Editor’s Note: Review Copy Courtesy of Penguin Random House
After an extensive blog tour of coverage from countless outlets, Ranger’s Apprentice: The Royal Ranger – Duel at Araluen has finally hit store shelves for readers and fans across the world to delve into and enjoy. With HBB Reviews covering and speculating over the future of the series itself and Flanagan’s decision to revoke several ploys of the “final chapter” tagline, we can finally discuss Flanagan’s latest installment, which fortunately doesn’t disappoint. Duel at Araluen is bursting with magnificent set pieces, heightened by the author’s rare flair for the genre, that are all wrapped by a plot that is similarly bursting with holes and gaps. It never compromises the read, however proving to still be entertaining but never quite reaching the heights of the first installment of this currently staged trilogy.
Kicking off immediately after the events of 2018’s The Red Fox Clan, Duel at Araluen follows Maddie as she weaves and attempts to repair dilemmas and battles on both sides of the castle, all spearheaded by the traitor Dimon. Simply put, the plot doesn’t work nearly as well without the context of The Red Fox Clan, an installment that whilst enjoyable ended abruptly and felt cut short. Fortunately, such an issue is immediately remedied in Duel at Araluen with an opening prologue that allows newcomers to understand the situations of each character and their motivations well. However, even with the heightened effort towards accessibility, there’s still a sinking feeling that The Red Fox Clan and Duel at Araluen were meant to exist as one installment. Releasing not even a full year after its predecessor, Duel at Araluen plays the nostalgic card from The Red Fox Clan one too many times, leaving the newcomers stranded with what is essentially an “inside joke.” Sure, readers familiar with previous installments in the series, namely The Sorcerer in the North and The Siege of Macindaw, will immediately recognize Flanagan’s tactic, but that once again does not solve the issue.
However, even to newcomers, Duel at Araluen remains fiercely entertaining thanks to some massive and spectacled set pieces. They never quite reach the sensory impressions of visual fantasy, ranging from the recently much controversial Game of Thrones to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Flanagan comes close and easily creates some of the best moments in the entire franchise, including the mainline entries. Tempered only by a frivolous pace, the number of pages I was flying through in mere minutes was astonishing. Even if the narrative tying it all together isn’t particularly strong, these moments make the entire read worth it. In addition, there are far more set pieces included regarding its predecessor The Red Fox Clan, with Duel at Araluen feeling like the third act the book sorely lacked.
With Flanagan’s addiction to massively staged set pieces taking up so many pages, there isn’t much character substance or even world lore for that matter here. There are the occasional references and exposition blots, but he never lingers on them, clearly more interested in the actual narrative at hand. It’s objectively the right choice, but consequently, some fans will certainly be disappointed with the lack of appearances from a major character.
Ultimately, Duel at Araluen represents everything that Flanagan does as a writer, warts and all. Its narrative is flimsy at times and occasionally relies on previous knowledge a bit too much, retracting its accessibility to newcomers. However, the book’s depiction of medieval fantasy set pieces is undeniably entertaining and serves as a constant reminder that Flanagan is one of the best in the entire industry in delivering stunning moments of action and bravado. Should this be the effective end of Ranger’s Apprentice, it ends on a mostly high note, even if it never feels like a genuine conclusion.
Written & Edited by Charlie Jin