Monday Book Review: The Outcasts by John Flanagan

Like many of the books I’m reading this summer, this novel is on the summer reading list at my school and is also on the 2014 Rebecca Caudill nominee list. I’ll admit that I judged the book by its cover: Viking/pirating ships on a stormy sea are not my usual go-to sort of reading material. The author was familiar to me as he’s written the bestselling Ranger’s Apprentice series which has been read and loved by many of my male students.

IMG_3784Title: The Outcasts (The Brotherband Chronicles Book 1)

Author: John Flanagan

Genre: historical fiction

Age group: upper middle grade

Synopsis: The book begins with a crew of Skandian sailing warriors who attack a small town to “relieve them” of their gold and valuables. In this group of raiders are Mikkel and his best friend Thorn. When Mikkel is fatally wounded in the attack, he makes Thorn promise to watch over his wife and young son. Flash forward about six years. Thorn has lost a hand in a sailing accident and has become a drunk. He’s done little to watch over Mikkel’s son Hal who is now old enough to begin his own Skandian warrior training, known as “brotherband training.” With encouragement from Hal’s mom, Thorn sobers up and gets Hal ready for training. Hal is an outcast in his hometown because he’s only part Skandian. His mom is Araluen. For his training, Hal and his peers are divided into three brotherband teams that compete for points in a variety of tests of endurance, strength, and skill.

Despite my general lack of interest in these type of adventure/sailing stories, I enjoyed John Flanagan’s writing. I can see why he’s sold so many books. He creates the proper sort of suspense and anticipation in his scenes, even for someone like me who knows next to nothing about sailing.

I can imagine boys who liked the Ranger’s Apprentice series would also enjoy this series. I had two rather smallish concerns with it. First, Hal’s father is described as being a hero, but I have a hard time seeing his actions as heroic. He and his fellow raiders are thieves. Flanagan tries to make a distinction between those who “relieve” towns of their goods by attacking them on land versus pirates who attack a ship and steal the already-stolen goods from another boat. Either way I don’t see Hal’s dad as heroic so it’s hard to buy into that character in the beginning.

I think Flanagan could have started the book right with Hal. He’s a more sympathetic character. He’s smart and imaginative, always making up new inventions to help his mom or his dad’s old friend Thorn. He’s not vicious or retaliative even though he’s bullied and mocked for being only half Skandian.

My other small problem with the story comes at the end, so here’s a spoiler alert! However, I don’t know how much I’m actually spoiling it because my problem is that the ending was predictable. As I stated earlier, the brotherband teams compete in different tests. (Think: Vikings competing on the reality show Survivor.) The final test is a grueling, day-long sailing test with lots of rowing and hoisting up and down of sails through choppy seas. When the exhausted teams finally finish, there’s a big feast to celebrate the winners. The winners then get the “honor” of guarding the town’s most valuable treasure from midnight until dawn while a crew of suspicious sailors (raiders!) from another town are hanging around port. Gee, guess what happens when you set a bunch of exhausted teenage boys who’ve just stuffed themselves to guard a treasure from midnight till dawn! See, I don’t need to tell you what happens at the end. You’ve guessed it already. Basically, the ending just made me mad that we’re supposed to believe adults in a town would be this careless with their most valuable treasure.

Nonetheless, I think young boys would enjoy the adventures Hal has in this book, and Flanagan’s writing is certainly vivid enough to keep us in the moment.

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