The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan

The Siege of Macindaw, by John Flanagan, was published in 2006 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Sorcerer of the North.

The kingdom is in danger. Renegade knight Sir Keren has succeeded in overtaking Castle Macindaw and now is conspiring with the Scotti. The fate of Araluen rests in the hands of two young adventurers: the Ranger Will and his warrior friend, Horace. Yet for Will, the stakes are even higher. For inside Castle Macindaw, held hostage, is someone he loves. For this onetime apprentice, the time to grow up is now.

Rating: 4/5

Flanagan manages to continue to be inventive and new with every book he writes, even if the formula is predictable. This is something that Brian Jacques failed to do in his Redwall series, with each progressive book becoming more and more tedious, but Flanagan manages to avoid this entirely and makes each book fresh and fun.

The Siege of Macindaw isn’t quite as good as I thought The Battle for Skandia was, but I still enjoyed it immensely. Will has several moments of “I’m going to DIE” realizations, which is nice because up until now our Plucky Heroes have seemed nearly invincible. Luck (and Horace) help him out a lot, but still, it’s nice to see a protagonist miscalculate at times, especially when he’s known for his usually good strategy. In fact, the entire “the characters will never die” trope that Flanagan continuously exhibits, probably the weakest point of the series, made it so that I was shocked when the details about the last book in the series were revealed (which I’ve actually never read). But that’s a different conversation for a different time.

The added romance was done pretty well and wasn’t cheesy at all—and Horace poking fun at Will for the “I think this way and don’t realize you think the same way so it’s really awkward all the time” tension is a great tongue-in-cheek moment. The romance also makes a lot of sense, in that the characters are growing up and are starting to think more and more about things like love.

What can I say that I haven’t already said about Ranger’s Apprentice? I love this series to death, and The Siege of Macindaw is another great installment of a series that is continuously fresh and fun with every book.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Horace shrugged. “No matter. I’m sure we can manage. So, how many, exactly?”

“You mean, counting you and me?” Will asked.

… “Yes. I think we’d better count you and me. How many?”

… “Counting you and me, twenty-seven.”

“Twenty-seven,” Horace repeated, his tone devoid of any expression.

“But they’re Skandians, after all,” Will said hopefully.

His friend look at him, one eyebrow raised in disbelief. “They’d better be,” he said heavily.

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The Sorcerer of the North by John Flanagan

The Sorcerer of the North, by John Flanagan, was published in 2006 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Battle for Skandia.

Several years have passed since the apprentice and his master, Will and Halt, led the Skandians to victory against invaders, and Will is finally a full-fledged Ranger with his own fief to look after. The fief seems sleepy—boring, even—until Lord Syron, master of a castle far in the north, is struck down by a mysterious illness. Joined by his friend Alyss, Will is suddenly thrown headfirst into an extraordinary adventure, investigating fears of sorcery and trying to determine who is loyal to Lord Syron…and who is planning to betray him. Will and Alyss must battle growing hysteria, traitors, and most of all, time. Lord Syron is fading, but when Alyss is taken hostage, Will is forced to make a desperate choice between loyalty to his mission and loyalty to his friend.

Rating: 3/5

The Sorcerer of the North, like The Icebound Land, is another Part 1 of 2 novel in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, taking place several years after The Battle for Skandia. However, I think that it’s a better Part 1 than The Icebound Land is. It has more mystery, more suspense, and, frankly, has much less “I’m stretching this plot to fit a whole book” moments.

I had actually forgotten about one of the major twists in this story, and so I got to experience it fresh all over again—and it really is quite a good twist. It seems inevitable after it’s over, but Flanagan manages to imbibe the moment with enough shock and tension that you go with the moment rather than think, “Oh, right, of course that would happen.”

The Sorcerer of the North is also interesting in that since the first two books, magic hasn’t been mentioned. Ranger’s Apprentice seems like such a realistic world (even in its fantasy elements) that magic doesn’t seem to have a place. Then along comes a book like this one, and raises all sorts of questions, such as “Is there actually magic or is it just sleight of hand and trickery?” I like the ambiguous nature of the magical aspect of the books and thought it was incorporated well in this one.

