This is the finest family fantasy series that I have read in ten years. John Flanagan is a master storyteller, but there is so much more to appreciate than lively characters and great plots. John Flanagan wrote these stories originally for his grandchildren, and that love and care is evident in the stories.
So, my bottom line up-front, is buy these books today, and start reading them as soon as they come in.
Fair warning, there are mild spoilers in this review.
Here are a few things that were especially endearing.
First, the stories revolve around young teens growing up in a world that is not so different than our own. His point of view characters are alive, and they say and do things that tweens and teens would do and say. The characters grow through the course of the books, and John Flanagan changes their diction as the characters change and grow.
Second, the adults portrayed in the story are credible, loving, and wise. They have their own foibles. Halt, one of the main, adult characters is addicted to coffee (as we imagine that John Flanagan likely is; more on that later), and the head cook for the barony in the opening story is "thin challenged." But, overall, the adults make reasonable and compassionate decisions. They care about the protagonists in the stories. They try to make the world a better place. The adults are not portrayed as hopeless out of date or dolts or corrupted. As a reader, you like the adults in the story, and you want them to do well.
Third, good is generally rewarded, and evil is generally punished in this series. There is not some endless, primordial gray soup of moral ambiguity that too many young adult novels fall into in contemporary fiction. The heroes are heroes. The villains are villains. The villains are not set up as foils though. They make logical decisions based on their own black hearted motives. The heroes do win in the end, but it is never a sure thing by page 63! The heroes are clever, devoted, and sometimes lucky.
Fourth, the world that John Flanagan portrays comes alive. John Flanagan interjects his own experiences and views into the world. It helps, because the various regions and kingdoms are modeled on real-world counterparts. There are Vikings and Arabians and Mongols! Oh my! They have slightly different names, but the analogies are clear enough. Then, John Flanagan uses his own knowledge of those cultures to show clever and reasonable interactions. Most of the cultures fare well under John Flanagan's scrutiny. For example, while some of the Viking equivalent culture are blackhearts and set-up major conflicts in three of his books, most of the Vikings are honorable and good hearted. It is clear that Mr. Flanagan is not a French food fan, and he takes some obvious joy in poking fun at the Scotts and in folks that do not like coffee. None of it is mean-spirited, and all of it adds personality to the books.
Fifth, finally, friendship and honor take center stage in a positive way. These are books that teach moral lessons without being preachy.
Brilliant John Flanagan, brilliant!