What can the peace-loving mice of Redwall Abbey do to defend themselves against Cluny the Scourge and his battle-seasoned army of rats? If only they had the sword of Martin the Warrior, they might have a chance. But the legendary weapon has long been forgotten-except, that is, by the bumbling young apprentice Matthias, who becomes the unlikeliest of heroes. Teeming with riddles, humor, unforgettable characters, and high-bounding adventure. (Summary via Amazon.com)
After receiving this book in a giveaway (thanks, Reading to Distraction!), I decided to read this book aloud with my husband. It’s a childhood favorite of his, so I was excited to see how our reading experiences lined up, since I was pretty unfamiliar with the Redwall series. My husband has agreed to help me review this book (you can read his previous review here), so I’ll let him tell his story first.
Redwall was a staple of my literary diet for many years during my middle and high school life. I have fond memories of being enthralled by Brian Jacques’ storytelling, amused by the characters’ antics, excited by the fantasy battles betwixt furry armies, and made ravenous by the vivid descriptions of lavish feasts. Even now, reminiscing on such thoughts elicits feelings of the happiness and simplicity of curling up in a corner and reading for hours on end without care. However, I would hazard to guess that it’s been at least seven or eight years since I’ve gone back and re-read any of Mr. Jacques’ works.
When Monica and I sat down to read through Redwall, I did feel the need to warn her about a few things before we got started. While my memory was somewhat fuzzy, I didn’t recall enjoying Redwall as much as the later books in the series, since it did take a few books (in my opinion) for Mr. Jacques to polish his formula and establish consistency within the “rules” of his fantasy world. As we read through the first several chapters of the book, I was surprised at how often I found myself saying some variation of, “I remember this being better, he must have really improved over the next several books…” as if I needed to defend in some way the level of enjoyment that justified my nostalgia. If we have the time and inclination, I would like to read through at least one of the later books in the series and see if Mr. Jacques’ more recent works holds up better than his inaugural novel.
As for this book on its own, I do have several points of criticism that are a lot more glaring than I seem to remember from my younger days. Subtlety is not this book’s strongsuit. Its foreshadowing is clumsy and awkward, the puzzles and riddles (a Redwall series cliche) are simple to the point of being insulting or else entirely forgettable, the villains are a perfect caricature of pure evil, and the heroes proudly display their two or three character traits on their sleeves. Perhaps I ask for too much from a children’s book, but there were several times during this recent read through that I simply couldn’t suspend the disbelief that rational creatures would act in such one dimensional ways (though this could explain why a shockingly large amount of the Redwall series’ villains are, or become, insane).
The main character, Matthias, is not a very pleasant individual. That was probably the point in the first several chapters to allow for growth and a personal journey, but, as an adult re-reading the book for the first time in years, it took me by surprise how self-absorbed, whiny, and borderline abusive he was (spoiler: at one point he threatens to murder another character by throwing her from the top of a building because she was being sassy). While there was certainly growth over the course of the book, the core personality issues that made him such an unlikable character were not really addressed, but were more often glossed over as, at worst, necessary unpleasantness.
Lastly, in a similar fashion to J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, there is an inescapable ethnocentric undertone to this book that is much more offputting as an adult than I remember from my first readings. This is largely due to the lack of subtlety and the cartoonish nature of the book’s antagonists. The simple forest folk of Mossflower woods and Redwall Abbey are described in such a way that they appear to be in some sort of Anglosaxon paradise that is interrupted by the invasion of a barbaric hoard of “vermin” (spoiler: no rat, weasel, stoat, fox, or ferret is ever good in these books). Tribes of sparrows and shrews, both of whom have cultural traits and practices that vary quite differently from “normal Abbey behavior,” are introduced later in the book, and they’re treated with, at best, patronizing inferiority by the main characters.
In spite of these criticisms, I still enjoyed this book and would certainly recommend it, especially as a gateway to the rest of the series. The story is engaging enough to get one past its shortcomings, and even if the characters are a bit one note, at least it’s a fun and exciting note. Mr. Jacques is certainly a very descriptive writer who knows how to make the world come to life as his characters trek through the forest and delve the halls and corridors of the ancient Abbey. For kids, it’s long enough to prove a challenge, but the chapters are short enough to keep it from being too daunting. I would even venture to say that it would be an excellent book to engage in serious discussions with children about adult topics, such as war, death, honor/duty, the afterlife, and ethnocentrism. It’s fast paced, it’s exciting, it’s fun. Check it out if a long YA fantasy series about anthropomorphic woodland creatures is your kind of thing.
I enjoyed this book, despite my spotty track record with fantasy novels (and animal books, for that matter). I didn’t come into the reading experience with any past memories of Redwall like my husband did (I actually read part of the book as a child, but I was bored stiff by it and apparently wiped the entire experience from my mind), so I didn’t have any nostalgia associated with the story or characters. Still, I found the characters to be super cute (but occasionally annoying). My favorite character was Constance, the badger. She actually helped the war effort when Cluny attacked Redwall, unlike some other characters I could mention (*ahemMatthiasahem*).
My main frustration with this book, as you may have gathered, was the main character. Matthias is a young mouse living in Redwall Abbey. At the beginning of the book, Matthias was a lovable but bumbling goofball. But as the story goes on, he becomes irritating, pompous, and seems to not take the threat of an attack on Redwall seriously at all (like the time he falls asleep in the woods and follows a mute baby squirrel [???] back to safety). Fortunately, the story does not follow Matthias the entire time, but when he is the focus of the story, he is usually mistreating or looking down on other animals, or possibly going on a side quest that really keeps him from protecting Redwall, which is what he should be doing as the reincarnation (yep, he’s the Chosen One) of Martin the Warrior.
I had a few other minor irritations with this book, such as the suspiciously ethnocentric treatment of other animals, the terrible riddles, the confusion over animal sizes (a mouse riding a horse?), and the overuse of exclamation points!, but despite its flaws, I really did enjoy my first Redwall adventure. The details of the food, the setting, and the characters give this book a cozy feeling, like a lazy late-summer day. Bad guy Cluny is over-the-top evil, and the Redwall mice and their associates are pure and good, in that simplistic good vs. evil way that, at the end of the day, we can all enjoy once in a while.
Rating: Good but Forgettable