High Rhulain
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.

Holy shit, we’ve finally found a Redwall book that I genuinely dislike. As much as I hated Veil’s arc, I didn’t really hate Outcast of Redwall as a whole, and I would read it again. Admittedly it wouldn’t be my first choice of reread and it’s certainly not the best in its class, but I’ve never questioned its place among the books I consider classically Redwall. High Rhulain, on the other hand, doesn’t quite fit in among the rest of the series, and I’m not sure I would read it a third time. (Also if we can have just a second of me being absolutely petty, High Rhulain‘s spine illustration was taken from the cover of The Bellmaker, which only confirms that whoever was QC’ing this reprint did a shit job.)

Presumably set several seasons after the events of Rakkety Tam, this latest Redwall adventure begins not at the Abbey we love, but on the remote Green Isle in the Western Sea. Once home to several different otterclans – among them Streambattles and Galedeeps, Wavedogs and Wildloughs – the island was attacked by wildcat raiders during the time of Urthwyte the Mighty. The otters were formerly led by the High Queen Rhulain of the Wildlough clan, but she died fighting the cats, and it was only by sheer chance that her younger brother Corriam escaped the slaughter, eventually making his way to Mossflower Woods. Countless generations later, the island is ruled by the vicious warlord Riggu Felis and his army of cats, two hundred strong. He married a feral cat, Lady Kaltag, and together they have two nearly grown sons, Jeefra and Pitru. Whatever pride Felis might have felt for his sons is long gone: Jeefra is a spineless mama’s boy, Pitru a manipulative bully. His efforts to turn them into warlords have not been going particularly well, especially as his latest attempt ended with him getting half his face torn off by an angry osprey. His rule is under quiet threat from a group of rebel otters led by the outlaw Leatho Shellhound, his soldiers are incompetent, his wife always sides with the kids, and overall his life just sucks. Even a wild plan to avenge his shredded face by murdering every bird on the island goes completely to shit when a barnacle goose named Brantalis Skyfurrow (possibly related to the Olav Skyfurrow mentioned in Mossflower?) escapes the slaughter and wings his way to the redstone Abbey that holds the key to Felis’s downfall.

While Felis alternates between fighting to maintain his rule and trying to make real wildcats out of his half-feral sons, the rebel otters struggle to overturn generations of wildcat rule. Their task is made more difficult by the fact that many of their friends and families are enslaved by the cats, who have no qualms about using them as leverage, but lately they have begun to dream of the return of the High Rhulain. (But also the slaves seem to have no trouble sneaking away to meet up with the free otters for wild parties, so apparently the cats all suck at their jobs?) Under the leadership of Leatho Shellhound, the rebels make several daring incursions against their abusers, though they claim they don’t have the numbers to take out Felis’s army. It is never made clear how many otters there actually are: sometimes it seems like there are significantly fewer otters than cats; other times it seems like their numbers are more or less even, give or take a casual thirty; and at the very end it seems like the otters outnumber the cats, and they could probably have taken their island back earlier. Either way, they manage to make a terrible nuisance of themselves, and Felis finds himself in a neverending game of whac-a-mole as both the otters and Pitru chafe under his rule. His already fractured family splits completely when Pitru takes advantage of a chaotic otter attack to murder Jeefra. Lady Kaltag never recovers from Jeefra’s death, and she grows increasingly angry and delusional, frequently accusing Felis of killing his own son.

Far away across the sea, Abbeydweller Tiria Wildlough – daughter of Skipper Banjon Wildlough and direct descendant of Corriam Wildlough – unknowingly reroutes the course of her life when she and her friends find a small vermin gang torturing Pandion Piketalon, the osprey who carved Felis’s face like a jack-o’-lantern. Shortly after rescuing Pandion, she meets Brantalis, who came to Redwall specifically to seek healing for an arrow wound, and learns that both birds came from Green Isle. Though she’s never heard of the place, she receives a ghostly visit from the spirits of Martin the Warrior and the High Rhulain, who tell her that she is destined to sail across the sea and liberate the otters from the cats. Tiria takes them at their word – Martin is not known for assigning prank quests – and sets out from the Abbey with Pandion, traveling first with the Guosim shrews and then with Cuthbert Frunk W. Bloodpaw, a deeply traumatized Long Patrol hare who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. After a brief stop at Salamandastron, where the Badger Lord Mandoral gifts her the armor crafted by Urthwyte for the original High Rhulain, Tiria and Cuthbert set sail for Green Isle, accompanied by thirty Long Patrol hares.

