Monday, November 8, 2010

For-Fun Historical Fantasy

I haven't blogged for several weeks, having been so busy with work and family commitments that I just haven't had time to write much.  I've been reading, though: professional journals, up-and-coming young adult novels, some nonfiction works by writers I know.  Most of what I've read has been rather serious, complicated work.  That's why I welcomed the mid-October release of Halt's Peril, book 9 of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series.

It's rare that I read more than one book in a young adult series; only those that are particularly well-written, and innovative enough to hold my sustained attention, will earn a re-visit.  Usually it's enough to read the first book of the series: from that point, most librarians will tell you, we can get the feel of the characters, events, and tone of the series.

Flanagan, however, along with a few others, have earned repeat visits.  For me, the lure of the Ranger's Apprentice series is the pure fun of it.  Flanagan has created a fantasy world set in medieval Europe:  instead of writing accurate historic fiction, he's instead taken actual places, events, and peoples, then played with them.  In the first book of the series, Ruins of Gorlan, we met Will, a young man about to turn 15.  At this point in his life, he will be apprenticed to a trade, and he has his heart set on apprenticing to the soldier school, in order to serve and protect his beloved kingdom of Araluen.  Unfortunately for Will, he is small for his age, and not brawny enough to be selected as a soldier-in-training.  Instead, he is chosen by Halt, the Ranger that serves Castle Redmond, where Will has lived since being orphaned as a young boy.  Will doesn't want to serve as a Ranger: for one thing, he doesn't understand their work; for another, the residents of the kingdom seem to fear the Rangers' skills, thinking they possess some sort of magic.

Of course, Will finds out that being a Ranger is a great honor: the Rangers are akin to the Secret Service of the kingdom, and his natural skills and talents fit well with the job requirements.  He becomes a master at tracking, hiding, archery, and knife-throwing.  His adventures take him from the hills and forests of Araluen, to the snowy, icy terrain of Skandia, to the shores of Hibernia.  Of course, these are all real places -- England, Scandanavia, Ireland -- and a great deal of the fun for me, as a history buff, is decoding which peoples and places Flanagan is writing about.  His writing team has even designed great curriculum guides to accompany some of the titles; a great resource for teaching history, though this type of historical fantasy is not the typical genre for such lessons. Homeschooling parents might be particularly attracted to this somewhat unconventional education.

From what I've researched, Flanagan, who writes from Australia, will be continuing Will's adventures for at least a few more books.  Personally, I can't wait to give the set of books to my son, who is now 9, just a little too young for the reading level.  I'd recommend these books for a 7th or 8th grade reader, especially outdoors-y kids who will enjoy the hunting/tracking/survival aspect of the adventures.  (Advanced 5th or 6th graders will be able to handle the story line, although they may need some help with vocabulary.)  The historical aspect of the stories keeps many of my patrons coming back through their early high-school years:  the mark of an excellent young adult series.

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