Author: John Flanagan

2005, Puffin Books

Filed Under: Young Adult, Fantasy

Read this book. If you are an active reader of fantasy, someone who has a former appreciation for the genre, or an adult interested in passing on a your passion to a young reader, you will definitely be rewarded by reading this initial installment in the widely popular series by John Flanagan.

Frankly, I balked at the prospect of reading the New York Times Bestselling Ranger’s Apprentice series. First of all, it’s genre fiction on the New York Times Bestseller List, too often a haven for popular but rather uninspired writing. And “Ranger’s Apprentice”? Does that not smack too much of Tolkien’s king hero: a kind of young Aragorn type of book? Does this series represent yet another writer’s and publisher’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of the movies by Peter Jackson? Or, is this the series that a big name publisher is putting its weight behind to make sure that the momentum of the Harry Potter phenomenon does not dissipate?

The series kept cropping up in conversations with friends and colleagues; their comments were overwhelmingly positive. Jumping to a slew of wild conclusions based simply on a cursory reaction to a book’s title certainly didn’t seem too fair, or open-minded a treatment of a book. Young adult, and 249 pages, I wouldn’t lose much time by reading it, so I gave it a shot.

The Ruins of Gorlan is a well-written book. I felt an an immediate feeling of familiarity with the story, as if I’d read it before. And, because it’s genre fiction, in many ways I have. But the familiarity Flanagan establishes is a compliment to his abilities as an author. He makes the art of storytelling look easy. The setting and world are vivid and immediately accessible. He manipulates and incorporates the conventions into his book seamlessly. This allows him to develop what becomes the heart of the book – a coming of age story, one of the very best traditions in fantasy.

The boy, Will, is very human. Flanagan does a good job of creating a youthful character. He has typical fears and confidence issues. He accurately explores the attitudes of the young Will, his misgivings, his dreams, and his earnestness.

Will is protected by a legendary figure, the Ranger Halt, who played a critical role in turning the tide to the allies in the last Great War. But Halt is no ever-powerful wizard, he is no invincible warrior who can take a dozen men at once, he is no Ranger king. He’s just a highly skilled forest ranger, and he’s getting old. Through a directed regimen of hard work and practice, the gruff old ranger develops Will’s determination and his own sense of power and self-assurance.

It was a pleasure to see how focused the story remained on character and character development. Subjugating the great conflict was brilliant. Familiarity with the genre has shaped my expectations of a great conflict. I know what’s coming and how it will end. By not including it, Flanagan masterfully leaves it up to the reader’s imagination. Thus, in many ways, The Ruins of Gorlan is a stand alone novel. The novel doesn’t rely on the nature of the series. Sure the reader might be left with some questions, or  a want to know more, but Will’s story is told.

Magic plays a minimal role in this world, and I appreciated that. Sure, it’s there, but mostly as superstition, suspicion, or misunderstanding. Too many fantasy novels focus too directly on magic and it often gets in the way of the story. In these cases, magic often appears as spectacle masquerading as a writer’s imagination. The main character’s path of development is a meteoric rise to near invincibility, or he travels in the company of such awesome strength that all conflicts are stripped of any drama–there is no fear for the character’s safety and there is little doubt his quest will be completed.

There are plenty of monsters and conflicts, but there is no excessive violence and no cursing and glorification of evil. In fact, one of the most difficult passages to read would be that one of Will’s comrades suffers from bullying, not the horrific spectacle of blood and gore from a sword fight. The ranger relies on guile, skill, and cunning, and wit, as well as force. But it isn’t a hack and chop blood fest or an endless string of fights and battles, ala Conan.

The Ruins of Gorlan isn’t a story of destiny where the young child must save the world in dramatic, king-like fashion. Sure there is a once dormant evil massing a monstrous horde that threatens civilized society. There is a world that needs saving and the protagonist is an orphan of small stature and seemingly insignificant. But Flanagan subjugates this information. Most of it is relegated to the Prologue and is therefore more an introduction to the greater world, than a pointer to where an epic might unfold.

There are a few points that didn’t agree with me, though. The first is the style. Flanagan’s use of interrupters to explain the obvious or implied is tiresome. This might be attributable to the book being young adult fiction where a reader may be presumed too immature or to benefit from having certain aspects of human nature related explicitly. But this is infuriating for an adult reader and, I don’t think this stylistic device gives the young reader enough credit.

Secondly, there wasn’t much in the way of humor. There is some relationship humor, embarrassment that comes with cutting your teeth, and the typical banter between master and pupil. But there is no real laugh-out-loud moments or that outrageous character that can often make a fantasy series pop.

Overall, I think this is a fantastic young adult fantasy series. I definitely recommend The Ruins of Gorlan to anyone who has an appreciation for the fantasy theme. Adults and kids alike will enjoy Flanagan’s story. Any parent wanting to turn their child on to fantasy in a contemporary work would benefit from going here. I look forward to passing the book along to my son.

Similar Books: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings; Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; The Magician: Apprentice, Raymond A. Feist; The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks; Lord Foul’s Bane, Stephen R. Donaldson; The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan