurricane Sandy. After I sent her a text query after Sandy made landfall, she was able to let me know via text they were OK but she needed to conserve her phone battery. That was good to know but even better was when she later posted a comment to my blog. In one fell swoop she commented and in doing so let me know that things were back to normal or somewhat normal, since she now had time and power to read and comment on my blog.

Then there was my niece. She was life-flighted  the day after Thanksgiving to the hospital and then to the Salt Lake City Burn Center. Happily, she was allowed to return HOME the next day after being taken care of and observed at the Burn Center overnight. We’re so fortunate things weren’t worse than they were. Yeah, I know, it’s still bad, but it’s far, far better than many of the patients flown to the SLC Burn Center. She’s still got a painful journey to full recovery, but it’s a journey of recovery, not of survival.

As I said, it’s been a Thanksgiving to truly be thankful.

Now to the title of this post…

It’s been a really long time since I last had the opportunity to just sit and read until I finally decided, in the wee hours, I was too tired to continue reading.  I believe it’s been almost a year, actually. However, over this last Thanksgiving break, I was able to do so Saturday. I didn’t know until then just how much I missed being able to just park my butt somewhere and read and read and read and read until I just couldn’t read any more. Give me an comfortable spot, some snacks, drinks, and a good book or series and I’m content to stay put.

The series I’m currently reading is Ranger’s Apprentice  by John Flanagan. The rest of this post is a review of that book.

I happened to see a book on the bargain table in a local store the Monday before Thanksgiving. The cover looked interesting, enough to make me pick it up. I checked the back, mildly interested and decided to read a bit. Opening it at random (I rarely ever open a book at the first page to see if I’ll like it) I read a couple pages, enough to see it looked like a good read. Promoted as a cross between the Arthurian saga and Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I decided to give it a go. What’s not to like there? I love both those tales. I decided to get all the Ranger’s Apprentice books they had since I like to be able to go right from one book to the next in a series without pause if possible. One thing I did not notice when I got them was that they were YA.

I have to say that I see it more as a cross between the Arthurian saga, Robin Hood, and late medieval times. I’m on book 6 and so far I really can’t see any way to link the series to Tolkien. The apprenticeship between Will and Halt is far more like that of Arthur and Merlin than any relationship between, say, Frodo and Gandalf. Also, the world is very clearly based on Europe. The names of the people and some of the major items in the stories make that very obvious: The country of Picta (obviously the Land of the Picts) where the Scotti (Scottish, complete with tartans and woad) live, the country of Skandia (obviously Scandinavia) where the Skandians (who all wear Hollywood Viking helmets) live and who raid in their Wolfships (need a picture?), Gallica (Gaul) who’s people speak a language identical to French and have a long skinny bread crusty on the outside and soft inside, the Temujai people (obviously the Mongols of Temujin, the great Genghis Khan), the longbow, the short Mongol laminated recurve bow, and so on. Even the back history of the Temujai closely mirrors the Mongol invasion of Europe. And so it goes.

That makes it easy to vividly picture the peoples and cultures as you read, at least for readers that have read widely enough. It enables you to have the full cultural background in mind without the need for Flanagan to create it for this series. On the other hand, I keep seeing such links and recognizing them which breaks my reading flow a bit. I guess it’s a way to introduce YA readers to our own mythologies and legends, assuming they come across these not so subtle similarities later. Or even before they’ve gotten to Ranger’s Apprentice. Such strong resemblences may encourage them to read those legends or to dig deeper into their own mythologies and legends. The saga of Roland came to mind just now as I wrote and I can’t help but wonder if that might be Horace’s doom? Or perhaps El Cid? No, Halt kind of did the El Cid.  I’ve GOT to remember this is a YA series. 😉

There are some points in the books where I mentally say, “get over it” or “oh, come on”. I have to keep in mind these are written for YA and so the characters wouldn’t necessarily react like adults in the same situation. The main characters are growing up and learning, but at the same time they’re swinging back and forth between intelligent behavior and clueless teenager behavior. Given their training, that’s the only true inconsistency I’ve found so far. It’s not a deal breaker, clearly, as I’m still reading the series.

Each book is around 200-250 pages. It seems obvious, at least to me, that Flanagan is playing to a perceived YA attention span. However, at least twice now in the six books I’ve read through I can see justification for combining some pairs of the books into one rather than breaking the story in half and using a “to be continued” style of ending. I freaking detest “to be continued” type endings. Even when I was a YA I much preferred each book to stand on its own even if the next book continues the adventures of the hero. In part that’s because if there are too many “to be continued” books I might drop the series while if they were all stand-alone and one of the books wasn’t that great I’d still be willing to try the next adventure. Also, each book standing on its own makes it much easier if I have to finish one book in the series and can’t get to the next for a while. If I can’t immediately start the next book a “to be continued ending is too much like putting a book aside because it’s not holding my attention.

For me, well-written books of fiction, YA or otherwise, are truly escapist: I don’t (usually) have to think or do anything but kick back and enjoy the tale being told to me. I don’t want to be aware of the author’s style, how well (or not) he’s writing, how smoothly (or not) the book is flowing. I don’t want to have to figure out things or have to wonder if something’s possible. I just want to read and enjoy a good tale. Except for the minor hiccups above, Ranger’s Apprentice has admirably served that purpose so far, giving me a smoothly reading tale to just enjoy.

If I really like a book or series, I will read rather than watch my favorite TV programs. There have been times when I’ve told my family as far ahead as Saturday that “I want to watch this show Thursday at 7” and throughout the week I’ve reminded them of that. Then on Wednesday I start reading a book that really keeps me enthralled and Thursday at 7 they remind me my show’s coming on and I respond, “oh, yeah…I’d rather read this so watch what you want.” I’m sure there’s been some frustrated looks given me after I turn back to my reading.

Ranger’s Apprentice isn’t quite at that level as I did put it aside to watch Bones last night. I promptly picked it back up when that show was over and resumed reading. I put it aside again to watch Castle, which turned out to be preempted by some other “special” and sent me right back to my reading, but I did read through the news. And I stayed up as late as I dared, reading, knowing I had to go to work in the morning.

For me that’s clear proof I’m definitely enjoying this series and can recommend it if you like fantasy. Or maybe I should say YA fantasy.

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