Erak’s Ransom is the seventh book in John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series, but chronologically its story occurs after the events of book four, The Battle for Skandia. I would recommend reading Erak’s Ransom after book four and before you read books five and six (The Sorcerer of the North and The Siege of Macindaw). Since I had already read those stories and knew what happened to the characters, it reduced some of the tension. This review will contain spoilers for books one through four.
Will, Halt, Horace and Princess Cassandra are back from overseas after helping Skandia, their former enemy, defeat a common foe. They help broker a peace with Erak, Skandia’s new Oberjarl. As the story begins, Will is completing his Ranger training, Cassandra is practicing with the slingshot and lamenting that her father is so protective, and Halt is planning his wedding to Pauline. Meanwhile Erak decides to go on one last raid before he settles down to rule Skandia… and gets taken hostage by people who live in a desert. He doesn’t want his enemies in Skandia to know he’s out of commission, so he sends a messenger to Araluen to ask them to pay off the ransom which he will pay back when he’s free.
Will, Halt, Horace and Cassandra are sent to pay the ransom. They must endure much hardship before they’re finished with their mission. There are long trips through the hot desert, deadly sandstorms, poisonous snakes, warring tribes, bandits, betrayals, and an exciting horse race.
I had to suspend my disbelief more than usual to enjoy Erak’s Ransom. It started with Halt’s wedding. In books five and six, which take place after the events of this book, it is never mentioned that Halt is married, though his wife is mentioned during a conversation with Halt as “a senior member of the Diplomatic Service” and not as Halt’s wife. It’s pretty clear that the decision to have Halt marry her occurred after books five and six were written. This feels clumsy. There were other parts of the plot I didn’t believe, such as the necessity for a person of royalty to negotiate a ransom for another country’s leader. This felt very much contrived as an excuse to have Cassandra on the mission. Also, now that it’s an integral part of the plot, we finally learn about the Rangers’ compass, a tool we’ve never seen Will or Halt use before and which we won’t see in the next few books (at least) either. Not knowing about one of the Rangers’ tools would normally be okay, except that these little things keep happening. World-building information tends to only be given when it’s needed for the immediate plot, making Flanagan’s world feel thin.
Another disappointment is the stereotypical presentation of the desert tribes. They are modeled after the Middle Easterners of our world and while Flanagan makes the important point that there are multiple tribes with different beliefs and cultures, they pretty much all look like the stereotypical “Arabs” we see in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
However, after books five and six, Erak’s Ransom is a mostly welcome return to the things John Flanagan does best. He’s got some loveable characters and he puts them all together for an exciting children’s adventure. There’s plenty of fun banter between the Rangers and the Vikings as they cross the sea and try to survive in the desert. For example, it’s amusing to watch the Vikings try to make Halt seasick.
There are some thoughtful parts, too, as Will and Cassandra learn some life lessons. Will is worried about whether he’s ready to be a Ranger and wondering if he’ll ever measure up to Halt’s legacy. As readers, we learn how much Halt really trusts and believes in Will. Cassandra is transitioning from pampered princess to leader of her country as she learns that while she enjoys great privileges, she also has greater duties. Meanwhile her father, the king, is learning to let go of his daughter. Thus, we see a lot of character development in this book, which helps to make up for the contrived plot and the deficiencies in world building.
I continue to listen to the audio version which is read by the wonderful John Keating.