A quick advertisement to begin with, Ception Theatre’s production of Little Bear as part of the Camden Fringe is under way. The show is on in St Martin’s Garden off Pratt Street, not far from Camden Town Underground Station and is completely free so if you’re in the area and looking for something to do at 7pm any day this week until Sunday the 7th (except Thursday the 4th) come along and watch.
With that matter dispatched let’s consider another classic Tale of Redwall. Published in 1992, Salamandastron is the fifth book in the series by Brian Jacques, the title refers to the huge extinct volcano that stands like a sentinel by the shores of the great sea west of Mossflower country and Redwall Abbey. It’s a recurring setting that first appeared in Mossflower and is the perennial home of a Badger Lord and an army of hares known as the Long Patrol. In this story the current lord in residence is Urthstripe the Strong.
Salamandastron weaves numerous plot strands together rather skilfully. Primary among them is familiar siege scenario recurrent throughout the series in this case perpetrated by Ferahgo the Assassin, leader of his army of Corpsemakers, a blue-eyed weasel in the habit of skinning his victims. Intent on possessing the rumoured riches within the mountain his army lays siege to the place with Lord Urthstripe and his hares horribly outnumbered.
Another plotline follows Mara, Urthstripe’s adopted daughter whose disillusionment with the rigid routines of Salamandastron drives her to leave with hare chum Pikkle Ffolger in tow. And let’s not forget the folks at Redwall Abbey who reluctantly take in a pair of deserters from Ferahgo’s army who abscond with a precious abbey treasure after a mishap. Worse still the Abbeydwellers start to fall foul of the deadly Dryditch Fever.
The big strength of Salamandastron is its eventfulness. With sometimes six different character groups covered by the narrative there’s scarcely a dull chapter as every strand has plenty of excitement to offer. When one lulls another will be in full swing. It’s a strong set of characters overall too. The abbey has two main heroes to get behind, Samkin the young squirrel who is the kind of mischief-maker that’s easy to like, and rugged otter Thrugg who teams up with the amusing baby dormouse Dumble. Many other figures in the story are recognisable series archetypes, Lord Urthstripe is a stoic and fierce badger as you’d expect and Ferahgo is a typically wily and assertive leader but can’t stand out like the best baddies in the canon.
Most Redwall books follow a routine and Salamandastron is no different so I’ll consider the several ways it stands out. Ferahgo’s relationship with his son Klitch is easily the book’s most interesting, resembling that of Swartt and Veil in Outcast of Redwall. The junior weasel’s brash confidence and, ambition and total disrespect for his father is a source of amusement that will often have you believing he would make the better leader. There are some memorable encounters various characters experience on their travels involving native creatures of the sky and water and it’s refreshing to see Redwall abbey at the mercy of disease instead of another invading army.
The downfall of having so many characters to follow is that many of them aren’t as well developed as one would like. Samkin is very likeable but features in too few scenes to be fleshed out into the more rounded character other Redwall heroes became. By the same token there’s little to differentiate Lord Urthstripe from other badgers. The book bearing the name of the badger mountain deserves a more memorable Badger Lord and both Boar the Fighter and Sunflash the Mace were better. These are relatively minor gripes though and the book ultimately takes its place as one of the good entries in the series well worth a read.
Perhaps the weakest of the early Redwall titles but still a great read, Salamandastron is packed with incident and boasts plenty of entertainment value.