These books were a recommendation from Ben (still my boyfriend, still the web guru), and they’re sort of an entry into a world of Australian f/sf that’s being written now. The series is nowhere near finished; as a matter of fact, books 4-6 are out in Australia now and NOT the US and we’re still a bit cheesed by that.
Anyway, they’re secondary-world fantasy, set in a country called Araluen mostly. It’s analogous to England, I guess – neighboring countries are called Skandia and Celtica, and there’s also a Gallica and an Espania. While the technology level is Middle-Ages type fantasy standard, they measure time in minutes and distances in meters and kilometers, so I’m guessing they have things like clocks at the very least.
Will and four of his friends are the castle wards in Redmont, a fief in Araluen held by Baron Arald. When they turn fifteen, they are assessed by the local craftsmasters and hopefully apprenticed in order to have a trade. Because they don’t have parents or families, they have to get into their craft based on skill and talent alone. Will really wants to go to Battleschool, because he thinks his father did, although they’re not entirely sure who his father is. (He was a foundling, but the note on his blanket said his father was a hero.) Unfortunately, he’s scrawny. While Alyss gets the Diplomat Corps apprenticeship she wants, Jenny the kitchen apprenticeship, George the Scribeschool slot, and Horace the Battleschool opening, Will is rejected from Battleschool based on his size. Normally that would mean he’s sent to be a farm hand, but there’s one more chance. Halt, the enigmatic and legendary Ranger (rangers are, of course, spies/covert ops warriors), chooses him for his apprentice. He claims that Will has all the skills of a Ranger, including being able to sneak places quietly and climb walls and such.
Will is . . . not happy. A big portion of the rest of the rest of the book is him coming to terms with the fact that he’s really much more suited to being a Ranger than a knight. Eventually, he realizes the obvious, but it takes a fight. (A fight? What fight, you say?)
Ah, but wait – there’s another plot going on. Fifteen years ago – conveniently about when Will was born – there was a war, with Morgarath, an Evil Dark Lord (TM) who tried to kill the king and take over the country. One nice thing about Morgarath is that he isn’t actually causing the blight upon his keep; he was banished to the barren end of the country. In the opening he reminisces about his old place:
“. . . he could still remember the pleasant green glades and thickly forested hills of his former fief. The streams filled with fish and the fields rich with crops and game. Gorlan had been a beautiful, living place.” (The Ruins of Gorlan, pg. 1)
Well, it’s been fifteen years; he’s regained his forces and got some new ones (a few beastlike creatures reminiscent of the orcs from Lord of the Rings, but they’re pretty common anyway), and he’s decided to attack again. The book ends before the actual attack, but don’t worry – there’s a plot twist I decided against giving away. Suffice it to say that it’s a satisfying yet open ending.
Book 2: The Burning Bridge starts pretty much precisely where book 1 ended. (Fancy that.) Will, another Ranger named Gilan, and Horace the Battleschool apprentice are all sent to Celtica to remind the king of Celtica about their mutual defense treaty. Unfortunately, they find the closest cities in Skandia all to be empty. What’s going on? Naturally Morgarath is involved.
Book 3: The Icebound Land again takes up the story. Will and Evanlyn (who we met in the previous book; let’s call her a refugee) have been captured by the Skandians. Halt and Horace go after them.
Books 1 and 2 are great. They have interesting, event-filled plots that move on at a decent pace. Book 3, unfortunately, is an interlude, not a book. I mean, certainly there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and some conflict resolution, but . . . I waited several months for that book and it wasn’t good enough! A conflict was resolved with Will and Evanlyn, and another one with Halt and Horace, but the overarching conflict was not resolved. It’s apparently waiting for book 4. Unlike the Harry Potter books (which also didn’t resolve the Big Conflict until book 7), the conflicts resolved in this book were not quite meaningful enough to have a satisfying ending. Part of the problem is that both conflicts felt artificial to me – they were invented partway into this book, solely for the sake of this book. At least one of them will never come back as a problem, ever again.
I also have some issues with the style. It’s third-person omniscient, which is great because it means we can see both sides of battles. We also get secondary plots with Horace in the first book, Halt in the second book, and Horace and Halt in the third book. If we were just focused on Will the entire time, it would get boring. He’s definitely not a static character, but he’s not that interesting. He’s a nice guy, but his main personality trait is that he’s inquisitive. That makes for a lot of exposition, but less growth.
However (returning to the style), the author tends to infodump. He’ll even tell-not-show in the middle of a completely random scene. Rather than showing us that Baron Arald tends to tell jokes a lot that no one gets because they don’t expect him to be joking, we get paragraphs like this:
“… the Baron sighed again. He hated it when people didn’t realize he was joking. Unfortunately, as overlord of the castle, his words were treated with great seriousness by most people.”
Or, you know, he could just sigh or shake his head every time someone takes one of his jokes seriously, and then be very excited when someone else laughs at something he says. I think we’d get the point: first, that people don’t expect him to joke, and second, that he doesn’t tell very good jokes.
I understand these books are for younger readers, and I’d recommend them for middle (5-8) grade readers. (That’s ‘about on the same level as the first Harry Potter book’, if you’re wondering.) However, sometimes middle-grade authors need to realize that kids really aren’t that stupid. Maybe they’ll pick up on it, maybe they won’t, but it won’t kill their enjoyment of the book if they don’t. I’d also specifically recommend them for boys, because practically every character is male and there really is a lot of action. There’s even some explanation of military and weapons techniques (well, pre-gun warfare).
I very much enjoy reading these books, and I’ll be quite excited if they EVER release books 4-6 in the US (I believe there’s a March ’08 release date for book 4) because it really is a rollicking good story. In Flanagan’s defense, the first four books apparently form a quartet of sorts, and often book 3 is the book with the slow-down period in it. I’m specifically thinking of Tamora Pierce’s first two quartets, the Alanna books and the Daine books, wherein book 3 literally took her heroines into another society. (For Alanna it was within her own country, but Daine crossed the Inland Sea to Carthak.) These books were still integral to the plot, and I’m sure The Icebound Land will somehow be shown to be an important book of more than just some character development. Without book 4, though, it makes less sense and feels annoying.
So, right now books 1 and 2 both get 4/5 stars, and book 3 gets a 3/5 stars.