You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author reads when he’s not writing. Well, how about the most resoundingly adequate Fantasy series I’ve ever read?
There’s an old saying: “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good.”
I think that’s good advice for both writers and readers. There’s not such thing as good first draft, so just keep writing and worry about getting it good later. But, also, you’re never going to be satisfied with the final version, so keep writing and just commit to a finish version.
But also also, as a reader, don’t get hung up on every little criticism and just enjoy things. Not everything is going to a classic, but not every thing needs to be to be worth your time.
Now, unfortunately, that quote comes from Voltaire, whom I’ve always found utterly unpleasant and the epitome of ‘Not Nearly as Funny as He Thinks He Is’ — so basically, the Ancien Régime version of basically every social media personality ever.
Incidentally, there’s also an old saying about broken clocks…
But I digress.
Speaking of things that are the epitome of things, early 2000s YA Fantasy series Ranger’s Apprentice is pretty much the epitome of “Good Enough.”
And I do meant that as a compliment. Sometimes, Good Enough is, uh, good enough.
Ranger’s Apprentice is a series about a young man
drafted to a minor league deal by Ne w York’s hockey team who, essentially, gets taken on as the sidekick of a character who’s basically Aragorn.
Now, that’s a good person’s sidekick to be, because Aragorn is awesome:
Also, that kinda sets the stage for what Ranger’s Apprentice feels like from a conceptual standpoint. Calling it “derivative” or “generic”, while probably accurate also feels a little over dramatic and unfair.
Sure, Ranger’s Apprentice is leaning pretty heavily into archetypal characters and plot beats, it’s at least doing it well and does manage to put some fairly unique touches on things we’ve seen before.
Honestly, I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t have Ranger’s Apprentice as recommendation off the top of my head.
Mostly, I have major criteria for my recommendations. Except when I don’t…
One, I’m trying to keep my recommendations at least tangentially related to the style and setting of Realmgard. And, two, I’m trying to keep my recommendations at more or less the same reading level as Realmgard, which is turning out to be an issue, because I didn’t read much older kids’ or YA books when I was at that age.
Happily, Ranger’s Apprentice fits both of those criteria. So let’s get into the actual recommendation.
Honestly, Ranger’s Apprentice isn’t a great series, but it is a good series. And sometimes, “Good” is good enough.
The world itself feels a little under-cooked, both resembling Every Fantasy World Ever and having all of the various countries in the world having names borrowed from real life: the equivalent of France is Gallica (the Latin word for “Gaulish“), Ireland is Hibernia (also Latin), Italy is Toscana (the Italian name for Tuscany), Japan is Nihon-ja (Nihon being the Japanese word for… “Japan”).
Now, I don’t necessarily mean this as all that much of a criticism. I’ve done the same thing in some of my writing, because names are hard. It’s also mitigated by the fact that the series’ focus isn’t necessarily on the big, broad international scale.
Sure, the countries end up fighting pretty major wars with each other, but the focus of the series is primarily on the individual characters.
The character archetypes are all pretty familiar: the orphaned hero destined for greatness, the tomboy princess, the hero’s stoic mentor, the cartoonishly evil overlord, angry vikings, unstoppable steppe warriors on horses.
But why mess with what’s worked for the history of the genre? And, they may not be all that novel, but the characters are still well-written and their adventures are competently delivered.
And, perhaps most notably, author John Flanagan has clearly done his homework when he writes about most of the elements of real, day-to-day life in a Medieval world.
He pays a lot of attention to the details of things like combat, the logistics of fighting a war, and the particulars of culture and government. He also pays attention to a lot of the details of a lot of fairly specific, specialised things like archery and sailing.
Notably, despite the overall world being fairly generic and familiar, Flanagan actually manages to set apart his Rangers from the Dungeons & Dragons–derivative Fantasy RPG Ranger by really leaning into the Lord of the Rings–inspired antecedent of the modern Fantasy Ranger.
Quoth TV Tropes:
Despite the name, the original fantasy Rangers, those among whom Aragorn lived in The Lord of the Rings, weren’t [what TV Tropes identifies as the ‘Forest Ranger’], being more partisans/marchwardens/monster hunters than guardians of nature.Notes on the Tv Tropes article for the
Forest Ranger character archetype
Basically, Flanagan’s Rangers are less “Magic Forest Archers” and more Army and/or Texas Rangers. It’s refreshingly grounded and realistic take for a Fantasy, in part because it means the existence of the Rangers actually makes sense because they have a quantifiable purpose and strategic value in the world they inhabit.
The broad strokes of the world may feel kind of underdeveloped, but the ground-level view of the characters and their daily lives is well-done and presented with a lot of attention to detail.
That’s probably the series’ greatest strength and the thing that manages to stand out in the genre that it otherwise cleaves so closely to.
My biggest complaint, such as it is, is that the series’ major story arcs are delivered across multiple books — the first three books, for example, all detail the same ongoing battle with the same one bad guy — who, incidentally, has a crew of bear-ninjas who scare people to death.
I’m not sure if it’s less stupid or as stupid as it sounds…
This means that you can’t really read just one book and come away with a satisfying conclusion. This is perhaps a necessary evil with the intended audience — reading 200 pages three times is probably easier and more appealing to a ten-year-old than reading 600 pages once.
The overall story arcs are solid, but some of the individual books can feel kind of frustrating in how bad they get hit by Middle Part of a Trilogy Syndrome and are subsequently unable to function as standalone stories.
On the plus side, the publisher seems to have recognised this and it’s pretty easy to pick up the series in multi-book packs.
Which is what I did, and which probably made the reading experience a lot better, because I could treat the three-book story arc as a single entity and just immediately start reading the next one. I’d probably recommend going this route.
So, to conclude: Ranger’s Apprentice, good, not great, but good enough can be good enough. Also, much attention to detail.
Probably not a gourmet dining experience, so to speak, but sometimes all you really want is a hamburger.
Go read them.
The rest of my recommendations are here.
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