I recently read the The Ruins of Gorlan (Ranger’s Apprentice, #1) by John Flanagan.
In honor of February #FantasyMonth (hosted by Jenelle Schmidt) I want to share some thoughts about this book.
I’m foregoing my usual review format to just ramble a little about things it made me think about, and I hope you’ll enjoy. 🙂
(Note: I haven’t read the rest of the series yet. I just want to talk about the first Ranger’s Apprentice book today.)
Ranger’s Apprentice: Book 1 (The Ruins of Gorlan)
On the surface, it’s just a fun, YA fantasy book about fifteen-year-old Will and a sort of coming-of-age tale with swords and bows and rangers in a medieval-esque world, and a much more straightforward, less-convoluted story.
And it is all of that.
But beneath the surface there are other things going on (at least to this reader) which I’ll get to later.
It’s very funny, in a dry, kind of sarcastic way, that sometimes you almost don’t catch — and then you do and it’s HILARIOUS and you’re not totally sure why. Will doesn’t always “get it” when Halt makes little jabs and jibes and wry comments but I love it. XD
I love Will! He’s such a fun little character and just… I don’t know… he’s classic, somehow. And I like how he’s very determined and doesn’t give up.
Halt is the absolute best!! One of my favorite mentor characters. He’s an amazing Ranger and I just… I can’t describe how cool he is, but he’s awesome. Hands-down the best thing about this book! (And the main reason I read it. ;))
And I love some of the other characters, like Gilan (he’s awesome!) and Tug the pony (SO ADORBZ!!) and Horace and so on. And the Rangers are fabulous.
Did I mention it’s funny? I love funny books!
And it’s just fun fantasy, and good old-fashioned Good vs. Evil. Speaking of which…
“There’s Some Good in This World, Mr. Frodo”
One thing I noticed that was refreshing was there are good people in this book and a lot of them are just… nice.
I mean, sure, there were villains. And a few bullies. And Horace and Will both had their moments of disagreement or resentment — it’s not like they weren’t human. And by nice I don’t mean everyone was always sunshine, but they were GOOD.
I remember as I was reading, I kept expecting that everyone would be nasty to everyone else. I expected the wards to have had a miserable time growing up; and the Baron to be mean; and Sir Roderick to be mean; and for the villagers to be mean. That’s how I feel like most books these days would do it. But you know what? Their lives weren’t actually terrible; the Baron was super nice and really did want the best for these kids; Sir Roderick may not have known about the bully problem but he did want the best for Horace; the villagers might have been wary of Rangers in general through ignorance, but they were goodnaturedly applauding certain exploits of the hero(es).
The thing is, I’ve grown used to the usual setup of many books these days, where the characters are so flawed and “realistic” that… they’re not actually realistic anymore. People say you can’t have “perfect” characters and that you have to give your characters flaws; that’s all well and good. But that doesn’t mean that every character (or person in real life) you run into is going to be a terrible person! That’s just… not true?? I mean, yes, there are bad people, both in life and in fiction, but that doesn’t mean every character has to be out to ruin our heroes’ lives… or be mean-spirited… or whatever. There can be the forces of good and they can be ordinary people like you and me, and they can be nice — and there will still be tension, I promise! (I first noticed this issue when I read the Bright Empires series by Stephen R. Lawhead and was so shocked — in a good way — by how there were actually *gasp* good people in the world, that it made me realize that most books are not this way.)
Anyway, minor rant over. I didn’t mean to go into all of that. My POINT is that it was SO, SO refreshing reading this book and every time I ran into one of the “good guys”, they were exactly that. The villains and bullies were the bad guys. But the good guys were GOOD. And they have their flaws and have to work on life just as you and I do, but the good was good and the evil was evil and I LOVE that. And I MISS that. And I was surprised how big of a difference this seemingly insignificant aspect of the book made in making me enjoy it. 🙂 There was a clear divide between the good people and the bad, and it was refreshing, and something you can get away with in fantasy — or you used to, anyway.
Sometimes you want to focus on GOOD things instead of the things that are just stressful to read about. And I loved that I was able to just enjoy this book, for that reason and others. 🙂
There’s a Place For You, Just Waiting…
Another thing I absolutely loved was something a little hard to explain but I’ll do my best.
In the book, Will has always dreamed of going to the battle school to become a knight, but he’s turned down because he’s too small. Then he unexpectedly becomes Halt’s apprentice. (Not a spoiler! It’s called Ranger’s Apprentice; it’s in the title.)
