In his brief time as an Araluen warrior, Horace has traveled the known world and fought countless bloody battles. All for his country, his king, and his friends. For all that is right. When Horace travels to the exotic land of Nihon-Ja to study the Senshi fighting technique, it isn’t long before he finds himself pulled into a battle that is not his—but one he knows in his heart he must wage. The Nihon-Ja emperor, a defender of the common man, has been forcibly dethroned, and only Horace, Will, and their Araluen friends, along with a group of untrained woodcutters and farmers, can restore the emperor to the throne.
The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the last Ranger’s Apprentice book I’ve read before. And, at least in the edition I read, it’s marketed as the last book. As there are two more books after this one (though one is, I think, a prequel), clearly Flanagan returned to the series due to popular demand. I’ll be looking forward to reading the eleventh and twelfth books and experiencing them for the first time.
But, back to this book. It’s a stand-alone, which is good after the somewhat tiring formula of most of the other books, but I don’t think it’s as solid and engaging as Erak’s Ransom. There are new characters, new obstacles to surmount, and new enemies to defeat, but there’s never once the possibility that the characters might fail. Even when they’re at their lowest point, it’s never doubtful that they will come out on top in the end. Erak’s Ransom at least separated the characters and had them overcome individual obstacles, especially towards the end. Emperor’s separation of characters is not handled as well, with the girls essentially going to fetch a Deus ex Machina to save the day while the rest just waste time until they get back. There’s not really any sense of urgency because by this point, the reader knows that the rescue will come at the last minute.
There’s also some weird sort of time displacement, where Horace’s point of view is actually several months behind the others, but it’s often forgotten and seems as if it’s happening in real time with what’s happening with Will. In addition, since Horace’s chapters pretty much go over the same ground that was covered when the characters explained why they were going after Horace in the first place, some of his chapters feel meaningless, especially the chapter that depicts George going to send a message right after the chapter where Evanlyn explains that George sent a message.
So, perhaps the Ranger’s Apprentice formula is starting to wear a little thin, after all. I’m not saying The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, as I enjoy reading all the Ranger’s Apprentice books. And this book is still better than the first two books in the series. But the formula is starting to get a little bit tiring, which is perhaps the reason why Flanagan switched to writing The Brotherband Chronicles after book twelve (also, there’s a moment in this book where Flanagan clearly took inspiration when writing the Brotherband Chronicles). As a stand-alone, it’s better than most of the Part 1’s in the series, but not as good as any of the Part 2’s or the other stand-alone, Erak’s Ransom (which is still my favorite of them all). I still enjoy the adventures of Horace, Will, Halt and Company, but ten books (or twelve, in this case) is a good time to start wrapping up a series or thinking of something new.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
“What’s this Kurokuma business?”
The Senshi looked at [Horace] with a completely straight face.
“It’s a term of great respect,” he said. Several others within earshot nodded confirmation. They too managed to remain straight-faced. It was a skill the Nihon-Jan had perfected.
“Great respect,” one of them echoed. Horace studied them all carefully. Nobody was smiling. But he knew by now that that meant nothing with the Nihon-Jan. He sensed there was a joke that he was missing, but he couldn’t think of a way to find out what it might be. Best maintain his dignity, he thought.
“Well, I should think so,” he told them, and rode on.