Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: Brotherband Chronicles

I have come to the inevitable point in life where I have begun to question the very essence of everything I once thought I admired. Actually, I reached that point about three years ago when I learned that Star Wars was not exactly considered a masterpiece of epic storytelling with poignant lessons of wisdom with profound underlying philosophical messages. And again about a year later when I realized I actually found females (as popularly depicted in media) to be disgustingly thin and unattractive, in contrast to the fine muscular figure of the male body.

I have since come to terms with many of these idiosyncrasies that tend to arise in any individual devoted to the more obscure reaches of culture. I am a perfectly normal, unique person. My uncertainties in these areas are just parts of my natural development! Of course I understand Star Wars is just a movie. Of course the Force isn't real. And I am not gay!

In any event, this book has unfortunately begun the cycle of re-discovery for me once again. John Flanagan was one of my favorite authors when I was younger, and I remember thinking his Ranger's Apprentice books were quite good--at least above average. They are responsible for a small part of the person I am today, and I still reserve a space on the shelf of my personal library of favorite books for the series.

I would not do the same for this book.

I fear to look back through Mr. Flanagan's previous stories else I discover that the glorious literature of my childhood is actually not so glorious. Or even that good, for that matter.

Let me start with the good bits Brotherband Chronicles, to get that out of the way. First of all though, I suppose I should mention that I did not finish the book. I got about three-quarters of the way through it, I think. I simply could not bear it. But that is not beginning with the good is it? I suppose I just threw that in there as a disclaimer unless the book suddenly got good near the end.

I'd start with the characters, but I did not find myself liking a single one of them (with the exception of a minor character who was able to avoid the over-development Flanagan put into every one of his main characters to try to make them more sympathetic with the inevitable result of actually making me despise them all the more).

Instead, I think I'll start by pointing out the good parts of the context of the story--the setting, or mood/time/place/culture/planet-thing. I remember that fateful day when I first picked up the very first Ranger's Apprentice book off the shelves in the Barnes and Noble young adult fantasy section. I read the prologue thingy and part of the first chapter, and was sold. It was a thrilling and witty story of grizzled master ranger and his young but capable apprentice in a quest to hunt down monsters of another age who threatened the kingdom (but turned out to only be a symptom of a much deeper, more sinister disease to the realm--a powerful outcast villain). It was an epic, exciting story that showed me something new and fantastic while still feeling realistic. At least, that is how I remember it.

This story is not at all like that. But wait, you say. Isn't this story supposed to take place in the same world as the original Ranger's Apprentice?

Yes, it does.

But then, it doesn't.

You see, Flanagan went through a sort of genre shift while writing the Ranger's Apprentice books. After the second book when the "Evil Dark Lord Guy Person" (and yes, of course that was his name--isn't that the name all antagonists in fantasy stories are given?) dies by the hand of Horst (SPOILER ALERT-- oh wait, I did that wrong, didn't I?), everything takes on a distinctly more pseudo-historical-fiction-esque feeling. Flanagan seems to like the idea that he writes "realistic" fiction. Of course, It does not matter that most of his characters are based on cliched archetypes (which may not be entirely unacceptable apart from the fact that they are neither clever archetypes nor particularly realistic ones) and remain one-dimensional cut-outs of characters he has seen on television throughout his books despite the fact that he gives them numerous lines of what should be enriching, character defining dialogue that almost inevitably devolve into meaningless bantering consisting of what Flanagan must think are witty comments (but are actually rather dull lines which pass into cheesiness far too often for any characters Flanagan intends the audience to take seriously).

Of course, I will not go into Flanagan's failures concerning historical weaponry and even basic physics. Yet.

But where was I going with this? Oh yes. Flanagan no longer writes about dark creatures that stalk the night, or powerful men who build armies by themselves in the cold reaches of the world to someday claim revenge or whatever, or complex young men who carve out their names into the stones of legend with the guidance of dark, brooding mentors who still retain human quirks.

Now he writes about idiotic teenagers performing average feats fully expected of them, but failing miserably at times of crucial importance in pathetic ways.

I believe he wished to set himself apart from the vast crowd of fantasy writers creating what they hope to be epic stories with high-brow dialogue, powerful wizards, dark lords, idealized heroes, and the fate of the world at stake.

But didn't he already do that? I don't know, maybe the original Ranger's Apprentice was just like the Brotherband Chronicles--hence my fear to re-read Ranger's Apprentice. But I do remember I felt swept away with the thrill of discovering some new world within those pages, and new people I wanted to know more about. Everything about Brotherband Chronicles feels trite and recycled. The more I find out about the characters, the more I think, "Oh, what an annoying fellow. I would never want to be friends with a person like that,"--except with different words in place of "fellow" and "person".

So far, I think I have pretty much totally failed at starting with the "good bits". So maybe I should just get on with how the book begins.