And the thing is, it’s obvious to Halt, and to the reader, that Will is MEANT to be a Ranger. He’s small and light and quick and agile, and he has this habit of sneaking around without being noticed, and climbing trees and walls and living his own kind of solitary life, even in a community setting like the castle where he’s one of the wards.
A Ranger is supposed to be good at all of those things, and it’s immediately clear to me, as I read it, that Will Is A Ranger and that’s where he really fits.
But the funny thing is — he has no idea. At all. He has these skills, but he doesn’t really realize he has them, or think of them as skills, or realize he can put them to use as a Ranger’s Apprentice.
And I think that’s true of a lot of us. How many of us have things we could do, callings we could follow, jobs we could fill, that we’d fit into just perfectly, and we just… don’t realize it? Don’t think there’s anything special about us? Think we’re misfits and don’t belong?
As we watch Will trying out this new, unexpected turn of his life, and see him find his place in the world — really find it — it was just deeply satisfying to me.
And it made me think — oh. Sometimes, as a writer and whatever else it is I’ll be one day, if I’m feeling like I don’t know what skills I have or what to do with my life, or like I don’t fit in and there’s no place for me… I’m wrong. Because you know what? There IS. I have to find my “Ranger skills” and my “Rangers” and then I’ll be home and have found my place.
Especially if I work hard on it…
Keep Trying and You’ll Get There
Because the third and final “deep” thing I pulled out of this, was the fact that when we watch Will learning his Ranger’s craft, it just… well… inspired me. I might be rubbish at learning the things he had to learn — how to shoot arrows and ride a horse and how to track and be stealthy and unseen and live in the wilderness — but watching him learn them, and seeing him just keep at it and become adept at these things… it inspired me.
Because he just kept trying and he was able to do it. I saw him go from an uncertain lad who was rather timid and didn’t know what his skills were, to a confident lad who has conquered these skills and is every inch a true Ranger’s Apprentice. I saw it happen, and it showed me that it’s not impossible to learn and become better at something, to master it. Especially if you have a good mentor and just don’t quit.
If I’d been in Will’s shoes (boots?), I would have stared at what needed to be learned/accomplished, and been crippled by doubts and “I-can’t-do-its”. But Will didn’t. And Halt wouldn’t stand for that anyway. (I’d be a terrible Ranger’s apprentice. XD)
BUT. If you just start something, and tackle it, and hang on and keep trying… then we too can learn and conquer the things we need to learn and do. Which is something I know in theory… but seeing it play out on the page, in this little story of characters I love, with fun and humor and an enjoyable fantasy story, I saw it, and I believed it, and so now I Know it, instead of just knowing it in theory.
That may sound odd. I mean, what do I mean by saying this “unrealistic” book, this Fantasy (oh, escapism; oh, horror. …’Scuse the Halt-ish sarcasm.) taught me things? I mean, who am I, finding things in a fantasy novel which teach me things about life? Shouldn’t I just find these things in some self-help blog?
But the thing is . . . it took a story — a real story, which I enjoyed and which was just for fun, not one that set out to do this (because I suspect then it would not have sunk in nearly as deeply, if at all) — to prod at my subconscious and bring out things that I kind of knew or suspected but hadn’t ever thought of in that way before. It inspired me and let me put it into words.
To know that you have skills and a place in the world, that you have YOUR Rangers to find that might be somewhere out there in the world, is a liberating thought. And so is seeing that keeping on and practicing can make a difference. I can know a thing in theory without really knowing it, and that’s what I’m trying to say.
What I’m trying to say is, even though this is just a fun little book, and I enjoyed it as simply a good STORY, it also made me happy to see Good people and was like a breath of fresh air, and it showed me there’s a place for everyone. Even if you feel like you don’t fit in — especially if you feel like you don’t fit in; it’s Will’s uniqueness that makes him the perfect fit for a job that only a handful of people can fulfill — there’s somewhere that you belong, even if you don’t know what it is yet. Something you can DO, that you’re meant to do. We just have to find it. And no matter how impossible a thing may seem, if you just keep at it, you can succeed.
I’m not saying it’s one of the the greatest books I’ve ever read, or one of the most profound; I’m not even saying that it will be this way for anyone else.
But the thing is . . . it doesn’t have to be.
It’s a fun and light read which I spent an enjoyable morning with and just… made me happy.
And that’s all it needs to be.
And, while it was at it, it showed me things about life where I’m at right now, without — I’m sure — really meaning to.
It made me smile and taught me things.
And isn’t that one of the things good Fantasy is best at?