Brian Jacques

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers for this book, as well as for others in the Redwall series. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

ENOUGH WITH THE DESCENDANTS OF GONFF ALREADY. I mean, he’s fine and I don’t hate him, but he was never the most compelling character, and to be honest I’m kind of over all the compulsive thieves who crop up throughout this series, whether they’re related to Gonff or not. For the record, no, I don’t think kleptomania is a particularly endearing trait, no matter how charming the thieves who keep getting shoved in my face. This is similar in spirit to the complaint I had about the Abbot Saxtus arc, which starts with Mariel of Redwall and runs through The Bellmaker: the characters are fine, but, in my Redwall-saturated opinion, Jacques has an irritating habit of latching onto his least interesting characters and spinning them out for longer than I would like. The exceptions to this general rule are the Tansy and Cregga arcs, which I maintain are the best of the five Redwall timelines. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help me with the Gonff problem, because I have absolutely zero interest in him or in any of his descendants.

Before it gets into the latest generation of the empire of mice who sprang from Gonff’s very fruitful family tree, Doomwyte begins with two extremely expendable rats. Drawn into Mossflower by the lure of the distant sea, they stumble across mysterious glowing lights in the depths of the forest and follow them, because apparently they’ve never heard of Hinkypunks. (No? Wrong universe? Deal with it.) One is lost forever in one of the swamps that pepper Mossflower Woods; the other, Gridj, is captured and dragged into the sulphurous cave of Korvus Skurr, a brutal raven who rules the local birds and reptiles with the help of his advisor, the smoothsnake Sicariss. Korvus and Sicariss interrogate Gridj on the whereabouts of the jeweled eyes stolen from the Doomwyte, a giant statue depicting a raven crowned with a snake. Upon realizing he knows nothing, they cook him in the boiling lake in the middle of their cave and feed him to their minions. Unbeknownst to all, these activities are closely monitored by Zaran, a black-furred otter whose mate and young daughter were murdered by the birds.

Though he doesn’t know it yet, Korvus is the final member of a long line of ruling ravens who have partnered with snakes to hold sway in Mossflower since time unknowable, going back even before the time of Martin the Warrior. His regime is enforced through fear: he is a fearsome fighter with a quick temper, and his cave is home to a monstrous catfish called Welzz, who enjoys a steady diet of sacrificial reptiles. Korvus and his ancestors have traditionally held court under the gaze of the Doomwyte, but the statue just hasn’t been the same since its eyes were stolen by Gonff, the self-proclaimed Prince of Mousethieves, in retaliation for the deaths of two shrews captured by Rigvar Skurr, Korvus’s who-knows-how-many-times-great-grandfather. (So, uh, take that, I guess.) Gonff’s disturbing brush with the birds was documented by his wife, Lady Columbine, who told him to hide the jewels in a place where they couldn’t endanger the Abbey. With the jewels tucked away, Gonff wrote a series of riddles pointing to their various locations and hid these around the Abbey, unaware that the ravens would obsessively search for the jewels through future generations.

Countless seasons later, the jewels have officially entered Redwall mythology. Gonff’s descendants have come to be called the family Gonffen, as distinct from the Gonfelins, a rogue branch that split off when they were kicked out of the Abbey for stealing. Neither branch is aware of the other in the present day, and the remaining Gonffens appear to be limited to Samolus Fixa, an elderly mouse directly descended from Gonff himself, and Bisky, a young mouse some two or three times removed from the main family tree. Having discovered Dinny’s mole scrolls and Columbine’s diary among Abbey records, Samolus is well acquainted with the story of the Doomwyte, and, since Redwallers love nothing more than a good puzzle, it doesn’t take long for Bisky to embark upon a search for the lost jewels. He is encouraged in this by the kindly Abbot Glisam and assisted by his friends, Umfry Spikkle the hedgehog and Dwink the squirrel, with extra support provided by Skipper Rorgus and newcomer Laird Bosie McScutta of Bowlaynee (who, by his ridiculous name, is clearly a hare). Their quest starts out as a light-hearted adventure, but takes a more serious turn when Bisky is captured by a local tribe of the Painted Ones while searching for the first jewel. While in captivity, he meets fellow prisoner Dubble, runaway son of the worst Log a Log in history, and they become fast friends.

