This book was first published in the US in 2005 and the fifth book in the series is due out soon. Ranger's Apprentice is not my usual taste, although I would have gotten around to reading it to review at some point in the interest of finding good books for boys. However, I bumped this title to the top of my list after a chat I had with a customer. She was an older woman, a grandma maybe, with an armful of some really great young adult books. I commented on what she was purchasing and we fell into a discussion of kid's books. It turned out that she was buying the books for herself and her husband and they were both avid readers of young adult fiction. She went on to tell me that she and her husband both loved the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan and that her sixty year old, reserved husband was in tears at the end of book four. That sold me. I ran to the library and checked out the book and the audio, hoping I could entice my eleven year old son who does not enjoy fiction into giving the series a try. I'm not sure if he will read it, but my husband is hooked!
This is a very solidly written book with engaging characters and lots of detail given to the art of combat as well as the skills needed to track and attack the enemy. This book could almost be historical fiction and reminded me often of Avi's Newbery winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead as well as Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls series.. However, there are the dangerous creatures ruled by Morgarath, the Wargals and the Kalkara. Book One: The Ruins of Gorlan is the story of Will, a fifteen year castle ward. Orpahns whose parents served the lord of the castle are taken in and cared for and given apprentice jobs at the age of fifteen, often jobs that their station in life, had their parents lived, would have been denied them. Will does not know his last name but he does know that his father died a hero fighting Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, in a huge battle that was barely won by the kingdom of Araluen. He believes his father was a knight and wants to go to Battleschool to follow in his footsteps. Unbeknownst to Will, the Ranger Halt has been watching him and wants him for his own apprentice. Rangers are mysterious, cloaked figures, one of whom lives in each of the fifty fifes that make up the kingdom. They have different ways from the knights, moving in secrecy and solitude. However, they also provided the intelligence that won the battle with Morgarath and, though feared by some they are also respected. Will is disappointed at first, but soon comes to thrive as Halt trains him in the ways of the Rangers. Simultaneously, his friends Jenny, Alyss, George and Horace are baing trained as cook, diplomat, scribe and knight. Horace, once a thorn in Will's side, finds himself being noticed for his skills at Battleschool by both the lords and upperclassmen with an axe to grind.
Because of the subject matter in this book, there is quite a bit of fighting - between Will and Horace, Horace and the bullies, boars and knights, knights and Wargals, Rangers and Kalkara. Fighting isn't really my thing and I'll be honest, I skimmed the fight scenes to find out who came out with the fewest wounds, and who came out at all. What I did enjoy was the hard won respect that Will and Horace achieved by the end of the book and the tiny beginnings of relationships with the other wards from the castle. Actually, I was thrown by a kiss at the end of the book between Alyss and Will. I had forgotten that they are fifteen year olds and, in medieval days would probably be marrying sometime soon. There is also a nice reveal at the end of the book with regards to Will's father - one that I didn't see coming.
I think this is a good enough series for a young boy (or girl) to read while he is waiting to be ready for Tolkein's Lord of the Rings or TH White's The Once and Future King. For now, Flanagan has staked out a niche, as far as genre and reading level goes, that has not been taken up by a series before. And, I suspect that his writing improves and becomes richer and more detailed with each book in the series.