I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
I really enjoyed these stories. I think taking the short story path allowed Flanagan to diverge from repeating the same formulaic plots of the rest of the Ranger's Apprentice series, which luckily means a lot less Deus Ex Machinas. A lot of these stories illuminated some kind of specialty that I sometimes didn't even realize Flanagan was capable of, whether it was humor, cleverly structured mysteries, characters getting out of tight situations, or expanding on some Araluen history that gets skipped over in his full-length novels.
So here are the ones that stood out to me:
Death of a Hero: I admired the way Flanagan makes the battle scene of the war with Morgarath feel real, then smoothly switches over to the quieter setting of soldiers in their camps getting ready to return home. And as usual, Flanagan is pretty good with the third person omniscient, first framing the story in terms of Halt telling Will a long-ago story. Then in the actual story, he shifts the perspective around from King Duncan to Halt to the dishonest soldiers weighing their dice in an attempt to cheat gamblers.
The Inkwell and the Dagger: One of my favorites. I was pleasantly surprised when Flanagan went for the unreliable narrator approach and let the mystery of Foldar's informant play out through the dialogue, rather than spelling everything out in the narration. Usually the mysteries in Ranger's Apprentice books have a pretty clear-cut path. If I was able to guess the answer to this mystery, I definitely didn't expect the way it unfolded.
The Roamers: I didn't like this one as much as the others, though it's still worth reading for the pacing and the adventure. For one I kind of wished Flanagan added more complexity to the Roamers (which, by the way, is a totally unimaginative name…). A lot of their descriptions seem completely arbitrary, and sometimes unnecessary. For example:
Black-haired and swarthy of skin, their younger women were often remarkably beautiful and their men were hotheaded and argumentative--among themselves and outsiders.
"They may be cunning, but they do have one weakness, which is that they regard women as second-class citizens, and they don't have any idea of how capable and how dangerous a Courier can be."
It seemed weird to me that the Roamers is familiar enough with Araluen to know the danger of Rangers, which Flanagan has repeatedly stated is a group clouded in mystery, but not a Courier. And why exactly would the Roamers be patriarchal? It seems to me that if anything Araluen--with its large medieval setting and politics--would be a lot less egalitarian, gender-wise, than a small nomadic group of people who are equally interdependent for survival. Of course, I get that this stuff isn't really the point of the story, but it bothered me nevertheless.
Dinner for Five: I loved this one--Jenny's quick thinking against her captors was intensely satisfying, not to mention that it's nice to see a female be a hero in Flanagan's world as well. It's also more down-to-earth than the others, especially the villains, whose petty selfishness and arrogance Flanagan doesn't hesitate to make fun of. And it was remarkable how quickly Flanagan developed individual personalities for all three of them.
The Hibernian: In most of the Ranger's Apprentice series Flanagan tends to portray Araluen as a bit of an idealistic place--few of its political leaders are corrupt, the Rangers are close knit and organized, etc. For this reason I was glad to see him develop some of its history in a time when things weren't all right: the Ranger Corps were corrupt and disorganized and political power was in the hands of people who probably didn't deserve it. Also, though Morgarath is of a grander, more mustache-twirling variety of a villain than Flanagan's usual ones, I again appreciated that he had a personality--undisputedly evil but practical and clever. He can recognize Halt's capability and is calculating enough to assert his power over the two Rangers but not openly alienate them. The clash of his personality against Halt and Crowley's is played out quite nicely through dialogue in one particular scene, with a struggle to assert power on both sides and several underlying implications beneath it as well.
In general, despite Flanagan's flaws I regularly enjoy his writing because it's so remarkably consistent. Sometimes that consistency makes his writing predictable and his plotting too obviously structured, but with these short stories it works to his advantage. He can experiment with different ideas, one at a time, and still comfortably wrap up each story in a satisfactory way. Each story has something different to offer while having the same trademark action scenes and vivid descriptions. Recommended mainly to fans of Ranger's Apprentice, but I can imagine someone who hasn't read it either enjoying this too, albeit on a different level.