The Sorcerer of the North is clearly just the first part of a two-part story, where the second part promises to be even bigger and better, but it lacks the stiltedness and slow pace of The Icebound Land and contains a great deal of mystery and suspense to help hook the reader into the next book. It’s not perfect, but at this point, these books really don’t need to be.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“It’s not for us to say what it is. But there are strange goings-on. Strange sights.”

“Particularly in Grimsdell Wood,” said a tall farmer and, once more, others agreed. “Strange sights, and sounds—unearthly sounds they are. They’d chill your blood. I’ve heard them once and that’s enough for me.”

It seemed that once their initial reluctance was overcome, people wanted to discuss the subject, as if it held a fascination for them that they wanted to share.

“What sort of things do you see?” Will asked.

“Lights, mainly—little balls of colored light that move through the threes. And dark shapes. Shapes that move just outside your vision’s range.”

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The Battle for Skandia by John Flanagan

The Battle for Skandia, by John Flanagan, was published in 2006 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Icebound Land.

For Will and Evanlyn, freedom has never felt so fleeting. Still far from their homeland after escaping slavery in the icebound land of Skandia, the Ranger’s apprentice and the princess’s plan to return to Araluen are spoiled when Evanlyn is taken captive by a Temujai warrior. Though still weakened by warmweed’s toxic effects, Will employs his Ranger training to locate his friend, but an enemy scouting party has him fatally outnumbered. Will is certain death is close at hand until old friends make a daring, last-minute rescue. The reunion is cut short, however, when they make a horrifying discovery: Skandia’s borders have been breached by the entire Temujai army. And Araluen is next in their sights. If two kingdoms are to be saved, the unlikeliest of unions must be made. Will it hold long enough to vanquish a ruthless new enemy? Or will past tensions spell doom for all?

Rating: 4/5

The Battle for Skandia might be one of my favorite Ranger’s Apprentice books. Part of the reason might be because it comes right after the disappointing, unresolved The Icebound Land and is so action-packed that it makes up for that slow pace. Or maybe it’s just because The Battle for Skandia is a thrilling read. I never knew I could be so gripped by descriptions of a battle.

I think one thing I like about Flanagan is that he writes battle scenes well. They’re descriptive, but he doesn’t use so many terms that someone unfamiliar with weapons or fighting would be lost. They’re also not so descriptive as to be tedious or read like an action movie script. He explains the mechanics and strategy well enough that the reader is swept up in the action rather than confused by everything going on. It reminds me a little bit of how Brian Jacques wrote his fighting scenes in the Redwall series, but Flanagan does it better.

The humor is still on point and Flanagan does a good job of balancing the tense fighting with light humor scattered throughout. I also appreciate how he makes the characters interesting and fresh, and gives the ones that appear less often memorable and distinctive traits so that when they do show up again they are remembered through what they do and say.

The Ranger’s Apprentice series might not be for everyone, but for me, The Battle for Skandia is a testament to what I love about the series: great action, humor, and interesting characters. It more than makes up for the disappointing book that comes before and makes me excited to read more.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“What ‘what’ are you asking me?” he said. Then, thinking how to make his question clearer, he added, “Or to put it another way, why are you asking ‘what’?”

Controlling himself with enormous restraint, and making no secret of the fact, Halt said, very precisely: “You were about to ask a question.”

Horace frowned. “I was?”

Halt nodded. “You were. I saw you take a breath to ask it.”

“I see,” said Horace. “And what was it about?”

For just a second or two, Halt was speechless. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then finally found the strength to speak.

“That is what I was asking you,” he said. “When I said ‘what,’ I was asking you what you were about to ask me.”

“I wasn’t about to ask you ‘what,’” Horace replied, and Halt glared at him suspiciously.…

“Then what, if I may use that word once more, were you about to ask me?”

Horace drew breath once more, then hesitated. “I forget,” he said. “What were we talking about?”

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The Icebound Land by John Flanagan

The Icebound Land, by John Flanagan, was published in 2006 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Burning Bridge.

