Does nostalgia cloud critical thought? Is a beloved creation from one’s childhood always at a massive advantage next to something more recent? The answer to these questions is almost certainly ‘yes’ but it might not always be that simple. I’ve now reviewed ten of the eleven Tales of Redwall I first read in my youth and this review covers the tenth of the eleven books in the series I am reading for the first time. There can be no question that the former ten have, on average, enjoyed more of my praise than the latter. Am I just revisiting Brian Jacques’ earlier work wearing rose tinted spectacles or did the quality of his books really drop off over time? I think the answer is probably both. Maintaining the extremely high benchmark of quality laid by books like Redwall and Mattimeo for over twenty publications is a big ask. And while there have been plenty of lesser titles like Triss and Loamhedge there is also High Rhulain and Eulalia!. And there is The Sable Quean.
Buckler Kordyne is a Long Patrol hare and a Blademaster of considerable talent but lives without direction. In the hope of finding adventure by travelling he sets off with tubby buddy Diggs to visit his farmer brother delivering a new pair of bell ropes to Redwall Abbey en route. Bumping into a travelling troupe of players on the way his goals change when the youngsters in the group go missing.
And they aren’t the only ones. The children of Jango, Log a Log of the Guosim, various woodland infants and a couple of Redwall Dibbuns also vanish without trace. The culprits are the Ravagers, an extensive force of vermin operating under the cunning Sable Quean. Her general is Zwilt the Shade, a lethal swordsman whose fearsome reputation drives the ranks of the Ravagers to carry out their kidnapping orders without question. Their goal is to hold the creatures of Redwall and Mossflower for ransom, conquest without war.
The plot is most closely related to Mattimeo and like in that story much of the story is told from the point of view of the kidnapped. It’s a powerfully bleak situation for the numerous youngsters and Jacques goes a long way to exploring the harsh reality of their plight. The story develops with a great deal of unpredictability. There are escape attempts, rescue attempts, run-ins with guards, unforeseen calamities and even a death or two. The numerous scenes taking place in the prisoners’ cell remain compelling, even compulsive as the drama unfolds. Even towards the end of the story when the outcome is starting to look clearer Jacques throws in a memorable curveball in the form of Triggut Frap, a crazy hedgehog that steers the story into borderline disturbing territory. The narrative glue that holds the gripping scenes together is pretty flimsy. The pacing is all over the place and there are frequent lulls but when the story perks up it really perks up.
The Sable Quean offers among the most well-rounded and interesting set of characters in the later books. The various factions, including Redwallers seem more argumentative than the usually eternally cordial casts of most previous books. The hero is a good one, Buckler is resourceful and stoic, his early uncertainty giving way to a natural leadership but he suffers from Lord Brocktree syndrome, his sidekick Diggs frequently hogging all the attention. Among the villains Zwilt the Shade is honestly one of the best for a very long time, a great match for Buckler, his own talent with a blade setting up an inevitability in their eventual clash. A ruthless killer with charisma, Zwilt sticks in the memory rather more than his Quean who lurks in the background, but even she has a few surprises in store for the final third.
To suggest The Sable Quean is up to the standards of the best in the series is false, it’s a little too messy for that but its easily the best since The Legend of Luke. The penultimate Tale of Redwall though not without its notable flaws, suggests a late resurgence in Jacques’ creative instincts.
Eventful, well-written and imbued with a powerful vitality, The Sable Quean is an imperfect continuation of the form rediscovered in High Rhulain and Eulalia! and provides an adventure drama with emotional clout.