When I was young, I read a lot of what I tend to call lad lit: books for boys that usually involve runaways and survival. I was never a boy scout, but a rural upbringing imparted a lot of the skills you might associate with them. I could make a fire, fish, nock a bow, and identify a number of edible things in the woods. In my too rare camping trips I tend to surprise my friends, who think of me as way too urban to set up a tent or own a gun. While I live an urban life, I sometimes itch for a bit more of the self-sufficiency those stories imparted.
John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series fully embraces the style of old-fashioned lad lit I grew up with. His main character, Will, gets out of tough scrapes with the use of his training and endless self-discipline. With the help of his friends, he performs feats of heroism often worthy of fully grown knights, and keeps to his principles while often making friends of his enemies. At its core, Flanagan’s narrative embraces the idea that Rangers are a mysterious, solitary bunch, needing years of practice to become good at their craft; and Will never fails to disappoint when given a choice between taking the easy route or keeping to his training. Will’s key relationship is with his mentor, the grim-faced Halt, and this relationship keenly affects both master and apprentice. While Will is the main character, he’s far from the only important one. Flanagan switches point of view often, sometimes too much.
Written for a young audience, the books are a quick read for adults, and I ripped through the first four fairly quickly. The first book is mostly set up, with Will entering Halt’s tutelage. The plot of the first book is a bit secondary to setting the stage for the series and introducing us to Will’s world. By book two things are ready to go and the next three books end on cliffhangers and can be read as one.
Like a good series for young adults, themes slowly advance towards the mature, but always with an old-fashioned morality that I found refreshing. Though I was ready for the shift to PG when it came, I didn’t mind spending time in a less complicated worldview. Flanagan’s is a low to no magic world. Men are knights and warriors while women are diplomats and princesses. I’m so used to the female action hero trope that it was a little refreshing to get a break from it, though I was glad the character of Evalyn showed resolve and courage at every turn instead of being portrayed as some kind of delicate flower. The Rangers succeed by guile and clever tactics in a neat display of brains over brawn. Flanagan thinks his battles through, and I saw some old tricks like the false retreat turned on their head.
If you’re looking for a good kid’s book with a strong, moral protagonist, I recommend the Ranger’s Apprentice series, and I’d like to find a series with as much heart written for girls if you can recommend one.