Ranger’s Apprentice Book 8: The Kings of Clonmel
By John Flanagan
Reviewed by Eric Hamell
John Flanagan is a children’s fiction writer living in Australia, with a background in advertising. The central premise of this book, set in a fictionalized medieval Europe, is that a religious group is rapidly gaining influence and converts by covertly orchestrating acts of destruction and lawlessness, while publicly offering its god’s protection against these threats. The book is intended for young readers, and my interest as an ex-member was in seeing to what extent it provides them with an improved understanding of how cults work and how one can guard against them.
To a limited degree the book does these things, illustrating some of the ways perceptions and emotions can be shaped by stagecraft, but not others, such as the subtler and more psychologically invasive forms of manipulation. Similarly, it treats cultism as a matter only of deception, not self-deception, depicting the cult leader and his inner circle as conscious charlatans who believe in none of what they’re doing. In this story, only the more recent converts are actual believers; and, because they’ve been deceived purely by control of information rather than systematic ego destruction, it’s not too hard for the heroes to turn them against the cult once they’re in a position to expose its fraudulent practices.
Of course, when even much of the (real-world) adult population has no understanding whatsoever of cults, most juvenile readers will come away from this book with more understanding than they had before. And perhaps a psychologically deeper treatment would go over the heads of many. The most important lesson taught by The Kings of Clonmel may be that expressed by these words of a sage old woman who hasn’t gone in with the cult:
A god who brings you good and bad in equal amounts doesn’t ask for much. Maybe a prayer or two. Maybe the odd sacrifice of a beast. But a god who promises only good times? A god like that will always want something of you. (p. 224)
In other words, any offer that seems too good to be true not only probably isn’t, but also is likely to end up costing more than one counted on.