Book Review: The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan

emperor_of_nihon-jaFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 435

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.

Book Review: Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan

halts perilFormat:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2010

Pages:  386

Reading Time:  about 7 hours


Halt’s Peril is the 9th book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. After the positive review I gave to The Kings of Clonmel, the 8th book in the series, I was really looking forward to this story. Some spoilers of Book 8 will be revealed, as the two stories are linked, so if you haven’t read that book you may want to stop here. Otherwise, it’s on to the review…

The book begins a little after the events in the previous story – Will, Halt, and Horace are attempting to track down and capture the fake prophet/cult leader/con artist Tennyson, who always seems to be a step ahead of them. There’s some solid opening scenes, one taking place in a smuggler’s port and the other in a pirate attack on the sea during a storm. The boys continue to pursue Tennyson, but when they finally get close, they’ve got to deal with an ambush from the Genovesan assassins.  The ambush scene is fantastic – Will & Halt know it’s coming, but there’s really no avoiding it. The tension builds as both sides attempt to take down each other, knowing the first to make a mistake will die. This showdown is tension-filled and logical, and is perhaps the highlight of the book.

Although I may be about to reveal a spoiler here, it’s in the synopsis on the inside of the book cover, so I’m not sure it’s a shock. Halt gets nicked by a crossbow bolt from one of the assassins, who happen to use poison. When they get back on the trail of Tennyson, Halt takes a turn for the worse. This leads to the fight to save Halt’s life. Unfortunately the story at this point becomes a grind, as Will and Horace try to figure out what to do, then set out to do it. This subplot consumes about 125 pages, or roughly a third of the book, during which not much happens. At several points I was gritting my teeth as it took the characters several pages to work through obvious solutions, although the means by which Horace & Will determine which antidote to use is well-conceived.

The characters continue to act consistently, though there’s a lot more angst & bickering in this book than there was in the previous one. There’s also one curious scene where Halt rants at Will in a manner that is totally out of character, nor is it explained why. The humor continues to be the guess-you-had-to-be-there variety, and there’s quite a bit more of it forced on the reader than there was in the previous story.

Some previously-introduced characters make an appearance, including one of my favorites. The ending is wrapped up nice and neat, with no cliffhangers or loose threads to be resolved. There aren’t really any major shocks or surprises in the book.

Although I did enjoy Halt’s Peril, I feel it wasn’t quite up to the standard set by The Kings of Clonmel. It’s a little slower, a little more predictable, and a little more forced. My feelings are mixed on whether or not I’ll by the final book in the series, The Emperor of Nihon-Ja. The reviews are somewhat mixed on Amazon, and it does take place in an eastern setting, which I have loathed thus far; however, that setting is akin to feudal Japan, which I think I would like, and Halt’s Peril wasn’t awful, so I may take the plunge and finish out the series.

Book Review: The Kings of Clonmel by John Flanagan

Format:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2010

Pages:  358

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

The Kings of Clonmel is the 8th book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. The last book I reviewed was book 6, The Siege of Macindaw. So what happened to book 7? I skipped it for 2 reasons: 1) It is about Erak and the middle-eastern-like land of Arrida, which almost ruined the series for me in book 4, and 2) it’s chronologically out of order, taking us back to a point between books 4 and 5 when Will is still a ranger’s apprentice rather than a full-fledged ranger. So I decided to skip book 7 (or 4.5 if you will) and move on to book 8.

I’m glad I did, because book 8 is a great story about the past of Will’s mentor, Halt – where he comes from, his family, and why he left Clonmel. We have subplots involving a nasty cult, Halt’s family, and his relationship with the King of Clonmel, Ferris. We have duels, assassins, bandits, smooth talking cult leaders, cowardly kings, giant bodyguards, and of course rangers. In other words, the book is full of action-packed sequences that make sense, and they make sense because Flanagan takes time to explain the motivations and questions of the characters and the plot. It’s almost as if he sat down with some friends, had them read the story, and then they found all the holes so that he could plug them.

The characters are fairly well fleshed out. Halt, Will, and Horace remain consistent, although Halt seems a bit crankier as he is constantly reminded that he’s getting up in years. The father-son-like relationship that Halt and Will have developed is nicely done and not overly dramatic. I enjoy reading a book for once where characters are not delivering pages and pages of monologue about their innermost feelings as the action grinds to a stop. These characters know who they are and what they are capable of, and it’s refreshing. They also embody integrity and courage, so they are easy to root for. Readers looking for dark, edgy characters won’t find much here.