It opens with a relatively peaceful raiding, in which the raiders are made to look like the good guys--because as we all know, vikings cared deeply for others even in their bloody rampages, and they never went on raids without justification. And if that justification is a bit sketchy, then who cares? Boys will be boys. They just need to go out and do a little raiding sometimes. Perfectly normal. But I digress. These not-to-be-misconstrued-raiders do their work, and leave the village relatively peacefully, but something goes wrong. Here's the good part, I thought.

Horse riders come to challenge these raiders and defend their possessions. Unfortunately, these riders happen to be n00bs. And Flanagan makes this painfully clear, explicitly emphasising their freakish inexperience by every method of conveying an impression available to fiction writers (including outright telling the reader).

These riders do absolutely nothing to the plot or story in any way, except give an opportunity to show how much the author loves these raiders but somehow failing to give me the same emotion of adoration for their over-emphasized awesomeness (in addition to making totally sure the audience knows that they are the good guys). The riders all run away the way little cowardly kittens do when you violently kick away their food dish and scream hellish cries of outrage at them while chasing them deep into the woods (What? You've never done that or seen that happen? How odd.).

The raiders go back to their ship, where they start chuckling to themselves about the utter ease of the encou--OHGODAFREAKINGSPEARINMYCHEST!!!

Imagine a guy throwing a spear instead of a god.

Somehow, one of those juvenile wannabe-knights had run all the way back to them without being noticed by anyone and was able to hurl a spear with enough force and accuracy to impale one of the absolutely-noble-viking-raider-guys-who-had-just-stolen-everything-the-evil-kid's-family-had through his armor and kill him (but of course leaving him alive just long enough for him to impart his dying wishes to a nearby best friend).

Not sure why I didn't stop there. I felt nothing for any of the characters so far, and the direction the plot was taking just seemed... weak. Like the Flanagan just had a general idea about this book and pulled this portion out of his anus to fill in the historical gap and create some sort of conflict at the beginning of the book--which was not altogether a bad idea considering that I cannot recall any meaningful conflict taking place in the first few chapters, apart from another flashback-thing between the scrawny protagonist and his idiot friend who doesn't even know how to swim.

I stuck around to get to the bit where the protagonist goes into this training thing which is supposed to be really hardcore. It's called "Brotherband" training (*wheezeTITLEDROPcough, cough), pardon me. However, it may as well be called basic US military training (with some boy scouts/summer camp type activities thrown in), because that's pretty much what it is. Complete with annoying whistle-blowing drill sergeants.

Can't get much more awesome than the army, but come on...


This is not a particularly new thing for Flanagan. Basically every culture or army in his world is directly based upon some ancient/medieval counterpart, and usually you can tell just by looking at the name. The key thing though is he usually bases the things in his books on history--you know, as in stuff that used to be but isn't anymore? I'm not sure if Flanagan didn't understand that the vikings had their own methods for bringing up young warriors and raiders, or if he decided that researching that sort of thing or maybe even (*GASP*) consulting an expert on the dark ages/vikings was just way too much work.

It may have prevented him from postulating that the fuller of a sword serves to allow the blood to drain from the victim more easily. I'll never forgive you for that one, Mr. Flanagan.

Gah, this post is getting long. I'll sum things up by saying this: don't bother to read the book. I would tell you to not read it or any other books by this author ever or else I'll kill you and your dog, but that would just make you curious, and then I'd have to deal with jail sentences, and all that messy business. So I'll just keep things simple and straightforward.

Save your time (and your dog). Don't read it.


Somewhere in my reading time (or the time when I am actually supposed to be babysitting) I have managed to get through the final chapters of the book. HUZZAH, I DISCOVERED THAT THE BOOK WAS ACTUALLY A COMPLETE MASTERPIECE, BETTER THAN ANYTHING I HAVE EVER READ EVER!!!

Well, maybe not. But I was pleased to discover that the ending was not quite as predictable as I thought it would be. However, elements of it were definitely unrealistic. Why would Erak let a bunch of n00bs guard Skandia's most precious artifact on the night a bunch of suspected pirates leave the city? That's like asking for it to get stolen (SPOILER ALERT--dangit, I did it wrong again, didn't I?).

Flanagan has never been a George R. R. Martin, but I also thought the ending didn't evoke a lot of emotion of loss--that is, somebody should have died. NOBODY dies in this book. Being a gore-loving morbid sort of fellow, I found this to be unacceptable, especially considering that Flanagan obviously wanted to pull at our heartstrings with this "sad" ending. Instead, I was moved to my core with the emotion of "I don't really care."

However, the small amount of surprise at the end did not by any means justify the rather mediocre beginning, middle, and end--or at least the bad bits of the end. Of course, it is a well-known fact that I am severely mentally retarded, and thus it is quite possible that a normal-functioning person could have discerned the ending from two hundred pages away.

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