Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mossflower, by Brian Jacques


Things have come to a pretty pass in the once-idyllic Mossflower Wood. The cruel (and unstable) wildcat Tsarmina rules over the land from her fortress Kotir, and the woodlanders are forced to turn over more and more of their food to feed Tsarmina's armies. Any resistance is immediately--and mercilessly--punished. And anyway, what chance do a bunch of mice and hedgehogs have against the hordes of weasels, ferrets, rats, and stoats . . . to say nothing of their wicked leader, Tsarmina? Then one day, a young mouse wanders into Mossflower Wood. But this isn't just any mouse--this is Martin the Warrior, veteran fighter from the North. With the assistance of a roguish mouse thief, a good-hearted mole, a misplaced shrew leader, a band of rather obstreperous hares, and a warlike old badger--to say nothing of Mossflower's own crackerjack troops of squirrel archers, fighting otters, and digging moles--Martin takes on the tyrant of Kotir, and he's determined to drive her and hers out of Mossflower and win freedom for the woodlanders . . . or die trying.

This is a delightful book. Although the story pre-dates the excellent Redwall, this was written afterwards and was, in fact, the second book in Jacques well-loved series--a series now boasting nearly two dozen titles. I don't know whether all the books lived up to the promise of Redwall; it's hard to maintain consistent quality across that many books. But Mossflower was one of the first, and it still feels fresh and fun.

Allow me to particularly recommend the audiobook version. Jacques has created unique dialects for the various animal species in his books--most notably the moles and hares, but birds and otters and others have distinctive speech patterns as well. These delicious dialects simply beg to be read allowed, to be savored aurally. I was fortunate to have a mother who read aloud to her children and threw herself into the various voices with gusto, but if you don't have access to someone who will read aloud to you (or if you've reached the age when it's no longer socially acceptable to ask to be read to), then give this audiobook a try. Jacques himself provides the narration, but the various animals are voiced by an assortment of actors who clearly enjoy what they are doing. Tsarmina is particularly well voiced--she sounds every bit the paranoid-megalomaniacal dictator. Gonff the mouse thief, Dinny the mole, Martin the warrior, the various hares and otters and mice and hedgehogs--all are chock full of personality, and an utter delight to listen to. In fact, I suspect the story itself only merits three stars, but the brilliant audiobook presentation elevates the material to four stars at the very least.

As with most of the Redwall books, there is little moral complexity. Good characters are good, through and through, and bad characters are bad--and you can usually tell the difference based solely on the species involved. Mice, hedgehogs, squirrels, otters, and moles are good. Rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, and apparently toads are always bad. Foxes can never be trusted. Though, as it turns out, wildcats are not so easy to stereotype. Or at any rate, there are exceptions to the general trend of 'predators are bad.'

Still, even without the added layers of grey, the story has plenty to recommend it. We learn the value of loyalty, mercy, freedom, courage, respect, and self-sacrifice. And we learn the dangers of selfishness, cruelty, greed, and pride. The heroes of Jacques' stories are well worth admiring, and even emulating.

Jacques writes at a higher level than many young adult authors--his books are great for more advanced readers who are ready for a more expansive vocabulary but aren't necessarily looking for a lot of sex, swearing, and gore. Though, to be fair, there is plenty of violence in Jacques' work; it's just not as graphic as it could be. Indeed, Jacques spends much more time describing all the delicious foods the various woodlanders eat than he does detailing the nature of the wounds they sustain (or inflict).

Bottom line: This is a great book for readers of all ages. But be warned: it will probably make you hungry.

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