As I stated in my last post, it’s important to maintain perspective when reviewing YA novels. However, that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be held to a standard. In my review of The Battle for Skandia, I stated how unimpressed I was with that novel and how John Flanagan is capable of much more. I even questioned whether or not I would continue with the series. Well, I need not have worried, as books 5 & 6, The Sorcerer of the North and The Siege of Macindaw are not only worthy entries in the series, they’re also probably my favorites so far.
What we have in these two books are a mystery to be solved. We have a sickened king, a fortress at risk to the neighboring Scotti, a prince that may not be fit to lead, and an evil sorcerer in the nearby woods. When Will is chosen to infiltrate the fortress as a jongleur (minstral) and find out what’s going on, the mystery begins to slowly reveal itself. Needless to say, things are not as simple as they appear, and Flanagan has a few twists and turns up his sleeve.
There are some memorable characters, both old and new, in these books. We’ve seen Alyss before, but now she is a beautiful young courier, and has replaced Evanlyn as Will’s love interest. There is the evil John Buttle, the dread sorcerer Malkallam, the strange prince Orman, the dashing king’s nephew Keren, the giant Trobar, and the healer Malcolm. All of these characters are well done and consistent in their voices and actions. But probably my favorite new character is Will’s new dog, who at various points is named Dog, Girl, Blackie, and Shadow as Will searches for a good name. As the owner of a shepherd dog myself, I have a soft spot for them and I loved this new character, who proved to be both useful and entertaining.
The first few books in the series were derivative of Magician: Apprentice by Fiest, The Dark Tide by McKiernan (which itself was a Tolkien derivative), the Prydain series by Alexander, and several others of that ilk. Flanagan has moved the series beyond that origin into new territory, although the narrative still has that same feel or style. There are areas that Flanagan still handles clumsily, such as romance and attempts at humor, but it’s nothing that ruins the story. On the other hand, Flanagan can write fight scenes with great detail, giving the reader a clear picture of what is happening. It’s probably his greatest strength.
It should be noted that Flanagan’s stories have an aversion to magic. Oh, there’s some mind control and hypnotism, some trickery, and a hint at the unexplained, but unlike the sources listed above that practically drip with magic, and other young adult novels like Harry Potter, Fablehaven, and Percy Jackson that are heavy into magic, Flanagan goes for more realism. So while his work feels derivative in some ways, in others he blazes his own trail. It’s difficult to keep a fantasy audience interested without any magic, but Flanagan handles this very well. One of my favorite scenes involves the sorcerer Malkallam using “magic” to try to extract information from the Scotti warrior MacHaddish:
“The fire was nothing but a small pile of coals now. Malkallam rose unsteadily to his feet. He pointed the black staff, threatning the trees that encircled them.
‘Stay back, I warn you!’ he called. But now a series of red flashes and flares ran through the trees, circling the clearing, throwing huge, twisted shadows across the small open space, shadows that were there and gone in an instant. And as this happened, they heard Serthrek’nish speak for the first time, his voice deep, resonant and blood-chilling.
‘The flames have died. The power of the circles is weak. I will have the blood of one of you.’
One of the Skandians went to rise, battleax ready in his hand, but Malkallam’s outstretched hand stopped him before he had gone above a crouch.
‘Stay where you are, you fool!’ his voice cracked like a whip. ‘He says he wants one and one only. He can have the Scotti.’
‘No-o-o-o-o-o!’ MacHaddish’s cry was high-pitched and agonized. To the Skandians, the demonic red face was a terrifying apparition. But to MacHaddish, it lay at the very heart of terror. It was the basis of all fear for Scottis, instilled in them when they were children. The flesh eater, the renderer, the tearer of limbs – Serthrek’nish was all of these things and more. It was the demon, the ultimate evil in Scotti superstition. Serthrek’nish didn’t just kill his victims. He stole their souls and their very being, feeding on them to make himself stronger. If Serthrek’nish had your soul, there was no hereafter, no peace at the end of the long mountain road.
And there was no memory of the victim either, for if a person were taken by Serthrek’nish, his family were compelled to expunge all memory of him from their minds.
With Malkallam’s words, MacHaddish knew he was not facing just a terible death. He was facing a forever of nothing. He looked up now into the implacable face as the wizard stepped toward him.
‘No,’ he pleaded. ‘Please. Spare me this.’
But the blackthorn rod had moved out and begun to scrub an opening in the circle of black powder that surrounded MacHaddish.
Frantically, MacHaddish tried to restore it, pushing the powder back into place with his hand, but his efforts only succeeded in widening the gap. His breath sobbed in his throat, and tears of abject terror scored a path through the blue paint on his face.”
In conclusion I think these latest two entries are a worthy read for those who don’t mind a fast-moving, young adult adventure, that doesn’t contain any magic. Though these are classified as young adult, they are written well enough for an adult to enjoy. I consider such books a guilty pleasure, especially when I don’t have a lot of reading time or after I’ve polished off a huge epic.