Back at the Abbey, Tiria’s friends turn to the library created by Old Quelt and Sister Snowdrop, an elderly squirrel and mouse who have devoted their lives to scholarly pursuits. With the help of an ancient book written by the dreadfully pretentious Sister Geminya, best friend to Corriam’s wife Runa, they learn a bit more about Green Isle and the High Rhulain. Eventually they manage to locate the High Rhulain’s lance and coronet, though Geminya’s neverending riddles infuriate everyone on the research team, even the gentle-hearted Abbess Lycian. With the last puzzle finally solved, the Redwallers give Brantalis the coronet and have him fly it out to Tiria on Green Isle because branding matters and okay yeah I can kind of see that but that still seems like a weird argument to me ugh whatever I am so done with this book. In any case, Brantalis delivers the coronet in time for Tiria to fully step into her role as High Rhulain. The otters and hares rally around her, and together they launch a joint assault upon Felis’s fortress.

Meanwhile, Leatho languishes in a cage hanging outside Felis’s chamber, having been captured when he and a couple of others attempted to free the slaves (acting, I must say, on some very iffy advice from Martin the Warrior). Though he manages to get out of the cage and into the fortress, he is attacked by the rapidly unraveling Lady Kaltag, who has convinced herself that Leatho killed Jeefra. She is supposed to be confined to her chamber and closely watched, but her guards keep dropping the ball, and she easily gets loose and sets Felis’s chamber on fire. While she dances her way to her fiery grave, Leatho breaks out of the burning fortress with the help of Brantalis and Pandion. During the escape, Felis recognizes Pandion long enough to throw an axe at him, fatally wounding him, then is killed in his turn by Tiria. The jubilant otters try to return to their families, but find their way blocked by the runaway Pitru and his loyalists. After a nasty battle, Cuthbert kills Pitru before inexplicably throwing his life away in a mad battle with Slothunog, the Redwall version of the Loch Ness Monster. With the cats finally gone for good, Tiria settles down on Green Isle as the reigning queen, helping her newfound friends and family rebuild their home while exchanging frequent letters with Abbess Lycian. The book ends with Lycian planning to sail across the sea to visit Green Isle, along with sixty Redwallers and several Long Patrol hares.

I have many thoughts about this book, and none of them are kind. This is the eighteenth in its series, and it shows. It has all of the elements that I have loved in its predecessors, but it lacks the heart that has kept me hooked through seventeen books. This book feels like fanfiction, and nothing seems to fit. If you told me it had been written by a ghost writer, I would not argue. I don’t know if Jacques switched editors or what, but the writing in this installment is clunky, redundant, obsessively explanatory, and devoid of the charm that defines the series. I do not like being lectured by a narrative that doesn’t seem to have any faith in me as a reader. This may have been an editorial decision – this book contains the first-ever Redwall footnote, which makes me think Jacques’s editor was the kind of person who thinks readers are stupid – but, regardless of who made the choice, it wasn’t a good one. Even if we ignore the writing style, the plot is so anticlimactic as to almost read like a parody of itself. Jacques spends so much time trying to build up momentum, but he takes too long getting there, and the conclusion to every thread fizzles quietly. Pitru’s rebellion seemed like it was building up to something more explosive than his eventual secession from Felis’s army; the finding of the lance and the coronet was overly long and less satisfying than the conclusions of other, similar quests; Felis’s death was so unceremonious that it felt like an afterthought. There was a lot of potential here, all of it squandered for the sake of wrapping up the book.

The biggest trouble is that so much of the story doesn’t feel necessary. I have no idea why Pandion’s vermin gang is so prominent when there’s no point to anything they do. Their biggest role is to act as bird fodder during a similarly unnecessary battle with an injured gannet. During that same scene, their leader murders Tiria’s friend Brinty, but again, why? Nothing proceeds from this death, which is so abrupt that it feels like it came straight out of Starship Troopers. (If you ever meet my family, they will tell you that every time a Starship Troopers character turns their back they get skewered by a giant bug, and they will reenact those deaths with a Shakespearean level of drama.) Brinty didn’t have to die to advance the plot, just as Tiria didn’t have to go diving for the Rhulain’s coronet, Geminya didn’t have to come up with a bunch of snotty riddles that barely make sense, Pandion didn’t have to get axed (or Tiria could have killed Felis before he threw the damn axe), Cuthbert didn’t have to die fighting Slothunog, and Slothunog didn’t have to exist. While we’re at it, Skipper Banjon flatly refuses to accept the idea of a female Skipper – what ever happened to that? “Queen” is a loftier title than “Skipper,” but why bother with the sexism if the issue is only mentioned once, remains unresolved at the end of the book, and has no effect upon the plot?

