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.

Every time I pick a new favorite Redwall book, I find myself eating my words in the next review. I am officially giving up on trying to pick a favorite. It’s good. They’re all good, except Outcast. At this rate I’m wondering if I can even trust my judgment from, like, ten years ago, when I decided that the final five Redwall books were the worst in the series. Fortunately, I did have the sense to realize that Loamhedge was good, and, though I originally gave it four stars, I had to bump it up to 4.75 after this reread. Part of this is an increased ability to forgive certain characters for being young and stupid, but part of it is also because I devoured the final half of the book in one sitting and was very put out when it ended way too soon.

Loamhedge opens on the northeast shores some distance away from Mossflower. There are no literary landmarks to distinguish this particular period in Redwall history relative to the chronology of the rest of the series, but it can reasonably be assumed to take place sometime after Triss. The sea otter Abruc and his young son Stugg stumble across two badgers, the grievously injured Lonna Bowstripe and his friend Grawn, on a dark and stormy night during what was supposed to be a routine fishing trip. Grawn is already dead by the time Abruc arrives, but Lonna is rescued and nursed back to health by the sea otter clan. Though generally kind and gentle-hearted, he comes back to life with a burning hatred for Raga Bol, the cruel searat captain who led the attack against him and Grawn. After a long convalescence, he makes a new bow to replace the one he lost in the attack and sets out to destroy Bol and his entire crew. Despite Bol’s increasing paranoia over Lonna’s continued existence, the searats are easily tracked through the trail of destruction they leave behind them as they make their way into Mossflower Woods, where they eventually enslave a tiny band of local vermin nominally led by the runty fox Badredd (formerly “Big Redd,” even more formerly “Little Redd”).

While Bol runs and Lonna pursues, Redwall Abbey is unexpectedly visited by the otter Bragoon (“Brag”) and the squirrel Sarobando (“Saro”), two former Redwallers who ran away at a young age and never came back. After several seasons of wild adventuring, they have grown old and tired, but eagerly agree to a special mission when they meet Martha Braebuck, a young haremaid who has never been able to walk. Though Martha gets around well enough in a wheeled chair built for her by Bragoon’s younger brother, the somewhat unkindly named Toran Widegirth, she has no hope of learning to walk until she is visited by the spirits of Martin the Warrior and Sister Amyl of Loamhedge Abbey. Together they tell her that there is a cure, and that Sister Amyl – who suffered from a similar condition but later gained the use of her legs with the help of Abbess Germaine – hid a scroll describing the cure in Loamhedge before she and her friends were forced to flee the plague that decimated their community. (But also, like, why didn’t she take it with her? No disrespect to Amyl, but this is one of a couple of mild eyeroll moments that kept me from giving the book the full five stars.)

Rolled eyes notwithstanding, Bragoon and Saro become very fond of Martha during their brief time at the Abbey, and they vow to find the cure. Their journey seems like business as usual until they realize they have been followed by Martha’s older brother, Hortwill “Horty” Braebuck, and his best friends, Springald the mouse and Fenna the squirrel. The three of them were supposed to stay home, but they are firmly in the throes of their teenage seasons, and therefore take it upon themselves to accompany Bragoon and Saro in their quest for the cure. Despite their hopes for a high-spirited adventure, they are forced to grow up very quickly as they encounter both enemies and hardships unheard of in the peaceful Abbey. Fortunately, it’s not all bad: they meet briefly with Lonna, who helps them escape the flesh-eating Darrat tribe, and later befriend the Guerrilla Union of Roving and Fighting (Guoraf) shrews. After many a tribulation, they cross the great gorge breached countless seasons ago by Matthias the Warrior and his friends, and finally find themselves in the ruins of Loamhedge.

Several leagues to the northwest, the runty fox formerly known as Little Redd finds himself in command of his very own vermin horde (er, if you consider an eight-member band a “horde”) when the two alpha males, the rat Dargle and the fox Skrodd, murder each other in their own mini game of thrones. Little Redd takes advantage of their deaths to name himself the new leader, and, despite a total lack of respect from his unenthusiastic new minions (all of them significantly larger than himself), adopts the name Badredd. He is easily influenced and not particularly bright, but he also has a stubborn streak that makes him drive his little horde all the way to the gates of Redwall, with the intention of commandeering the magic sword that the Redwallers are rumored to possess; however, his halfhearted assault is upstaged when Raga Bol and his searats descend upon the Abbey. With visions of treasure-plums dancing in their heads, the searats quickly take over both Badredd’s band and the siege, but are unpleasantly surprised when the Redwallers beat them back at every turn. When the desperate searats try to break into the Abbey via the second floor windows, Martha rises from her chair in time to save Father Abbot Carrul from the rat who was about to knife him, and discovers that she can walk.

