The Battle for Skandia

In book four of the Ranger’s Apprentice series.  Will and Evalyn have escaped thanks to Erak’s help, but have gone from the frying pan into the fire.  The Tamujai are moving into the area.  This is Jon Flanagan’s interpretation of the Huns.  I don’t know that the Huns every tried to invade a Scandinavian country, but it’s an interesting story Mr. Flanagan tells with the Tamujai  trying to invade Skandia to take over their ships. At the same time, I wonder if this move signals a leave from the fantasy world to historical fiction.

I had a love hate relationship with this book. While I was enjoying the world of Skandia, it became clear that the world of “Ranger’s Apprentice” is a Europe-esque world.skandia Celtica, Gallica, Teutland, and Skandia are reiterations of Wales, France, Germany, and Scandinavia, respectively. While this doesn’t bother me in theory, in practice it means that this world isn’t so different from our own and the element of “fantasy” seems to loose its power. If I’m going to read historical fiction, I want to read historical fiction, not just a fantastical version of it.  I’m just curious enough to see where Mr. Flanagan is going with book five.

The fact that some of these countries and people are based on actual peoples and cultures, it became uncomfortable. It seems to play into some stereotypes which flatten the characters and plays off our own conceptions of the cultures and societies associated with these “fantasy” countries in the series. The end of the book recovered some of the esthetic that first drew me to the book, but a lot of the characters are starting to feel flat to me. I’m looking forward to seeing how Mr. Flanagan can reinvigorate them.

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The Icebound Land

The third installment of Jon Flanagan’s The Ranger’s Apprentice series, The Icebound Land continues the story of Evelyn and Will’s journey to Skandia. Along the way, they are forced to hunker down on an island outpost with their Skandian captors.  While they are treated fairly well, they know that they face life as a slave unless someone comes to rescue them.  Of course, this being a coming-of-age story, there is someone who is coming to rescue them.  Halt and Horace are fighting their way through Gallica.  Apparently this country is overrun with war lords and this becomes their obstacle to reaching Skandia sooner.

This is definitely a middle book. It starts exactly where the last one left off and there’s absolutely no resolution to anything. It reminds me a lot of Saga of Fire and Ice.  The story feels like it’s splintering into several different related, but separate plot points.  iceboundI’m starting to think the author writes the books in pairs, keeping the overall storyline in mind for the series. The story is engrossing, but there’s definitely a sense that there’s no rush to develop anything or bring anything to a close. That was a let down. I don’t like feeling like what I’m reading doesn’t have a purpose towards drawing the characters into fetcher conflict, development, or the conclusion of the story. The one bright side of this book was the fact that Evelyn takes charge while Will is in his drug stupor. She shows that women are courageous, resourceful, brave, and ingenious without acting like men. She keeps her own identity without sacrificing who she is for any of the male characters. It’s a good lesson for the obvious young male audience for this series.

The Underground Railroad

railroadThis was a complicated read for me. On one hand I appreciated the style of writing. I was able to disappear into the plot and the characters. I could tear through page after page and not feel the time pass. On the other hand I wonder if people know that this isn’t a historically accurate book? Colson Whitehead takes us on a journey from a plantation in Georgia to…wherever Cora, the protagonist ends up.  At first the book seems like it’s going to be similar to earlier novels of slaves escaping to the North.  However, we get a big clue that this isn’t realistic fiction because Cora gets on an actual railroad, underground, in order to escape.  This leads to further incidents along Cora’s journey that clue us in to the fantastical elements of the novel.  The subtlety of the non-historical elements are so well done it’s hard to remember they never happened.  This lead to my first problem with the novel.  I’m afraid some will think that the scenes in South Carolina or the anti-slavery movement in North Carolina are true.

All in all I decided to give this a four because of the story telling and over all message. The unromanticized view of slavery was powerful. Even in “12 Years a Slave” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” you never get a true feeling for slave culture in the quarters. Now, we do and it reminds me of what Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed about protecting your body. Not only did the slaves owe their bodies to their masters, many times they had no control over their bodies when it came to their peers. It’s a sobering and powerful idea and one I don’t think we’ve yet overcome.

The Burning Bridge (Ranger’s Apprentice #2)

Taking off from where The Ruins of Gorlan left off, The Burning Bridge returns with Will still apprenticed to Halt and learning that while he has natural talents, there’s a lot he still needs to learn.  We learn very quickly that Morgarath is plotting revenge on Araluen and Will and Halt believe they’ve discovered his plans.  Oh but they haven’t!  Soon they realize they are being double-crossed which leads Will, Horace, and Gilan to Celtica to find out what’s going on.  Trouble ensues and the whole place erupts into war.  Luckily, Will and Horace’s quick thinking at least gives the army of Araluen an even playing field.

bridgeAnother excitingly quick paced read, this time we have a female protagonist join the gang evening out the male dominated cast. I was worried that once she appeared on scene that she might become the archetypal medieval female who’s pretty and smart, but doesn’t have much agency and who is included only to serve as the romantic interests of the male protagonists.  Luckily Princess Cassandra hasn’t fallen into that trap…yet.  She’s smart and witty, keeping her identity secret because she’s aware she could be used as a pawn in someone’s political machinations.  She also makes it clear that she doesn’t need protection but also appreciates the camaraderie that Will and Horace offer her.  As of yet, there’s not even a hint of romance, but I’m just waiting for that shoe to drop.

