The Book I Loved, the Series I Stopped
Rangers Apprentice, by John A. Flanagan, is a series highly recommended to me by a good friend of mine. It follows the adventures of a group of characters in a quasi-mystical land where “Rangers” (Rogues, Hunters, Hide-in-shadows-shooting-with-deadly-accuracy-awesome, whatever the name is) train and serve the king of Araluen.
Sadly, it is also the series I think back on when I think of the wrong way to do cliffhangers. Differences in fiction taste aside, here’s why I loved the first book, but finally gave up on the series.
The Case Studies
1 The Ruins of Gorlan: They have always scared him in the past—the Rangers, with their dark cloaks and shadowy ways. The villagers believe the Rangers practice magic that makes them invisible to ordinary people. And now 15-year-old Will, always small for his age, has been chosen as a Ranger’s apprentice. What he doesn’t yet realize is that the Rangers are the protectors of the kingdom. Highly trained in the skills of battle and surveillance, they fight the battles before the battles reach the people. And as Will is about to learn, there is a large battle brewing. The exiled Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, is gathering his forces for an attack on the kingdom. This time, he will not be denied…
I’ve heard this book get some flack, but it was my favorite. Supremely sympathetic protag Will is small, picked-on, and doesn’t know who his parents were. He’s not sure what to expect when Halt, a renowned Ranger, takes him as an apprentice, but the adventure that unfolds is full of character development, friendship creation, and a realistic portrayal of Ranger training that demonstrates aiming a bow, doing damage with a sword, and being not-entirely-useless in hand-to-hand combat isn’t nearly as easy as the movies make us think.
While in this first book the author engages in a little head-hopping , and perhaps some other authorly no-nos, they did not diminish my enjoyment, and I considered Ruins of Gorlan an excellent start to a series.
Please note: the evil Lord is not defeated in this book, but I did not consider this a cliffhanger.
2 The Burning Bridge: For years, the Kingdom of Araluen has prospered, with the evil lord Morgarath safely behind the impassable mountains. For years, its people have felt secure. But the scheming hand of the dark lord has not been idle. . . . on a special mission for the rangers, Will and his friend Horace, an apprentice knight, travel to a neighboring village and discover the unsettling truth: All the villagers have either been slain or captured. But why? Could it be that Morgarath has finally devised a plan to bring his legions over the supposedly insurmountable pass? If so, the king’s army is in imminent danger of being crushed in a fierce ambush. And Will and Horace are the only ones who can save them.
In this book, the heroes confront the Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night…and defeat him. Boom. The end. BUUUT –
Will is dragged away by Viking-esque raiders at the very end of the battle, missing rescue by a matter of yards (the distance from his boat to his mentor Halt on the shore). And to see him reunited with his father-figure, you have to read the next book!
Dangling from the Cliff
3 The Icebound Land: Kidnapped after the fierce battle with Lord Morgarath, Will and Evanlyn are bound for Skandia as captives aboard a fearsome wolfship. Halt has sworn to rescue Will, and he will do anything to keep his promise–even defy his King.
Expelled from the Rangers he has served so loyally, Halt is joined by Will’s friend Horace as he travels toward Skandia. On their way, they are challenged constantly by freelance knights–but Horace knows a thing or two about combat. Soon he begins to attract the attention of knights and warlords for miles around with his uncanny skill. Even so, will they be in time to rescue Will from a horrific life of slavery?
Halt the Ranger, and Will’s best friend Horace, head out to rescue him…while Will is dragged across a tumultuous sea to slavery under a vindictive Viking-race. As the stakes regarding Will’s life ratchet upward, Horace and Halt face knuckle-biting adventures of their own. BUUT…
To see Will reunited with his father-figure, you have to read the next book!
Are you kidding me? A whole book, and they’re not together again?
4 The Battle for Skandia: Still far from home after escaping slavery in the icebound land of Skandia, young Will and Evanlyn’s plans to return to Araluen are spoiled when Evanlyn is taken captive. Though still weak, Will employs his Ranger training to locate his friend but soon finds himself fatally outnumbered. Will is certain death is close at hand, until Halt and Horace make a daring last-minute rescue. But their reunion is cut short by the horrifying discovery that Skandia’s borders have been breached by the Temujai army – and Araluen is next in their sights. Only an unlikely union can save the two kingdoms, but can it hold long enough to vanquish a ruthless new enemy?
Will and his traveling companion have escaped slavery, only to run into a scouting party of the evil invading army. All is lost, until – Halt and Horace reunite and save them from the scouts.
Did you catch that? REUNITE. Half-way through the fourth book, the conflict from the second’s climax is finally resolved.
Oh, yeah, those evil invaders? They’re invading, and they’re, like, really bad, and we have to make an unlikely alliance in order to save…I don’t know. I didn’t read it.
Yes – I Did Not Finish (DNF).
No idea if the kingdom is saved or not. I didn’t care. I was so ticked off that it had taken this long for Little Boy and Daddy to find each other again I put the book down and to this day have not picked it up again.
What does this teach us? Two things:
1) Don’t use cliffhangers to promote the rest of your series.
I understand it’s a popular technique – and I also acknowledge that some stories are simply broken into different volumes for easier handling, and not actually separate stories per se (i.e. Lord of the Rings, or any series by C. J. Cherryh).
BUT…the audience needs some emotional closure. Which leads us to:
2) Different people relate to different things.
Some series draw out continuing tension by delaying the defeat of the Big Baddie (y’know, the dark lord who’s always plotting to overthrow the kingdom. Every kingdom has one). This works fine (as long as you do it well, but everything’s dependent on that), and allows the books of the series to hold together without breaking my heart.
Please note: Ranger’s Apprentice did resolve each book’s physical conflict (dark-lord/journey/bandits) within the book — and seeing as they’re highly reviewed by plenty of other people, obviously not everyone is me.
But these more adventure-esque problems were small potatoes for me because I was much more invested in the parent-figure-rescuing-child-figure drama.
Because…family drama is my Achilles’ heel, my shtick, my insta-buy trigger. Brothers sacrificing to help each other out? *swoon* Brother and sister banding together as a heroic team? *sigh* Daddy hunting to the ends of the earth to rescue his little ‘un? *heart-throb*
But a girl can only take so much, and to string the familial tension on and on was too much for my tender young temper. When I finally got what I wanted, I dropped the book in snobbish distain.
Will I ever go back to this series? I honestly don’t know.
Know your audience.
What’s going to make your audience bite their nails to the bone and stay up late at night to see what happens? A vile necromancer with hideous demon-beast servants? Or a mentor who will sacrifice everything he’s ever valued because the young one he’s responsible for needs help?
And, correspondingly, what will make your audience grind their teeth and accuse you of not knowing how to finish a book?
READERS: What makes a good series for you? Have you ever read a series that grated on your nerves because it didn’t finish the business you wanted it to? What’s your favorite (or least favorite) form of conflict in a series of books?
(Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go completely re-plot three books in my series, or risk getting a nasty review from myself.)
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