Back at the Abbey, the Redwallers adopt an owl named Aluco, who was discovered living in the rough tunnels connected to the Abbey cellar, and find that the Doomwyte jewels are indeed real when he gifts them the first one out of gratitude. They then receive a far less welcome visit from Log a Log Tugga Bruster and his shrews, who are new to the area and currently searching for Dubble. Though his shrews seem to want to make friends with the Redwallers, Tugga Bruster is a cowardly, blustering bully who keeps getting his tail handed to him but never seems to learn a damn thing. The good Redwallers attempt to make the best of things by voluntarily teaming up with the shrews to find Bisky and Dubble, but it doesn’t take long before everybody starts fantasizing about giving Tugga Bruster a good kick up the ass. Nevertheless, their uneasy alliance does bear fruit when Bisky and Dubble reappear among a crowd of Gonfelins, who help the Redwallers and the shrews take down the Painted Ones. Despite their resounding victory, Tugga Bruster needlessly murders Chigid, the leader of the Painted Ones, causing Chigid’s mate Tala to swear revenge. Unwillingly reunited with his father, Dubble looks for an excuse to get away from him again and gets it when he spots Chigid’s bullying son Jeg trying to escape capture.

With tensions bubbling (though the bulk of the shrews, it should be noted, get along with the Redwallers just fine), the rest of the woodlanders return to the Abbey, where Tugga Bruster promptly antagonizes Nokko, the cheerful, rotund patriarch of the Gonfelins. After yet another ass-whooping, Tugga Bruster steals the Doomwyte jewel, but his clumsy attempt to frame Nokko is a disaster. Disgraced and abandoned by his own shrews, he flees the Abbey and is caught just outside its gates by Tala, who triumphantly avenges Chigid’s death. Elsewhere, and completely unaware that his father is now dead, Dubble runs into Zaran and learns that she has spent the last five seasons digging holes all over the roof of Korvus’s cave in order to destabilize it to the point of collapse. They are shortly joined by Bisky and Nokko’s pretty daughter Spingo, who came looking for Dubble when he failed to return to the Abbey, and the four of them resume the digging project with a will. Unfortunately, the soil of the hill has become soft through seasons of hole-digging, and the work has to be put on hold when Spingo becomes trapped behind a large stone. With time and air running out, Bisky and Dubble return to the Abbey for help, and bring back a full crew of Redwallers, Gonfelins, shrews, and moles to rescue Spingo.

Meanwhile, Korvus Skurr hears a rumor that the Doomwyte jewels are in the possession of Redwall, and he sends his Wytes – an elite team of bird warriors partnered with snakes, whose heads are daubed with the phosphorescent solution that creates the floating lights that lure random travelers, such as rats, into swamps – to search the Abbey. The Wytes make multiple attempts to capture a Redwaller for interrogation purposes, but are thwarted at every turn. As the search for the jewels goes on, Korvus’s obsession with the jewels – as much as his callous disregard for the reptiles under his command – begins to drive a wedge between himself and Sicariss, which only grows wider when he realizes that Sicariss has been manipulating him into believing that she can receive prophetic advice from Welzz. At his wits’ end, at least as far as the jewels go, Korvus makes a deal with Baliss, an adder who is said to be descended from Asmodeus, the snake slain by Matthias in Redwall. Though Baliss is elderly and blind, he remains a dangerous ally and a worse enemy. When his attempt to attack Cellarhog Corksnout Spikkle ends with hedgehog spikes embedded in his head, he turns against Korvus, holding him responsible for his predicament, and sets out to destroy him.

What with both the woodlanders and Baliss being out for his blood, it’s a bad day all around for Korvus, and it doesn’t get any better when he tosses Sicariss to her death in Welzz’s mouth. While the maddened Baliss storms the cave and slaughters every bird he can get his fangs into, the Redwallers rescue Spingo and then collapse the cave completely. With his small kingdom destroyed, Korvus tries to escape but flies straight into Zaran, who finally gets the revenge she has worked so hard to achieve. In the bittersweet aftermath of the battle, the Redwallers celebrate their victory and honor their dead with a feast. Spingo pressures her father into relinquishing the final jewel (long stolen by previous Gonfelins) to the Abbey, which he reluctantly does, and Abbot Glisam orders that all four jewels be buried among the remains of the cave in memory of their lost friends. Finally, when the birds are no more than a bad memory, the collapsed cave becomes a water meadow, a pleasant vacation spot for the Redwallers. A couple of seasons later, all is well: the Gonfelins have been welcomed back into Redwall, and have renounced their thieving ways (again, under Spingo’s influence); Zaran married Skipper Rorgus, and they have a son; Bisky and Spingo have a daughter, as do Dwink and his mate Perrit, and Dubble has become the new Abbey Friar in the absence of Friar Skurpul, who was among the brave moles who died rescuing Spingo. Knowing that his seasons are limited, Abbot Glisam names Perrit as his successor and gladly joins his friends as an ordinary Redwaller, knowing that his Abbey is in good paws.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while rereading this series, it is that if you have black fur, you are a female warrior, and you are a badass. I don’t make the rules. To the best of my recollection, there are only two characters described as having midnight-colored fur: the first is Ranguvar Foeseeker, and the second, of course, is Zaran. That said, we needed to see more of Zaran. She spends the first two-thirds of the book as a mysterious shadowy figure digging holes and spying on birds until she finally pops up on page 239 to rescue Dubble from his own silly mistake, and even after that her role is disappointingly small, right up to the point that she kills Korvus Skurr. Why did we spend so much time watching the death of Friar Skurpul instead of watching Zaran take down her hated enemy, the bird who literally murdered her entire family, whose deaths, by the way, are never given more than a line or two of dialogue? How is it that this series, which has gotten so much so tremendously right, is now getting everything wrong with its final breaths? High Rhulain had a confused, meandering plot, and I never did figure out exactly how many otters there were on that island. Eulalia! had a more satisfying story but was horrendously written. Doomwyte somehow manages to do the exact opposite of the previous two: the writing is better, in that it uses fewer comma splices, but the story is so utterly unemotional that it’s even more dissatisfying than The Bellmaker.