Kidnapped and taken to a frozen land after the fierce battle with Lord Morgarath, Will and Evanlyn are bound for Skandia as captives aboard a fearsome wolfship. Halt has sworn to rescue his young apprentice, and he will do anything to keep his promise—even defy his King. Expelled from the Rangers he has served so loyally, Halt is joined by Will’s friend Horace as he travels toward Skandia. On their way, they are challenged again and again by freelance knights—but Horace knows a thing or two about combat. Soon his skills begin to attract the attention of knights and warlords for miles around. But will he and halt be in time to rescue Will from a horrific life of slavery?

Rating: 3/5

The Icebound Land steps away from its focus on Will slightly, but only in the sense that Will is not one of the third-person narrators. The story switches between the two groups of Halt and Horace and Evanlyn and Will, with both Horace and Will taking a bit of a backseat (Will moreso, with very good reason). It’s great to have Halt as a narrator, because even with Flanagan’s occasionally stilted or over-the-top writing, Halt is wonderfully snarky and incredibly awesome. He also takes care of one of the antagonists in an incredibly anticlimactic matter which only underscores his awesomeness.

This book is really only the first part of a plot that will continue in the next book, and towards the end Flanagan throws in some hints as to what is to come. It’s actually quite light on plot, overall, which is probably why Flanagan threw in Halt and Horace as viewpoint characters and gave them some enemies to face—it adds to the book and Evanlyn and Will’s plot is depressing enough that the book needs the humor that the Halt and Horace plot brings.

However, the fact that The Icebound Land is only Part 1 of 2 really shows, and not a lot happens in the book at all. Halt and Horace’s adventure is fluff and not necessary or important to their characters at all, while Evanlyn and Will’s adventure is entirely necessary, but so short that it could not possibly sustain the novel on its own. Flanagan combining the two helps it out a little, but not completely. The Icebound Land reads like the prologue to a bigger story, and not at all reads like it’s complete in itself, if that makes sense. I don’t want to say it feels unfinished, but it definitely feels a little unsatisfying when it ends and you’re left with a feeling of irresolution.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“We must answer his demand. Are you sure you’re not taking on too much?” the Ranger said. “After all, he is a fully qualified knight.”

“Well…yes,” said Horace awkwardly. He didn’t want Halt to think he was boasting. “But he’s not actually very good, is he?”

“Isn’t he?” Halt asked sarcastically.

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The Burning Bridge by John Flanagan

The Burning Bridge, by John Flanagan, was published in 2005 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Ruins of Gorlan.

For years, the Kingdom of Araluen has prospered, with the evil Lord Morgarath safely behind the impassable mountains. For years, its people have felt secure. But the scheming hand of the dark lord has not been idle… On special mission for the Rangers, Will and his friend Horace, an apprentice knight, travel to a neighboring village and discover the unsettling truth: All the villagers have been either slain or captured. But for what purpose? Could it be that Morgarath has finally devised a plan to bring his legions over the supposedly insurmountable pass? If so, the king’s army is in imminent danger of being crushed in a fierce ambush. And Will and Horace are the only ones who can help them.

The Burning Bridge loses some of the supernatural, tropeish vibes that The Ruins of Gorlan contained and gains some of the things the Ranger’s Apprentice series is known for: detailed descriptions of fighting, underdogs, and wit. Flanagan loves the underdog and he writes underdogs well. One of my favorite things about this series is the immense amount of “thinking outside of the box” that the characters display at critical times. There’s also a fair bit of “let’s successfully use this thing I just learned in new ways to become even cooler” but not so much here as in future books. The fighting descriptions never get old, either; sometimes detailed descriptions such as the ones in this book can make a fight feel mechanical or as if you’re inputting directions for a video game or something, but Flanagan somehow makes everything flow as well as describe one heck of a fight, at least for me.

The Wargals are just as groan-inducing as they were in the first book, but at least Flanagan tries to show more of what exactly they are (and, later, does away with things like that entirely) and how they operate. Morgarath is also fleshed out a little bit, although he’s so obviously “dark magic evil lord” when he appears that it’s hard to take seriously. The other characters, however, are great, and even prodigy Horace has enough flaws to make him not-so-perfect. Flanagan does a good job of making sure his talented teenage protagonists screw up and make mistakes like, well, teenagers.

