Review written by Jeff Dougan.
I’m not sure if there’s a good category description for something that’s a quasi-medieval setting with no magic outside the “Scooby Doo” variety, but The Ranger’s Apprentice series belongs in it. Since the Munchkin was born, I’ve read a higher proportion of middle-grades fiction & young adult material than ever before, as I’m comfortable keeping track of one kid in the adult sections of my local library, but not both of them. As I’m rarely looking for a particular title in that age bracket, I often browse the new release shelves and see what serendipity puts in front of my face. One of those discoveries, toward the end of the series’ publication run, was The Ranger’s Apprentice.
In The Ruins of Gorlan, we’re introduced to the cast of characters we’ll stay with for 10 books: orphans Alice, George, Horace, Jenny, and—the title character of the series—Will. They’re all about 15, and being offered the opportunity to take an apprenticeship with one of the craft masters in the castle that has raised them. (It’s implied that this is a practice unique to the fief where they live, but not stated for certain.) Although the other four are essentially assured the placement of their choice, Will wants to be admitted to the battle school to train as a knight; however, he’s nowhere near physically large enough. When all of the craft masters turn him down, the Ranger Halt dangles a piece of bait that turns out to be a test and results in Will becoming the Ranger’s Apprentice.
Most of the rest of this volume follows Will getting introduced to what the Rangers are and the skills they use, although we get some cuts back over to Horace and his training in battle school (see the part about Bullying below). The Rangers are an intelligence force, trained in stealth and longbows, among other things.
When it comes time for the Rangers’ annual gathering, Will, Halt, and Gilan (who was Halt’s previous apprentice) learn that the commanders of the army during a battle 15 years ago are being targeted by monstrous assassins. There’s a climactic battle in which Will manages to save a number of people through quick thinking and accurate shooting. It’s an excellent introduction to the series and ends neatly (which isn’t always true for subsequent books).
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
We get some indication that Horace had bullied Will a bit when they were younger, but mostly Horace becomes the target of a trio of second-year students at battle school who are pretty relentless in their hazing of the younger student. It’s the kind of thing that used to be rampant at places like West Point or the Citadel, but is officially frowned on.
There are a few tense moments as Will and Horace nearly get into a brawl, and during the hunt for a wild boar that is the incident that repairs their relationship. The last ~1/4 of the book is probably the most tense, though, as the three Rangers track a pair of monstrous beasts into a ruined castle.
Anybody that you think is likely to enjoy classic adventure fiction like The Three Musketeers or Treasure Island will enjoy this, as will those who like classic fantasy (but bear in mind that this is a low-magic series) in the vein of Tolkein or Tamora Pierce. This volume is safe for precocious readers ages 10 and up, although not all the subsequent ones are.
Update from Amanda:
The worst thing about the Ranger’s Apprentice series from my point of view? My son will stay up WAY too late reading if I don’t remind him to turn off his light—he isn’t getting enough sleep!
The worst thing about the Ranger’s Apprentice series from my son’s point of view? He’s reading through them so quickly that most of his allowance is going toward buying new books!
These are both problems I’m happy to have to deal with.
The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
Published in 2005 by Philomel
First in The Ranger’s Apprentice series