The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, book ten in John Flanagan’s RANGER’S APPRENTICE series, was supposed to be the “final adventure” for Will Treaty and his friends. (It wasn’t, but I’ll come back to that later.) I suppose that’s why “the gang’s all here” in this installment. Flanagan has to work hard to get them all to the same place, but he manages.
The story takes place in the country of Nihon-Ja, which is modeled after the Empire of Japan (if you couldn’t tell by its name). Horace and George had travelled there on a mission and Horace went missing. All of his friends, including Will, Alyss, Princess Cassandra, Pauline and Gundar, go to Nihon-Ja to find him. When they get there, they discover that someone is trying to overthrow the emperor, and they get involved in trying to stop the coup.
As you can see from my reviews of this series, I really enjoyed the first few books. Later books, however, have all had some problems that I just couldn’t overlook. While The Emperor of Nihon-Ja has a more complicated plot and much more action than the previous book, Halt’s Peril, it suffers from some of the same problems I mentioned in earlier books such as The Sorcerer of the North and Erak’s Ransom.
First is the world-building problem again. Suddenly Flanagan has introduced an entirely new country/culture that we didn’t know existed in his world. It’s not likely to bother his target audience, but it’s still something that could have been done a lot better. Second is the clichéd culture again. This one’s got just about every Japanese cliché you’ve ever seen including people of small stature with dark hair who bow, sit on the floor to eat, put their arms in their kimono sleeves, don’t wear shoes in the house, use rice paper doors, drink green tea, eat rice and soy sauce with chopsticks, don’t use spoons for soup, enjoy doing calligraphy, talk poetically about flowers, and can’t pronounce L’s.
Third is the contrived plot, especially involving Princess Cassandra. She’s one of Flanagan’s best characters, so I don’t blame him for wanting her in Nihon-Ja, but she really has no business being there. I was glad she was there, though, even though the cattiness between her and Alyss was more than a little irritating (and somewhat hard to believe after the character development we’ve seen in each of them). I don’t like how Flanagan handled the silly jealousies between the two girls (it was manufactured to create some drama), but I do like how he gives them a lot of agency. They know they are not physically as strong as the men, but that doesn’t mean they’re useless in a war. They are able to use other physical and mental skills, and are willing to put themselves in great danger to do their part. (This actually becomes completely ridiculous at one point when grown men who are leaders in Nihon-Ja allow the girls to go off on an extremely dangerous quest by themselves because the men were too scared to do it. I don’t want to spoil this part of the plot by giving more details, but I found myself rolling my eyes in disbelief during this episode.)
Another issue, which may be more important than all the rest, is that the plot of The Emperor of Nihon-Ja feels like an amalgamation of plots from the previous RANGER’S APPRENTICE books. There is very little that we haven’t seen before including the coup attempt that underlies the entire story. Once again, the friendly ruler is an ethical man who is somewhat incompetent and Will and Horace have to take over and train an army to help him fend off a revolution. We’ve seen this before. Multiple times. We know how it’s going to end.
I know that RANGER’S APPRENTICE was not written for me. Kids who love these characters are going to be a lot more forgiving than I am, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wish that the later books in this series were just as wonderful as the first books were. Fortunately, the audio performances by John Keating continue to be terrific.
So, it turns out that The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is not actually the final RANGER’S APPRENTICE book. Two years after it was published, the novel The Royal Ranger was published. There is also a collection of stories called The Lost Stories. I will read these soon.