I do think the first two books are the weakest in the series, but The Burning Bridge does a lot to back off of what I thought was a shamefully bad fantasy vibe in The Ruins of Gorlan and shows even more of what I love about the Ranger’s Apprentice series, which is its attention to detail, the crazy things the characters have to overcome and what they accomplish, and its fantastic wit and humor.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“I was more interested in the life the Rangers led. After Hackham Heath, my father and halt had become good friends and Halt used to come visiting. I’d see him come and go. So mysterious. So adventurous. I started to think what it might be like to come and go as you please. To live in the forests. People know so little about Rangers, it seemed like the most exciting thing in the world to me.”

Horace looked doubtful. “I’ve always been a little scared of Halt,” he said. “I used to think he was some kind of sorcerer.”

Will snorted in disbelief. “Halt? A sorcerer?” he said. “He’s nothing of the kind!”

Horace looked at him, pained once again. “But you used to think the same thing!” he said.

“Well…I suppose so. But I was only a kid then.”

“So was I!” replied Horace, with devastating logic.

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The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

The Ruins of Gorlan, by John Flanagan, was published in 2005 by Philomel.

They have always scared him in the past—the Rangers with their dark cloaks and mysterious ways. Folks in the village claim that Rangers have the power to become invisible at will. A skill Will would now dearly love to have. Will’s heart had been set on Battleschool, on becoming a hero to the kingdom. But Will is small for his fifteen years, too small to be a warrior. He possesses other skills, though—a Ranger’s skills. He can move silent as a shadow. He can climb. And he is brave. He will need all these skills and more. For Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, is gathering his forces. A battle for the kingdom is destined to begin. A battle the likes of which Will cannot even imagine.

Rating: 3/5

I first stumbled across the Ranger’s Apprentice series a few years ago. I’m not sure what caused me to start reading them; the pull towards the word “apprentice,” perhaps, or the vaguely appealing summary. Whatever it was, I picked up The Ruins of Gorlan—and fell headfirst into the world of Will and of the Rangers.

The world of Ranger’s Apprentice is an alternate universe, of sorts, to ours: Araluen is England, Gallica is France, Skandia is Scandinavia. Having more recently read the Brotherband series (the companion series to Ranger’s Apprentice), I’d forgotten how supernatural/vaguely eerie these first couple of books are. The Ruins of Gorlan starts with a shadowy evil lord moody over the loss of his kingdom and wanting revenge, dives immediately into descriptions of “Wargals” (groan) that bring up bad memories of Eragon and other LotR-imitations, and basically starts in a basic “bad fantasy” way.

And then Will comes into the picture, and Horace, and Halt, and incredibly precise and detailed maneuvers and fights are described, and suddenly not only do you realize that, holy smokes, John Flanagan knows his stuff, but you’ve forgotten the bad fantasy vibes and are only swept up in a “give me more of this awesomely intricate way of sneaking up on someone” feeling.

At least, that’s my experience with The Ruins of Gorlan.

The best part is that the books only get better from here, and I’m looking forward to seeing that improvement. The Ruins of Gorlan is a good start—but there’s a little too much of that bad fantasy vibe attached to it for it to be fantastic. But that’s okay, because then the series has the opportunity to sneak up on you just like a Ranger would. Suddenly, without warning, and being incredibly awesome.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Will coughed again.

“Got a cold, boy?” asked the Ranger, without turning around.

“Er…no, sir.”

“Then why are you coughing?” asked Halt, turning around to face him. Will hesitated. “Well, sir,” he began uncertainly, “I just wanted to ask you…what does a Ranger actually do?”

“He doesn’t ask pointless questions, boy!” said Halt. “He keeps his eyes and ears open and he looks and listens and eventually, if he hasn’t got too much cotton wool between his ears, he learns!”

“Oh,” said Will. “I see.” He didn’t, and even though he realized that this was probably no time to ask more questions, he couldn’t help himself, repeating, a little rebelliously, “I just wondered what Rangers do, is all.”

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