There were parts of the story, especially on their mission, when I thought Will et al were being way to cavalier about the consequences of what they were doing. However, I realized that instead, they were taking the consequences for being part of the adult world of the Ranger Corps. It’s never easy to think that young people would have to sacrifice their futures on behalf of adults, but sadly that’s a lot of the time what happens in our own military. This is a sobering thought. There’s also a scene in which a young woman is confronted with bald misogyny and reminds us all that this isn’t just a problem in the Middle Ages, we still face this in the 21st century.

Parzival

Parzival is a young naive boy who is brought up by his mother as far away from knighthood and chivalry as she can control. Until he runs into three knights on the road and decided he too wants to become a knight. We learn that his mother recognizes the dangers of chivalry and how violent it is. Interestingly enough, chivalry is what brings Parzival to near ruin. He’s too polite and doesn’t ask an important question.  I can’t say much more about the plot of Parzival without spoiling the plot.

parzivalThere’s a lot of the stock elements of a medieval lay, Arthur and his court, religious iconography (i.e. Holy Grail) and your random supernatural events.  Oddly enough, Parzival ends up wandering the wilderness in order to complete his quest and restore himself back in good graces with society and he keeps running into his cousin.  His cousin is a young woman who has lost her husband in a joust with Parzival’s rival.  Throughout the who story she randomly encounters Parzival.  I don’t know what was going on in Medieval culture, but a  young woman who was without a male escort was really vulnerable.  Yet she seems to be ok showing up in random places to confront Parzival.  Weird. 

In the end, I think the story of Parzival is highly ironic and would really disappoint his mother.  Parzival “breaks” with chivalry, apparently, because he doesn’t want to intrude on a king’s medical condition.  Because he doesn’t ask about the king, he’s ejected from the castle and everyone he meets, including the random cousin, curses him for his “thoughtlessness” and he’s kicked out of Arthur’s court and made to appear unchivalrous.  Thus begins his quest to right this “wrong”.  Due to his questing, his wife has given birth to twin boys and has raised them all by herself, JUST LIKE HIS MOTHER!  Once again, due to chivalry, a mother has had to raise children by her self.  This point wasn’t developed a lot in the story, but it’s a plot line that I found hides underneath several medieval lays.  Chivalry isn’t the nice, clean, everyone-treats-everyone-with-respect behavior plan.  There’s a real dark side to it.

Ranger’s Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan

gorlanI haven’t been so engrossed in a book since I devoured the Hunger Games trilogy in a matter of days. However, Ranger’s Apprentice became the second book to have captured my attention so much I literally wanted to just rush home from work and read.  The plot of the book seemed to tick off the boxes of things I look for in a book and it never lost its way.The underdog finds a purpose, a thrilling chase takes on life-or-death stakes, and ultimately we learn that heroes are usually the people we least suspect and they typically don’t plan to be a hero.  I typically don’t like to read books that are type-written for specific genders.  However, I will say that sometimes a book does it so subtly that it’s hard for me not to be taken in by it.  This book is definitely a “guy” book in the sense that it understands what young adult guys are looking for in a book and crafts a story that addresses their needs.

I will admit, even as much as I liked it, this book was oddly absent of women. Yes, there’s a few female characters in the beginning and they return at the end. It reminded me a lot of the Lord of the Rings and the absence of female characters. Part of wonders if it’s because the book is set in the Medieval and due to historical constraints there weren’t a lot of women who were becoming Rangers. On the other hand, I’m thinking that since this book is fantasy, why can’t there be more women? At the same time, I will at least acknowledge that there weren’t the stock female archetypes we often see in fantasy and I was grateful for that. I’m curious to see how the series continues and if the lack of female characters will be addressed.  I’m also curious to know what you all think.  Is it “ok” for a book to have an absence of either gender?

Room

Reading, “Room” was one of the most intense reads I’ve experienced. This is one of the few cases in which I’m glad I saw the movie first so I was prepared for what happens in the book.That being said, seeing the movie doesn’t lessen any of the action in the book.  I knew the outcome of their escape attempt, yet I couldn’t help willing Jack to get up in run in my head while reading.  Very rarely do the book and the movie both come close to telling the same story with the same intensity.room

I read for entertainment and escapism. This is why I don’t tend to read a lot of mystery or horror. Knowing that “Room” was about kidnapping, rape, and captivity, I was reluctant to give it a go. After finishing it, I am glad I read it, although I don’t see myself returning to it again. The writing is well done, particularly the point-of-view, first-person limited.

Making the narrator the five year old, Jack, helps lessen some of the more intense moments of the book because they are filtered through someone who doesn’t know “bad”. Once he and Ma escape, it was fascinating to see the world, “Outside”, through his eyes. Towards the end of the book I thought the pacing became bogged down in the frustrating anecdotes between he and his grandma, but once he and Ma are reunited the pace picked up. The closing scene is particularly moving. All in all this is a good book, just be aware the first half of the book is quite intense.