John Flanagan ended his "Lost Stories" collection by hinting at a new hero we hadn't yet seen -- a half-Skandian, half-Araluen boy.
And he makes good on those hints with "The Brotherband Chronicles: The Outcasts," the first part of a new series about a "brotherband" of oddball teenagers whom nobody else wants. Flanagan really shows how he's grown as a writer in this book -- while it has lots of training sequences and competitions between the brotherbands, he weaves in a darker tale about very sneaky pirates.
Hal has never fit in with the other boys in Hallashom, due to his mother being an ex-slave from Araluen. So he isn't happy to be starting out the brotherband training that all Skandian boys go through.
He's especially concerned because the arrogant, cruel Tursgud -- who particularly hates Hal -- will be competing against him. Hal has gotten some training in fighting from the one-armed tramp Thorn, but it might not be enough to keep him safe. And on the day when the three brotherbands will be chosen, Hal finds himself the leader of one group -- a group of outcasts that nobody else wants.
However, Hal has ingenuity, charisma and a lot of guts, and his buddies have their own unique qualities -- hot-tempered Stig, half-blind but strong Ingvar, pickpocket Jesper, quarrelsome twins Wulf and Ulf, sharp-tongued Stefan and the quiet Edvin. And as the boys struggle through the training, a mysterious ship filled with Magyaran pirates is plotting to infiltrate Hallashom and steal its greatest treasure...
"The Brotherband Chronicles - The Outcasts" is a thoroughly solid beginning to John Flanagan's new series, especially since it builds on the world he began with in the Ranger's Apprentice series. It also shows how much he's grown as a writer -- it sometimes reminds me of the training-heavy "The Ruins of Gorlan," but the main plot is more evenly dispersed throughout the book instead of being lumped at the end.
And as with his Ranger's Apprentice books, Flanagan creates a solid adventure story with plenty of action (the Heron's wild maiden voyage) and some genuinely grueling training exercises, only SOME of which our heroes will be able to win. But he also leavens it with plenty of humor, such as the trip through Erak's delightfully tasteless storeroom -- which includes a giant chandelier, cherubs, and one of those horrible fountains shaped like a little peeing boy. Urgh.
I was a little concerned that Hal would be too similar to Flanagan's last hero, Will Treaty. However, the only real similarities is that they're small but smart teenage boys -- Hal is a bit fiercer, as well as being a clever inventor who is always improving things (his crossbow, boat sails, etc). Each of the boys is given a distinct personality, with flaws and strengths.
And Thorn is one of the most intriguing, engaging characters -- we first see him as a drunken, suicidal tramp who has lost one of his arms. But we slowly see Hal giving him something to live for, even as Flanagan slowly reveals how he lost his hand and what he used to be.
"The Brotherband Chronicles - The Outcasts" is a delightful, fresh adventure that shows us new facets of John Flanagan's fantasy world, and introduces a new hero that I certainly want to see more of.