I am sorry I keep shading The Bellmaker, which isn’t even close to my least favorite Redwall book, but I can’t help myself. The resolution of the Nagru problem was so aggravatingly impersonal that it stuck in my mind as one of the most disappointing Redwall payoffs. I am now officially in a position to say that Doomwyte is worse. There’s nothing driving these characters. The search for the Eyes of the Doomwyte might have echoed the frantic search in Pearls of Lutra, but, unlike with Pearls, there’s no consequence – predicted or otherwise – if Bisky fails to find the jewels. It’s just a side quest to fill in pages and time. Dubble’s struggles with his father never lead to anything; they spend barely any time together, and they never see each other again after Dubble sets out in pursuit of Jeg. Bosie is named Abbey Warrior and given the sword of Martin, but there’s no reason the plot wouldn’t work if he hadn’t been. As much as I like him, he is not the destiny-marked warrior who is usually charged with the protection of Redwall. Even the battle at the end is bewildering and purposeless, and so muddled that I had trouble picturing what was even happening. Sure, the Abbeydwellers want to make their woods safer, but that doesn’t explain why they suddenly get so invested in the destruction of the birds when the birds have been living in Mossflower all along with almost no problems. Even with Rorgus and Bosie shepherding their efforts, it seems odd that they would commit themselves to wholesale slaughter instead of merely chasing the surviving birds out of the area, the way they did with the Painted Ones. The root of the conflict is between Zaran and Korvus, and, again, that one showdown has been reduced to the length of a single sentence. It’s baffling, and it doesn’t work.

Additionally, I am resentful over the death of sweet Friar Skurpul, who might be one of my favorite Redwall Friars. I love moles in general, but Friar Skurpul has tunneled his way into my heart, and I don’t see any special reason he just had to die. There’s no reason he couldn’t have hung around to train Dubble as an Assistant Friar. There’s plenty of room in those kitchens for more than one cook. (Speaking of Dubble, it also would have been nice to see a bit more of his interest in cooking, so that his passion would have had a bigger payoff at the end. But that, too, is confined to a single scene.) At this point it feels like Jacques is doing the GoT thing and killing characters just for the sake of having somebody die, and I really wish he would stop. Yet at the same time, the characters in these last few books are so generic and so mashed together that I remember very few of them with any sort of clarity. This is what I meant when I said Jacques was running out of steam with the final five books: where the first seventeen books are burned into my skull down to the very last little detail, the final five just seem like the burned-out leftovers. It doesn’t help that a lot of the names are very similar: I was so distracted by Abbot Glisam, whose name is only one vowel off from Rakkety Tam‘s Friar Glisum, that I barely paid any attention to him as a character until I had figured out why his name looked so familiar.

On balance – and as usual – this book is fine. It is more propulsive than High Rhulain and the writing is more tolerable than it was in Eulalia!, but the story as a whole is so low-stakes that it doesn’t really hang together, and the characters are mostly forgettable. I will say I remembered this book better than I did the previous two, though that may just be because I reread it relatively recently (i.e., five years ago; I genuinely do not remember that reread, but goodreads says I left a snarky comment in one of my reading updates, and I can’t argue with the evidence). All the same, there is a reason this book hasn’t been sticking. I wouldn’t call any of the Redwall books boring because shit does happen, but if my greatest goal is to finish the book just so I can get to the next one, that’s not good. Ultimately, my strongest thought is that I am grateful that Doomwyte was not my first glimpse of the world of Redwall. If I had come into this series as an adult, if I had picked up Doomwyte – or High Rhulain, or Eulalia! – on a whim without understanding the breadth of their origins, I would have dropped the whole series right where I had found it, and I would never have known what I was missing.