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Brian Jacques
Ace Books, 373 pages

Art: Troy Howell
Brian Jacques
Brian Jacques was born in Liverpool in 1939. Early reading of the likes of Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs provoked an interest in adventure stories. A particular favourite was Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows. He wrote Redwall for the children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool, where as a truck driver, he delivered milk. Alan Durband, a childhood English teacher, read it, and showed it to a publisher who offered a five-book contract for the Redwall series. Brian Jacques hosts his own weekly radio show, "Jakestown," on BBC Radio Merseyside.

The Official Redwall Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site: Overview of Redwall series
SF Site Review: The Great Redwall Feast
Redwall Fan Sites List

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

A young mouse warrior, Martin, wandering through Mossflower Woods is captured and brought to Kotir Castle. When his heirloom sword is broken in half by the wildcat Tsarmina -- soon to be Queen of Kotir by way of parricide -- Martin vows vengeance before being thrown in the dungeon. When Gonff the mousethief is captured and imprisoned along with him, it is not long before the two escape their jailers and return to Mossflower Woods. Her brother Gingivere imprisoned, the evil and mad Tsarmina seeks to extend her rule over all Mossflower. While the forest folk fight various skirmishes with Tsarmina's army, Martin, Gonff and a mole named Dinny go off on a quest to bring back Boar the Fighter, ex-ruler and potential rallying point for the Mossflower cause.

Mossflower is not the first work to imbue animals with human traits. Aesop's (6th century BC) and Jean de la Fontaine's (17th century AD) fables both used animal protagonists in their moral cautionary tales. More recently, books like Paul Gallico's Jennie (1950), Richard Adams' Watership Down (1972), William Horwood's Duncton Wood series (1980-present), and Gabriel King's The Wild Road (1998), have produced more or less anthropomorphic animal characters. However, the standard to which such tales are compared is still Kenneth Grahame's children's classic The Wind in the Willows (1908).

Perhaps inspired by the idealized evocation of the English countryside of such late-Victorian fantasists as William Morris, Richard Jefferies, and Sir Henry Newbolt, and very much like Grahame's work, Mossflower presents a rich pastoral setting and endearing animal characters. Jacques' world of anthropomorphized woodland creatures is well detailed. Descriptions of the foods and drinks of the woodland folk are mouthwatering. Different species speak in different dialects (particularly moles), and specialize in different trades and weaponry. There is plenty of action and adventure, with narrow escapes galore -- plenty of material to keep a young reader happy. These are amongst the many reasons why the Redwall series has been so popular. However, the best novels for young adults are those that can appeal, perhaps on different levels, to both younger and older readers. At the risk of offending the legions of Redwall fans, this is where I find that Mossflower fails dismally.

Right from the very beginning it is made quite clear that the Mossflower residents are paragons of virtue, while Tsarmina and her minions are either evil and/or incompetent. Not a single Mossflower citizen nor a single minion of Tsarmina's even consider aiding or defecting to the other side. All of Tsarmina's weasel and stoat soldiery are painted with the same brush -- all are quarrelsome, stupidly incompetent, and status-hungry, eat mouldy rations, and apparently have no wives or children.

On the other hand, the Mossflower residents co-operate, are intelligent, thrifty, brilliant battle tacticians, return from a battle to crumpets, deep-dish pies and an assortment of wines and teas, and have loving home lives with cute and slightly mischievous children. Worse yet is that when any character on Tsarmina's side shows the least bit of leadership or intelligence, they are quickly and more or less randomly killed off. Similarly, within a few dozen pages it was patently obvious that while there might be a few hurdles and a few unfortunate deaths, the good guys would ultimately defeat the bad.

The apparently poor oppressed residents of Mossflower are not as saintly as it might at first appear. One of them, Mask, a master of disguise, lures a fox-minion of Tsarmina's -- Fortunata -- into believing he can help her infiltrate the Mossflower community. She, admittedly a spy, is confronted and then shot down in cold blood and left to rot in the woods. However, when Mask is discovered aiding in the escape of Gingivere and two young hedgehogs from Kotir and Tsarmina fatally shoots him with an arrow, he is given the Mossflower equivalent of a state funeral and his death is added to the litany of Tsarmina's heinous crimes -- talk about a double standard.

At other times, the Mossflower forces apparently disappear into the woods, only to fire a deadly volley of arrows at the admittedly doltish enemy forces. While this in itself is fine, they follow their slaughter by dishonourably laughing aloud at the enemy survivors.

At this point, I actually began wishing Tsarmina might actually emerge victorious, as she was certainly far more interesting than any of the supposed heroes of the story. Tsarmina, a parricide and imprisoner of her brother, while certainly not well-intentioned towards the Mossflower-folk, actually does relatively little to deserve her overwhelmingly evil reputation. The oppression of the woodfolk apparently dates back to her father's reign, so whatever her intentions she cannot entirely be blamed for it. Her first two military forays into the woods are both in response to escaping prisoners, and only after these does she lead specifically punitive raids. This is not to say that Tsarmina is a saint -- far from it. But on the other hand she isn't the devil incarnate that the Mossflower folk portray her to be.

Tsarmina is by far the most interesting and least one-dimensional character in the whole book. She is an excellent archer, and the only military tactician on her side. She must hold together her crumbling kingdom surrounded by a bunch of whining, infighting incompetents -- not an easy task. One does wonder towards the end why she has such an insane fear of water, and although not stated anywhere, one may assume she has had a premonition of her own death. However, this unexplained fear of water seems a bit odd since, unlike domesticated cats, most wild cats are quite comfortable in water.

The main heroic characters, Martin, Gonff, and Dinny, while cute and cuddly for young readers, have no complexity to their personalities: they do not go beyond a simplistic "me and my friends -- good; enemy -- bad" mentality. While they encounter many physical challenges, they are never put in a morally ambiguous position where they might need to question their motives or reconsider their assessment of the enemy. Furthermore, their only solution to any conflict seems to be to either run or fight, but never to actually enter into a dialogue with the enemy.

Finally, I saw no great originality in Mossflower. The underdog hero(es) fighting the incredibly evil despot, the prophecy in the murals, the instructions in the form of riddles, the always necessary quest through the token mountains and swampland, and the castle sinking under flood waters have all been done before. Nothing in Mossflower elevates the novel above dozens of others with a slightly different assemblage of the age-old building blocks.

Given the fast-paced story, all these criticisms can certainly be overlooked by the average young reader, but discerning young readers and older readers may find this title not entirely satisfying.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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