I could maybe have scooted over the filler content that makes up the book if the characters had been even slightly endearing, but they are not. The best moments came from the two birds, whose petty squabbles make up for some of my sore feelings towards the rest of the cast. Tiria is mostly okay, though she verges on Mary Sueism. Her father is the first Skipper I haven’t been able to love, and the rest of the characters are oddly dissatisfying, even the Long Patrol. I normally love hares, but in this book I don’t care for the condescension they visit upon the rebel otters. I am also irritated with the research team because Old Quelt and Sister Snowdrop are some of the most smug little snots I’ve ever met, and even then they represent only a fraction of the smugness that radiates from everything Geminya does. I cannot overemphasize this: Geminya is not even in the book, and I still hate her. If I could bring her back to life and boot her off the Abbey walls, I would. I would resurrect her solely for the purpose of feeding her to the gannet. I would dig her up from her grave and ship her off to haunt Felis’s castle as a zombie, lurching around behind him and torturing him with her dumbass riddles and gnawing on his brain whenever he needs a break. It seems strange to compare a Redwall book to queer feminist literature when Redwall is about as straight as you can get, but I just started reading Mary MacLane’s memoir last night (blame Plain Bad Heroines for that) and I have realized that my patience for self-proclaimed geniuses is absolutely nil.

Now: I’m only 26 pages into Mary MacLane, so I can’t say at this point whether her claims are justified. But I can absolutely come after Sister Geminya, whose self-satisfied notions of genius are not actually supported by her stupid fucking riddles and her DaVinci Code-level obsession with anagrams. Even her name is a goddamned anagram. Going out of your way to write riddles that make other people want to drag you from your grave and feed you to a gannet does not make you a genius. Geminya is, at best, an obnoxious old bat who likes to add complications for the sake of adding complications. I owe Martin the Warrior an apology, because “Five will ride the Roaringburn,/But only four will e’er return” is actually quite tolerable compared to “Tell me what we call coward (in at)/Then when you have worked out that,/You’ll find your heart’s desire,/By adding a backward liar.” For the record, this is the answer: a synonym for “coward” is “cur”; if one naturally knew to rearrange the letters in “in at” and then tack them onto the end of “cur,” we get “curtain”; and then “liar” spelled backwards is “rail,” so the aforementioned heart’s desire can be found on a curtain rail. (Or, as happens to be the case, acting as a curtain rail.) In conclusion, Sister Geminya can go hop into a fire, because if I were there and if she was still alive, the fire is the thing I would be pushing her into.

That’s a whole lot of negatives, so here’s a couple of positives: I really love Deedero Galedeep, an ottermum with the mind of a general, and I even wish Lady Kaltag had had a more substantial role because she is tougher than both of her sons put together, and I almost feel like she could’ve been the child Felis seems to feel he should have. However, my strongest feeling is that Jacques was killing time with this book. Where previous Redwall books have been meticulous in their plotting, High Rhulain feels like the leftover notes from several different stories, cobbled together in ways that don’t entirely make sense. I am pleased that everything in the story was a genuine surprise, if still a bit predictable – my autofill spoiler mechanism did not kick in this time – but at the same time I can see why I didn’t remember this book. It is not memorable. Even while I was reading it, I had trouble remembering who some of the characters were, and I consistently confused Cellarhog Brink with Brinty. This is slightly disconcerting because I normally memorize every character and every plot point in every Redwall book ever, no matter how minor. On the other hand, I think I can be forgiven in this case, if only because all of my energy is currently going into thinking up creative ways of unaliving Sister Geminya.

And I really cannot get over this: everything about this book, from the story to the characters to Sister Geminya’s frankly rage-inducing riddles, feels more like a parody than a true Redwall book. It does have its good points and it definitely kept me reading, though it took Tiria too long to get to Green Isle. (I mean, she had to have the High Rhulain visit her in her dreams literally just to tell her to get her ass in gear.) But High Rhulain is just a tired refrain of the same old story, and it’s so clumsily done that the repetition bothers me in a way that it didn’t earlier in the series. I can understand the urge to return to this world again and again, especially if there are still unused notes from other stories. Even if I don’t like the results of those notes, I really do get it. All the same, this is one case where it would have been better if Jacques had quit while he was ahead, because – if my memory of the final four books is accurate – I really think the series should have ended with Rakkety Tam.