One aspect that makes the book intriguing is the back story of Halt. Little by little, we are introduced to Halt’s past. The enigmatic ranger, who has been somewhat of a mystery to this point in the series, is suddenly fleshed out and fully developed, and it’s something I think many fans of the series have been waiting for.

The main villain is Tennyson, the leader of the cult. Tennyson is well done…to watch him change from his early calm and confident nature to frustration and hostility when things aren’t going his way is perfect. Most of the other characters aren’t developed much, though. I would have liked to have more time spent on the Genovesan assassins, as well as Ferris, the weak king of Clonmel, who doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than allowing the cult to gain a foothold in his land.

The pace is brisk, and while the plot doesn’t have any major shocks, other than one involving Halt’s past, neither is it totally predictable. The ending is only somewhat wrapped up, as the stage for the next book is set and already under way. It’s not a cliffhanger but more of a continuation, similar to the way Flanagan transitioned from The Sorcerer of the North to The Siege of Macindaw (from book 5 to book 6).

If I have one major criticism of the story, it’s the attempt at humor. Though there’s a lot of grinning, chuckling, and laughter, they are of the guess-you-had-to-be-there variety. There weren’t any moments were I found myself grinning or laughing out loud. Still, this is a minor quibble and did not affect my enjoyment of the story.

Though the series is intended for young adults, I’ve been entertained as Flanagan has had Will and Horace grow up while growing his audience at the same time. It’s similar to what J. K. Rowling has done with Harry Potter, although Flanagan has taken it far more slowly and with less bleakness.

Remembering back to just after I finished book 4, The Battle for Skandia, I was ready to quit this series. I’m glad I didn’t and stuck with it. The Kings of Clonmel is one of the best entries in the series to date, and I’m looking forward to book 9.

Book Review: The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan

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.

Book Review: The Sorcerer of the North by John Flanagan

Ok, I lied. I’m not going to actually review this book. There’s only half a story here, because the book just ends abruptly. From my understanding off of message boards (Australia is 2-3 books ahead of U.S. releases in this series), the next book picks up right where this one leaves off. So I’ll save the review for the second book and review the two together.

I will say that the doubts I had about continuing the series after the woeful Battle for Skandia have (mostly) been erased. The Sorcerer of the North is a far more interesting story, almost written as a mystery novel, which I find appealing. Also, we have moved away from Princess Cassandra and on to Alyss as a potential love interest, which I also find appealing. Alyss is bright, quick on her feet, brave, and has a sense of humor. She’s evolved into a strong character.

A more thorough review will appear after the next book…

Book Review: The Battle for Skandia by John Flanagan

I know I should be moving on and reading Crossroads of Twilight, but I can’t do it. I’m going to have to be in a particular frame of mind to read that bloated mess, and I can’t make the leap. Yet. In the meantime, I’m moving on to review another quick read, John Flanagan’s The Battle for Skandia. This book is the 4th book in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series.

This won’t be a lengthy review. The Ranger’s Apprentice series, besides being Young Adult and written in a fast-moving style, are all thin books, and this one is no different at 294 pages. So here’s my review:

I was quite bored with this book. Will has recovered from his wounds, but Evanlyn is kidnapped. So it’s off to save the princess. Could there be a more cliche storyline? The Vikings – ahem, I mean the Skandians, are like cardboard cutouts of how Vikings should look and act. No surprises there. The Mongols – ahem, I mean the Temujai warriors are about the same. The only saving grace for this book is that the battle scenes are well laid out and easy to understand.

Ultimately in my eyes, this book falls short. I finished it in 3 days, but that was only because once I start something, I finish it. At least the previous book (The Icebound Land) had some intrigue in Will’s addiction to warmweed and Horace masquerading as a knight. This book falls far short of that, and the bittersweet ending is entirely predictable.

I’ll have to re-assess whether or not to continue this series. I’m probably being a little harsh considering it’s a Young Adult book, and assuredly many people will find it a good read. But I’ve read enough YA books, including previous books in this series, to know that Flanagan can do better.