This review will contain minor spoilers for the previous book, The Ruins of Gorlan.
The Burning Bridge is the second book in John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series for middle grade readers. In the first book, The Ruins of Gorlan, we met Will, an orphaned boy who grew up as a ward of a baron in the country of Araluen. Thinking that his dead father was a warrior, he wanted to be one also, but instead he is assigned to be a Ranger’s apprentice. The Rangers, who Will knows very little about, are a secretive group of cloak-wearing men that serve the king and protect the kingdom. He doesn’t know it yet, but Will’s smaller stature, quick wit, and courage are perfect attributes for this profession. By the end of the book, Will is a hero and, though he’s finally given the chance to join the warriors, he realizes that he was born to be a ranger.
The Burning Bridge begins a week after the events of The Ruins of Gorlan. (You really ought to read The Ruins of Gorlan before opening The Burning Bridge.) The kingdom is in danger from Morgarath, an evil pale-skinned sorcerer who has been raising an army of Wargals (dull-witted hive-minded scary beasts) to overrun and get revenge on the kingdom of Araluen.
Aside: I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I thought this, too: What a cliché! Did I even have to tell you that “Morgarath” is an evil pale-skinned sorcerer with an army of beasts who plan to overrun the kingdom where the good guys live? Or did you already know that as soon as you saw his name? And did you envision a Wargal as a cross between an Orc and a Warg? Good job. Yes, there is even a scene where Will and his friends have to lay down on the ground and hide under their cloaks while the Wargals march by. This scene, and a couple others, are a little too reminiscent of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I’ll defend Flanagan here by saying these sorts of characters and character names are based in mythology and it’s not quite fair to say that nobody else can use them just because Tolkien did. There ARE some scenes and character types in this book that I’ve seen too many times before, but most of Flanagan’s young audience hasn’t seen them and Flanagan does it well enough that I didn’t really care anyway. Stick with me.
Back to the plot summary. So Will, Horace, and Gilan are sent to the region of Celtica to gather information. When they get there, they find that the entire population has disappeared. They also meet a girl about Will and Horace’s age (16) who is wandering around and wants to join them for safety. (More experienced fantasy readers will probably guess who she is long before the boys do.) As the youngsters endanger their lives to gather information for their king, they discover Morgarath’s deadly plot. Can they stop him? (What do you think?)
In another storyline, the Ranger Halt, who’s been left behind, is grumpy because he misses Will (this surprises him). So he gets assigned to escort Alyss, a charming teenager, on her first diplomatic mission. She has to visit a foppish and sexist baron. This was amusing and I appreciate Flanagan giving Alyss so much agency.
There are a few little problems with this series that prevent me from giving it my highest rating, but I don’t think that any of these issues will bother the target audience (5th grade and up) at all, and I don’t think that any of them are reasons not to highly recommend the series to them. I’ll mention those things here, just to give a complete review, but the truth is that I found the story so engaging that I didn’t really care too much about any of them.
OK, so I’ve already mentioned that some of the elements are derivative of Tolkien. There are some parts of the plot that got a little tedious for me, such as the fighting lessons that Will and Horace experience, but this will probably be informative and engaging for younger readers. The writing is good enough — not great but good. There were a couple of times when characters could have saved themselves a lot of time and effort by doing something obvious such as asking another available character for information (“excuse me sir, before you die, could you just tell me where that tunnel goes?”) but, to increase the tension, Flanagan prevents them. The villain is a caricature and does a couple of dumb things such as not posting guards on his bridge.
While I noticed these things, none of them mattered too much to me, especially since I’m reading it with middle grade and young adults readers in mind. Flanagan’s characters are likable and it’s fun to listen to them banter together. A couple of them (Halt and the Baron) have a droll sense of humor that I found appealing. Most importantly, I cared what happened to Will and his friends and I am certain that most kids in the target audience will feel the same way. I also like that there are a few subtle lessons such as that war is horrible, not glamorous.
The end of The Burning Bridge surprised me. I can’t say why without spoiling the plot, so I’ll just say that the story is not going in the direction I thought it would, and that’s a good sign. The final fight scene was exciting and chilling. I’m not likely to forget it, and I can’t say that about too many fight scenes (I usually tend to read over them quickly).
I listened to the audio version of The Burning Bridge which was produced by Penguin Group USA and Audible and narrated by Stuart Blinder. To make things confusing, there are two versions of The Burning Bridge in audio format. (I’m not sure why — it probably has something to do with US and UK rights, but I didn’t bother to look this up.) I have heard both readings and even though they pronounce a couple of words differently (such as “Alyss”), I like both of them and can recommend either one. This one is 8.5 hours long.