In spite of their own best efforts, the searats’ fate is sealed when Lonna finally catches up with them. After losing several rats to Lonna’s arrows, Raga Bol taunts Lonna into leaving the safety of the Abbey building, but finds himself eating these words when Lonna kills him and then uses his body as a blunt weapon against the surviving searats. With the rats gone, the Abbeydwellers begin to set their home to rights, assisted by Lonna. Meanwhile, the Loamhedge party begins the treacherous journey home, scroll in paw, but is greeted by an army of cave-dwelling vermin who seem to be the descendants of the cultlike rats from the Kingdom of Malkariss. Knowing they cannot outrun this army, Bragoon and Saro sacrifice themselves to allow Horty, Fenna, and Springald to escape. The kids make it home mostly unscathed, only to learn after the fact that Bragoon and Saro were unable to find Sister Amyl’s original scroll, and so invented their own “cure” to avoid returning empty-pawed. In the aftermath of both the journey and the battle for the Abbey, Horty claims Raga Bol’s scimitar and accompanies Lonna to Salamandastron, where he joins the Long Patrol and eventually becomes a captain; Fenna becomes Mother Abbess of Redwall, assuming the title when Carrul retires, and Springald becomes the new Recorder, while Martha – as she promised when Bragoon and Saro first set out for Loamhedge – dances on the walls of the Abbey every season in memory of her lost friends.

Adulthood sucks for a number of reasons, such as rent and taxes and the struggle of figuring out what to feed yourself every night for the rest of your life. (I realize that sounds a bit grim, but I said what I said.) I am ready to forgive it for all of that if it stops ruining my childhood, because right now it keeps insisting that Martha’s walking arc is borderline ableist and I’m gonna have to agree. The thing is, we never find out what exactly was preventing Martha from walking. While it is made clear that she has struggled with this disability all her life, the solution makes it seem like her problems were entirely psychosomatic. We also never find out what ailed Sister Amyl, or how her disability was so quickly and conveniently resolved. The scroll she hid in Loamhedge rotted away a long time ago, and it’s impossible to say if it possessed an actual cure – dubious at best – or if it was a little rah-rah rhyme similar to the one written by Bragoon and Saro. Physical impediments cannot be magically wished away, no matter how well-intentioned the wishers. If they could, I would have done away with my back pain the minute I felt my spine twinge. And, as I said before, it bothers me that Sister Amyl did not trouble herself to tuck the scroll into her pocket and take it along with her when she fled Loamhedge. Surely she could have at least kept it in case she met anyone else suffering from the same disability. I’m not sure what she thought she was accomplishing by hiding it in the catacombs of a building to which nobody intended to return. Stowing it away against Martha’s future need would have required a breathtaking level of prescience, and it also doesn’t make sense, given that the scroll is now dust.

Now: as a chronic sucker, I have to admit that I cheer every time Martha gets out of her chair and knocks a murderous searat out the window. Just because I know it’s ableism doesn’t mean it doesn’t work on me. (This comes with its own problems, such as guilt, embarrassment, and shame, but anyway.) But I also really love Martha, with or without the ability to walk, and I don’t feel she was done a disservice by the narrative. She is brave, intelligent, and kind-hearted without being a doormat. She doesn’t consider herself “broken”; nor does she doesn’t waste her breath cursing the fates for her own cruel luck. Her disability does not define her as a character, and its sudden disappearance does not substantially affect the outcome of the battle against the searats, who were losing anyway. Even hampered as she is, she gets around the Abbey quite nicely, and she is an integral part of the community. If anything, I was a little surprised she didn’t become the next Abbess. I don’t mind Fenna, who grows up tremendously throughout her journey; it’s just that Martha was really established as a leader during the battle against the vermin, in an arc similar to Mhera’s in Taggerung.

These are not, admittedly, the reasons I originally gave the book four stars. The first time I read this, I couldn’t get past my annoyance with Horty, Fenna, and Springald, who are introduced as bratty teenagers – a bit rich considering I was a teen myself, but that’s the way it goes. As an adult, though, I see them better. All the same, I wish Fenna and Springald had been characterized more strongly – they’re not Jacques’s most vivid characters – and I remain puzzled as to Martin’s decision to elevate Fenna to Abbess. Horty is far more vivid, and his relationship with Martha is possibly the most endearing sibling relationship in the series. I actually love that he calls her his “skin’n’blister,” which is both adorable and on-point for an older brother trolling his baby sister. Though he did irritate me throughout the story in different ways, a lot of this was due to his being both young and a hare. I say that with all due affection and respect for Martha, who is also a hare, but a fairly unique one as far as personality goes. At the very least he didn’t annoy me as much as Scarum did in Triss, and he is capable of a modicum of self-control, which Scarum never truly seemed able to muster.

As I am writing this, I’ve realized that I’ve just gone the entire review without even mentioning that Lonna has the gift of Sight, which is underutilized anyway. I think at this point I’ve just accepted that badgers are psychic, and Badger Lords can all haunt their enemies in their dreams. As with other books in this series, some of the finer details got lost between battles, and nothing ever comes of Lonna’s gift, aside from a pretty sweet ability to keep Raga Bol from getting a good night’s sleep. This is mostly fine; the details tend not to matter, even if they do bog the story down somewhat. And, to be completely fair, I often love the details, which are frequently deployed as humorous asides. In the case of this book, did I really need to know that Badredd was so short that his underlings had to boost him onto the path in front of the Abbey? No. Would I be mad if that got taken out? Absolutely. Jacques is a master of roasting his own characters, which is part of what keeps me coming back again and again, hungry for more. I don’t need every loose end to be tied off, though I would have appreciated some better editing, particularly as this specific book cannot seem to decide whether the Dibbun named Buffle is a shrew or a mouse. And yet the crappy editing isn’t enough to put me off the way it has with other books, because the inconsistencies are more or less negligible beside Jacques’s gift for telling a cozy, feel-good story. This series can be so dark and so violent and so, so sad, but it never loses its core of kindness and humor, and even outright silliness. It is what it is, and it’s wonderful.