Another day, another Redwall book review. A few weeks ago having finished Mossflower I quickly tracked down a copy of this, the oldest Tale of Redwall I hadn’t hitherto read and it didn’t turn out to be presented as I had expected.
A bit of background. We never learn much about Martin’s past in Mossflower, that job is fulfilled in a prequel, appropriately entitled Martin the Warrior, which I’ll be reviewing next. Martin grew up as part of a cave-dwelling tribe, his father, Luke, is the chief. Luke leaves the tribe when Martin is still young, sailing off in search of the pirates who slaughtered his wife, Martin’s mother, and half of their tribe. Before leaving he gives Martin his sword, the same sword that is broken by Tsarmina and reforged by Boar the Fighter in Mossflower. Luke does not appear in Martin the Warrior but his presence is felt throughout. I thought The Legend of Luke would be nothing else but the story of Luke but I was wrong.
It turns out that The Legend of Luke, published in 1999, is another story about Martin in which he embarks on a personal journey to find out what happened to his father. Having grown up so used to Martin’s two other stories it was a slightly surreal treat to read a new one. This was the first time Jacques had written a third story for one set of characters and it was great to read more about Martin, Gonff, Dinny and the now grown-up Ferdy and Coggs. However the best part of this book was not about Martin.
The Legend of Luke takes place some time after the events of Mossflower during the construction of Redwall abbey. A travelling hedgehogmaid called Trimp pays a visit to the abbey. She sings a song for some of the abbeybeasts and in the lyrics Martin recognises the name of his father. Inspired to finally learn of his father’s fate he sets off with Trimp, Gonff and Dinny in search of the cave where he grew up.
One noteable feature of the Legend of Luke is how clearly defined the three books that make up the story are. The Tales of Redwall are all split into three smaller ‘books’ within the main text but not until now has that split really meant anything. Book one is a linear affair that sees Martin and co. travelling the country towards the north-west coast where they meet Vurg, an old mouse who was part of the crew that sailed off with Luke. He guides them to a pretty memorable setting, half a scarlet ship stuck high up between two of the ‘Tall Rocks’, an archipellago of stone towers off the coastline. Aboard the wreck they meet another former crewmember of Luke’s, a hare named (deep breath) Beauclair Fethringsol Cosfortingham and Martin begins to read an account of Luke’s jounrey. The narrative then switches for the second book to Luke’s story, which accounts for his tribe’s arrival at the coast, of their coming under attack from the villainous pirate stoat Vilu Daskar, resulting in half the tribe being massacred and of Luke embarking on a voyage for revenge. With that story told the third book switches back to Martin and describes the jounrey back to Redwall.
If truth be told, and it should be, the story as it follows Martin isn’t scintillating. There’s nothing wrong with linear storytelling, it can be absolutely gripping (take The Fewllowship of the Ring) but it relies upon set pieces, great settings and unexpected happenings to really enthrall. We don’t quite get the best of that here. Naturally the group encounters a number of characters, friendships are made, allies join for the ride and foes are fought. Book three is pretty much the same in reverse but less of it. Since the ‘ending’ in the conventional sense happens two thirds of the way through at the end of book two, that the story carries on for so long feels a bit odd and at times it seems like Jacques is doing just whatever he can to pad things out. Little that happens in books one and three is particularly important to the plot. Jacques could easily have made all of the adventures completely different and the basic setup wouldn’t really be affected. It’s never less than charmingly enjoyable though, this is Jacques after all, his writing is irresistibly light-hearted and breezy and we’re treated to a few titibits of fanservice revelation. As escapist fiction Martin’s jounrey there and back again is lovely but it’s not the reason we bought the book.
Book two, simply titled ‘Luke’ is among Jacques’ darkest writing. The cheer is dialled down and we get a much more vivid sense of the struggle for survival as we read about Luke’s tribe and their efforts to make a home for themselves in their coastal caves. Luke is a grim, serious leader, a mouse who strives for his people, wholly decent, a heroic father figure and everything I wanted him to be.
And of course every great hero has a great nemesis. Luke’s is Vilu Daskar, a pirate, a gentleman and a real cold-blooded murderer. Dasker is presented as more refined and dignified than most Redwall villains but his ruthlessness is through the roof. Hardly blinking he orders the ransacking of Luke’s caves and for any resistence to be dealt with lethally. He takes his place among the upper echelons of Redwall villains. It’s a very violent and sad state of affairs for a Redwall book and sets up one of the most intense stories in the saga. One moment I won’t forget is when after the massacre Luke, in shock and grieving for his dead wife stands in the way of the oncoming tide staring out to sea apparently not caring if he gets swept away. You really feel for this guy.
So Luke wins a ship and picks a crew to set off in search of revenge, a dark motive for a Redwall hero. What follows is again more linear adventure with ups and downs. Mainly downs. Quite a lot of characters die along the way. I won’t spoil any more than that except to say that after a well-crafted series of events we reach the storm-ravaged finale and one of the out-and-out best moments in the series. It’s satisfying, desperate, nigh-on unforgettable stuff and a flawless piece of storytelling for Redwall fans.
If the beginning and end had been as gripping as the middle we might have had the worthiest book in the entire saga. As it is we’re treated to a seriously significant and entertaining entry in the Redwall canon. This is one that fans shouldn’t miss.