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The Tales of Redwall are wonderful and the late Brian Jacques most forever be praised for how well he has managed to maintain the charm and appeal of a twenty-three book series despite sticking almost religiously to a formula. That said, and as delightful as stories like Mariel of Redwall and Salamandastron are most books in the series don’t match the lofty heights of four books that hold the gold standard for the series, Martin the Warrior and Mossflower starring, funnily enough, Martin the Warrior and Redwall and Mattimeo starring Matthias. However outside of these two miniseries within the main canon there is one book that just about keeps up, the ninth book in the series, The Pearls of Lutra.

Mind you, to say The Pearls of Lutra exists, like so many other Redwall books, as a standalone entry in the saga, is not strictly true. The next book chronologically after Mattimeo the story features a pair of characters returning characters in Rollo Bankvole, previously a mischievous Dibbun, now a sprightly old Abbey Recorder, and Auma still going strong in the role of Badger Mother she took on at the end of the earlier novel. Other than that The Pearls of Lutra is a standalone, Matthias and Mattimeo have departed leaving Mattimeo’s son whose name, confusingly enough, is Martin.

A good Redwall book needs a memorable villain and The Pearls of Lutra has that in the form of Emperor Ublaz, a tyrannical pine marten and ruler of Isle Sampetra, known as Mad Eyes on account of his powerfully hypnotic stare. With a fleet of corsair ships, an army of trident rats and monitor lizards at his disposal he is probably the most powerful and wealthiest nasty in the entire canon. He’s an impassive tyrant, much more well-spoken than most, cunning and cruel and obsessed with finery and treasure and it is this that drives the plot. Mad Eyes Ublaz desires the six titular Pearls of Holt Lutra to wear in his custom-made crown, an ambition that has led to the massacre of the otter inhabitants of the aforementioned Holt. Before the Pearls could be delivered to Sampetra, however, they were stolen by deserter Graylunk who, sporting an ultimately fatal head injury, who made his way over land to Redwall Abbey.

The story itself begins some time after these events with a Redwall hedgehogmaid named Tansy who is out gathering herbs in Mossflower Woods with the mischievous infant squirrel Arven when they discover Graylunk’s skeleton. After some investigation with Rollo, Tansy learns Graylunk’s story how during his time at the Abbey he was befriended by Fermald the Ancient, a reclusive and clever squirrel to whom he gave the Tears of all Oceans before leaving to die in the woods.

Meanwhile on Sampetra Emperor Ublaz responds to the news of the Pearls’ theft by butchering Conva, the Captain responsible for their loss, sending out his seagulls to scout out their whereabouts and placing his Monitor General Lask Frildur on Conva’s ship, now skippered by Conva’s former first mate Romsca to reclaim them. Their journey leads them inevitably to Redwall Abbey where they manage to take Abbot Durral and Viola Bankvole hostage, and demanding the pearls for ransom. The heroic Martin doesn’t take too kindly to this and sets out to rescue the prisoners, soon crossing paths with Grath Longfletch, the sole survivor of Holt Lutra who is out for bloody revenge against the corsairs.

While all this is going on back on Sampetra Conva’s brother Barranca conspires with his fellow corsair Captains to instigate an uprising against Ublaz. Additionally Rasconza the fox has plans of his own that will have an even greater impact on the balance of power.

It should be quite plain from all this synopsis setting that this book is packed with incident. Easily one of the most eventful stories in the series, the plot juggles multiple strands and numerous characters without ever overreaching itself. Naturally there is wall to wall action, and the story unfolds as an epic rescue mission that takes the heroes across perilous seas while the corsair uprising keeps things interesting on Sampetra. However the best and most memorable part of the story taps into the universal appeal of the good old treasure hunt and takes place at the Abbey. Wily old Fermald hid the six Pearls in cunning places around the building and left devious clues to their locations. In the hope of offering the Pearls to pay Abbot Durral’s ransom Tansy and Rollo endeavour to track them down. As you would expect the riddles are highly engaging each seemingly more baffling than the last. The mixture of questing, rebellion and investigating lends the story variety and depth and there is never a dull moment.

Naturally The Pearls of Lutra features one of the best casts of characters in the series. Among the most appealing are Piknim and Crakylyn, mouse and squirrelmaid respectively who offer valuable assistance in the hunt for the Pearls and light up the dialogue with their peppy and upbeat personalities, then there’s Cleckstarr Lepus Montisle or Clecky who ably fulfils the eccentric hare role and his owl buddy Gerul who is quick to impart his mother’s wisdom. The story features probably the most diverse and dynamic set of baddies of varying ranks outside of Redwall and in Arven we have probably the most entertaining and well-written Dibbun ever. Martin is a solid hero, nothing we haven’t seen before but his bold determination is pretty stirring, as is the quest of the grim Grath Longfletch who brings a little darkness to the good guys.

It helps too that the book features some of the most memorable moments of drama too. The culmination of the enmity between Lask Frildur and Romsca makes for thrilling reading and one unexpectedly emotional scene in particular but even this is trumped by what is hands down the most unexpected and sad death of a main character in the entire saga.

It’s hard to fault The Pearls of Lutra but if you had to you might point out that the uprising on Sampetra drives Ublaz’ attention too far away from the acquisition of the Pearls and that the climax isn’t one of the series’ best but these are fairly minor flaws that don’t ultimately spoil what is a very well balanced and engaging story.

Verdict

Built on the foundation of a great story, the memorable cast and eventful pacing make The Pearls of Lutra stand out above most other books in the series. Maybe there should be more books starring a warrior named Martin.

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