The Sorcerer of the North: World-building problems begin to show

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Sorcerer of the North by John Flanagan MG YA fantasy audiobook reviewsThe Sorcerer of the North by John Flanagan

This review will contain minor spoilers for John Flanagan’s previous RANGER’S APPRENTICE books: The Ruins of Gorlan, The Burning Bridge, The Icebound Land, and The Battle for Skandia. The Sorcerer of the North begins a new story arc and new readers could start here, but for maximum enjoyment, I recommend going back and starting with The Ruins of Gorlan.

When we left Will and his friends at the end of The Battle for Skandia, our hero Will, a Ranger’s apprentice, had finally returned home to Araluen with the princess Cassandra after they had been kidnapped by Araluen’s long-time Viking-ish enemies, the Skandians. (But don’t think that Will rescued Cassandra because, actually, she rescued him, thank you very much, Mr. Flanagan!) After returning home, Will was responsible for brokering a peace between Araluen and the Skandians and, because of that, he has finally been given a last name: Treaty. Then Will went back to the Rangers, though the king offered him a position that would have made him a nobleman and, therefore, eligible to marry Cassandra. The princess seemed sad that he refused this honor and returned to the Rangers.

When I opened The Sorcerer of the North, I was surprised to find that a few years had passed since the events of The Battle for Skandia. Will is now a full-fledged Ranger and he is on his way to his first solo appointment. Thinking to give him an easy first assignment, the Rangers have sent him to a seaside province that shouldn’t cause him much trouble. On his way, Will finds a dying Border Collie on the side of the road and nurses him back to health, giving us a sweet new canine character to love. When he arrives in his new home, Will finds that things are not as ideal as he’d been led to believe. Then Alyss shows up with a message for Will — there are reports of a murderous sorcerer in the North and the Rangers want Will to infiltrate Macindaw Castle to figure out what’s going on. To do this, he’ll go undercover as a wandering minstrel.

The Sorcerer of the North was pleasant enough, but not as much fun as previous installments. I think that’s mainly because some of the characters who I loved in those books are missing here, or have only minor parts. We don’t see much of Halt, but the scenes he’s in are the best in the book. We see very little of Horace, but it’s clear that he’ll play a bigger role in the next book, The Siege of Macindaw. We don’t get to see Cassandra at all. Mostly Will is on his own here and so this episode is missing the witty banter and droll humor that I liked so much in the previous books. The dog helps make up for this a little, but it’s not enough. We get to see more of Alyss, but since she’s a dignified diplomat, so far she’s just not much fun.

The other main “issue” with The Sorcerer of the North is that it is now becoming apparent (though I’ve suspected it before and even mentioned it in my review of The Battle for Skandia) that Flanagan is inventing his world as he goes. (Or, if that’s not the case, he has elected not to tell us things until they’re necessary, which seems doubtful.) Never before have we heard of the places Will visits in this story, or the neighboring kingdom that threatens to invade. This is the first time we’ve had any idea that Will plays an instrument and is a good singer. It’s clear that these elements of the story were introduced just for the plot of this novel.

People who read a lot of epic fantasy will understand why I make this point, but those without much epic fantasy experience (including younger readers, who are the target audience for this series) may wonder why I care. It has to do with world building. As Tad Williams (whose epic fantasy I love) explains, when you’re building a world, from the beginning you need to give people little glimpses of the bits they don’t see directly — the stuff that’s not focused on in the story — so that it feels real. If you’re suddenly bringing in a new country/enemy/history/skill just to make the plot work, it makes the reader feel like he doesn’t really understand the world/character at all. That’s not a good feeling. The world feels patched together rather than cohesive. The reason THE LORD OF THE RINGS is so “epic” is because Tolkien built the elements — the history, mythology, language, poetry, etc. — before he wrote the novel. I wasn’t expecting Flanagan to put that much work into his epic, but a little more planning, hints, and foreshadowing would have helped a lot.

Another problem is that if things keep getting added as they’re needed, it makes the reader feel that anything is possible, that there are no rules or boundaries. This is also an uncomfortable feeling. When we read epic fantasy, we want to live in the author’s world for a while. In the case of RANGER’S APPRENTICE, that’s 12 books so far. By this point in the story (book five), we should feel like we live in Araluen and that Will is our personal friend. This is impossible, though, when we don’t know the country and don’t even know that our friend is a musician!

Many younger readers, or those new to epic fantasy probably won’t even notice this, which is fine. The story is still exciting and Will makes a great protagonist. Some scenes go on too long (e.g., climbing the tower took forever!) and there’s some over-explaining, as usual. The end is thrilling and few readers will be able to resist picking up the next book, The Siege of Macindaw, immediately, like I did.

The audiobook version of The Sorcerer of the North is almost 10 hours long and is read by Stuart Blinder. I am not sure what is going on with the different audio versions. Most are read by John Keating, but this one, and one of the versions of book two, The Burning Bridge, is read by Blinder. He does a good job, but I’m glad we’ll be back to Keating for the next book because I prefer his voices for the characters.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. What a great description of the importance of world-building! It’s not just important in epic fantasy; all SF works need the sense of a real world with real magic, real limitation and real consequences.

    • Good point, Marion. I was thinking about epic fantasy because it so often spans many volumes and the problem with this series is that each particular book feels a little different due to the lack of cohesion in world-building between books, but it’s just as important in science fiction (or any speculative fiction) and just as important in a story that takes place in only one volume.

  2. You’ve concisely described my problem with (and the necessity for) world-building–I don’t want chapters and chapters of descriptions of cities and countries and cultures, but at the same time, I don’t want details that seem thrown in because the author suddenly thought they were cool. There need to be boundaries!

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