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And so for my first review and I have to confess that I’m cheating a bit. I actually read this book a few weeks ago but there’s a special reason why I’m starting here as Mossflower is part of a series of books very close to my heart. Here’s why.

When I was seven or eight my mum gave me a book to read. It was called Redwall and the cover featured a gloomy illustration of a crazed horse dragging a haycart filled with evil-looking anthropomorphic rats. One such rat stood at the front of the cart carrying a long pike with a skull perched on the top of it. He wore a villainous cloak, wielded his tail like a whip and looked like pure evil. In the background was a great building made of soft red stone. This building was the titular Redwall abbey.

Brian Jacques’ Redwall series is set in an imaginary world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, most of which are native to the British Isles. Published in 1986, Redwall was the first book written in the series (but is not the first chronologically) and tells the story of Matthias, a young mouse living among the order of healers at the abbey. The vividly evil figure from the front cover is Cluny the Scourge who upon discovering Redwall resolves to take it from its owners and so begins a siege story in which Matthias fights to defend the abbey from the tyrant that desires it.

When I read Redwall way back when I was in primary school I was absolutely blown away. I had never before read anything that so vibrantly brought to life a world of adventure. I instantly fell in love, with the characters, with the plot, with the setting, with Brian Jacques’ cheerful style of writing and with the whole idea of adventure storytelling.

Redwall is the book that made me want to be an author. After reading it I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of writing novels of my own and began to develop a story involving a character I had created. Strangely, though, I can’t say that Redwall itself inspired the content of my new story, at least not at first. However, recent redevelopments of the plot of the fantasy saga mentioned in my first post mirror important themes in Redwall, namely the idea of a young protagonist inspired by a great hero of long ago embarking on a quest to find a lost sword.

Brian Jacques immediately became my favourite author and the good news for me was that Redwall was no one-off. The Tales of Redwall follow a basic formula. Decent woodland creatures come up against a horde of vermin (rats, stoats, weasels, foxes etc.), lead by an evil warlord. What changes is the specific setting (not all of the books are set at the abbey), characters involved and the time at which the events happen.  To date there have been 21 books in the Redwall series, not counting spin-offs and realted publications, with the 22nd due out in 2011. I hungrily sought out each book in the series for the next few years. Then, for no reason I can think of I stopped. The last Redwall book I bought was the 11th, Marlfox. I was aware of new books in the series being published but for reasons best known to my twelve-year-old self I didn’t bother with them.

Until recently. In the years between then and now I revisited the series a couple of times always intending vaguely to carry on reading the newer books but this year I have finally got round to it. It began a few weeks back when I picked up my copy of Mossflower, the second Redwall book to be published. I think I must have forgotten how much I love Jacques’ writing because I was actually surprised by just how much I enjoyed reading it. With my mind made up I decided to read the entire series one by one, including all of the titles I’d missed. Fast forward a few weeks and I’ve so far read four of the books including two I hadn’t read before. Now that I’ve finally got round to starting a blog I’m going to be reviewing the entire Redwall series one by one, starting with the handful I’ve got through so far.

Sorry about the long story, now without further ado, Mossflower.

Mossflower, published in 1988 is Brian Jacques’ second book and is set many generations earlier than the events of Redwall before the abbey was built. The story follows Martin the Warrior, the legendary mouse idolised by Matthias in Redwall and chronicles the saga of war leading up to the founding of Redwall Abbey.

In the heart of the densely wooded Mossflower country stands the fortress of Kotir, which is ruled by the evil wildcat conqueror Verdauga Greeneyes. The local woodlanders live in the shadow of the fortress, their produce plundered by the army of vermin serving under the wildcat. Secretly, though, the Corim (Council of Resistence in Mossflower) smuggle woodland creatures away into the woods to escape the tyranny. Martin the Warrior wanders unknowingly into this situation and quickly falls foul of a vermin patrol.

Mossflower is among the very best of the Redwall books and one of the most enjoyable, pacey and varied adventure stories I have ever had the pleasure to read. The book’s strengths lie chiefly in its characters. Aside from irrepressable, determined and righteous warrior hero Martin we have Gonff the cheerful mousethief, a character Jacques apparently based on his young self, Chibb the haughty, birbeable Robin spy, Ferdy and Coggs, infant hedgehog twins and trouble magnets and, rather importantly, Tsarmina, daughter of Verdauga Greeneyes and villainess par excellence. The plot sees Martin, Gonff and mole Dinny journeying east to coastal mountain stronghold Salamandastron (what an awesome name) to enlist the aid of Badger Lord, Boar the Fighter and have the warrior mouse’s broken sword reforged with metal from a fallen star. Meanwhile the Corim, lead by the Skipper of otters and Lady Amber the squirrelqueen work to thwart Tsarmina’s attempts to re-enslave the woodland creatures.

Mossflower woods make for a very vivid setting, thanks chiefly to Jacques’ descriptive narration (the map in the first pages also helps). Kotir is a sinister presence on the landscape and the nasties dwelling within are amusingly stupid. Tsarmina, having poisoned her father and framed her brother for it is one of the very best Redwall villains, a scourge of inept underlings and a fascinating antagonist haunted by nightmares about drowning. But the biggest star is the unpredictable adventure. There’s little like the buzz you get when something comes unexpectedly out of the blue, whether it be Ferdy and Coggs overconfidently striding off to invade Kotir, Martin and co. falling captive to a tribe of muderous toads or their encounter with a deadly swan.  Too much happens to list it all here but rest assured the book is packed with incident, there really isn’t a dull page. But more than that Mossflower is simply a joy to read. While its principal themes involve war and oppression the never-say-die attitude Jacques fills his characters with, frequent outbursts of song and repeated descriptions of glorious feasting mean that the book is a breeze to take in and infinitely entertaining in a decidedly lighthearted way. If all storytelling was like this the world would be so much happier.

Verdict

Unadulterated pleasure. A sweeping story adorned with hugely likeable characters including the definitive Redwall hero. Mossflower remians one of the finest books in Jacques’ bibliography and a true standard-bearer for adventure fiction.

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