Book Review: The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan
Reading Time: about 8 hours
The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the 10th and final book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. I was slightly disappointed in the previous book, so I had debated about whether to spring for the final installment. Though it has numerous problems, The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is another solid entry in the series, and while Flanagan plays it safe, he also manages to entertain in this concluding volume. Minor spoilers to follow.
The previous entry, Halt’s Peril, wrapped up a two story arc, so this book takes on a completely new storyline. Horace, hero of Arulan, journeys to the land of Nihon-Ja to study different fighting techniques, and forms a strong bond with the emperor of the country, Shigeru. Unfortunately, in Shigeru’s attempts to enable and inspire the lower-class peasants of his country, he alienates some of the upper class Senshi warriors, including a clan leader that wants to seize power. Horace gets caught up in the ensuing civil war, and finds himself and Shigeru on the run, where they take shelter with the peasants.
Meanwhile, Halt, Will, and Alice are on a similar mission in Toscana, where they are observing formational fighting styles while negotiating a treaty. When Princess Cassandra, also known as Lady Evalyn, brings news of Horace’s plight, the group sets forth to rescue him. From there the story turns into sailing, marching, and battle tactics, with a side quest featuring Alyss and Evalyn, all leading to a final battle between the Emperor’s supporters and those of the would-be-usurper, Arisaka.
In many ways the story is very polished, and reminds me very much of the eighth book, The Kings of Clonmel. The difference this time is in the details. Flanagan shows well-researched knowledge about innovative sailing techniques, weapon creation, and battle formations and tactics. It’s all carefully explained, and although it is in simple terms, it appears logical to me (as a non-expert). Flanagan’s setting of land based on feudal Japan has the potential to be different and exciting, a departure from the typical medieval Europe setting, and in some ways Flanagan succeeds. His exploration of the difference between the lower peasant class and the upper Samurai-type class rings with authenticity. Also, the status of the Emperor and how he rules these classes seems feasible. In addition, the setting receives careful attention to detail, as Flanagan takes time to describe the food, clothing, bathing, speech patterns, and fighting styles of this land. The descriptions are brief and lack detail; however, the focus of the series has never been so much on detail as it has on action and logical reasoning, so in this respect Flanagan remains consistent. Unlike the previous story, it never seems like this tale spins its wheels going nowhere – there is always some kind of engaging action transpiring.
As in previous stories, there seems to be a lot of bickering among characters, and the forced humor that has been a staple of the series continues here. There are also many, many flaws, and while I’ll not pick the book apart completely, there are some aspects of the story that defy belief. First, if you’re going to set your story in feudal Japan, with Japanese customs, culture, and even Japanese words, why not just call it Japan?! Also, some of the main characters sail halfway around the world to reach Horace, and do it faster than Arisaka’s men who are in the same country! Then there’s the fact that Alyss and Evalyn are bickering over Will through almost the whole book, when that storyline was resolved 4 books ago. Communication should be a problem in a foreign country, but everyone pretty much speaks Arulan’s common tongue. Evalyn, the crown princess and heir to the throne of Arulan, is allowed to sail across the world to rescue her boyfriend, without any escort except for Skandian sailors…these inconsistencies (and more) plague the story and it loses much credibility. The careful attention to detail that Flanagan uses to describe the culture and fighting scenes is sadly lacking in the plot itself…in the past, when Flanagan sets up his plot, he takes painstaking detail to show the logic behind his story. That feature is lacking here. Also, the ending wraps up abruptly and is a curious way to end a series, especially one that has spanned 10 books.
Despite the story’s numerous flaws, it’s still an enjoyable read, but it’s so predictable that some readers will be put off. I’m not completely sad that the series is ending, as I think this series has run its course and it’s clear that Flanagan wanted to move on to other projects. Though problematic and unspectacular, this is nevertheless another solid entry. Recommended for those who enjoy YA series, have read the previous books, enjoy a feudal Japan setting, and can accept predictability while being willing to overlook plot issues.
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