This has to be one of my favorite John Flanagan books to date. I love the ocean and sailing and everything that goes with it, so that right off was a huge draw for me. Plus I love the Skandians from the RA books, and it was fun to see the return of some familiar characters. Some of the things that I found mildly annoying about the writing in the RA books are much less noticeable in this book, and some of them are gone altogether. There's still a little bit of head-hopping, and the occasional repetition of information or over-explanation of emotions/thoughts/etc. But as I said, much less than in his earlier writings.
But this book is so much more than just a fun sailing novel in a great setting. Where this book really shines, I think, is in its study of leadership, maturity, and heroism. This isn't just an underdog story about the kids who have everything going against them fighting to win, although that's the shell of the plot. Hal is a true leader...but he doesn't start out there. He has failings, doubts, and weaknesses, and he has to grow into his role as a leader. He and his friends make dreadful mistakes and have to accept responsibility and face the consequences. All the outcasts have their failings, and throughout the story they come to realize how damaging their actions can be to their friends, as a team. They have to learn to look inside themselves, to discover their strengths and their worth, and use these things not to glorify themselves (like the despicable Tursgud) but to better themselves and their friends.
One of my favorite parts of this story was Thorn's character. He has to walk this path of discovery all over again for himself, just as his young friend Hal does. The history of his friendship with Oberjarl Erak is heart-wrenching and beautifully insightful into the hearts of both these men...into the meaning of sacrifice and valor and trust. One thing I didn't particularly care for was the token romance. There's a brief mention of some possible romantic interest very early in the book, and then...Nothing happens with Lotte until the very end, when she kisses him out of the blue! I mean, what?? Did we even need her in the story???
I loved that the Brotherband training wasn't smooth sailing (uhh...no pun intended) for the outcasts. Neither were their obstacles simply token problems to keep them from rising easily to victory. All of their struggles resulted from the weaknesses or flaws of the individuals, and each failure brought them closer to wholeness. And the ending. Oh my. Heartbreaking and exhilarating...and so
frustrating! I mean, it wasn't frustrating in how Flanagan handled the ending, the way sometimes endings are all wrong
. No, by no means. It was a brilliant ending. But just the events that happen right at the end had me in this downward spiral of anguish as I could just feel
what was coming and I knew I couldn't stop it....Aghh. I can't wait for the next book. Well done, Mr. Flanagan.