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.

Friends, I need halp. I have reread Marlfox exactly once within the last decade or so and now I am obsessively looking up oatmeal scone recipes and dough-rolling boards, which I now know are actually called pastry boards, instead of attending to my work. (In my defense, I am also waiting for InDesign to open a file off the work server and it can take anywhere from three to five business days for InDesign to fulfill even the most basic of functions, so I have some time on my hands. Also in my defense, imagine a round oatmeal scone hot out of the oven with honey poured over the top and a slice of crystallized plum set into the honey. You see what I mean? Rude. Speaking of, I have to go find out if the internet will sell me crystallized plums.)

Anyway. Marlfox is the next story in the arc that starts with Pearls of Lutra and ends with Taggerung. It comes directly after The Long Patrol, and it is in some ways a sequel to Salamandastron, in which the squirrel Samkim, the mole Arula, and the badger Mara stumbled across a vast lake inhabited by shoals of killer pike. In the center of this lake was an island, and it was here that Mara met her adoptive uncle, the albino badger Urthwyte. After Urthwyte – also known as the White Ghost – went to Salamandastron to become the next Badger Lord, the island was claimed by a tribe of foxes, who built themselves a big castle with the help of their army of water rats. But they were all of them deceived, for their number included the first two Marlfoxes, a tod and a vixen with silver-white fur mottled with dark patches that made them almost invisible in the right light. After swaying the water rats onto their side, the murderous pair wiped out the rest of the tribe and set themselves up as the sole rulers of the island, guarded by their army and served by slaves abducted from far and wide.

In the present day, the island is ruled by Queen Silth, a ruthless vixen who murdered her own mate when he had the audacity to call himself king. She has the water rats and an army of magpies, led by the bloodthirsty Athrak, who serve as a deterrent to anybody crazy enough to try to land on the island. She also has seven adult children – Ascrod, Gelltor, Lantur, Mokkan, Predak, Vannan, and Ziral – who all inherited the Marlfox fur and the Marlfox taste for cruelty and betrayal. Lately, though, Silth has been feeling the weight of the atrocities she committed to get to the throne, and her growing paranoia is not helped by the White Ghost that haunts her day and night. Desperate to avoid death, she surrounds herself with beautiful things, believing that death will not come for her in such a setting, and it is this obsession that drives her to send all of her children – except the smallest, Lantur, who stays home to take care of her mother – into the outside world in search of beautiful objects. After some poking about, all six Marlfoxes inadvertently alert several independent parties to their presence, and all of these parties make their way into the heart of Mossflower Wood to warn Redwall Abbey of the approaching danger.

Dozens of seasons have gone by at the Abbey, which is leaderless after the passing of both Abbess Tansy and Arven the Warrior. Arven served as Abbot for a few seasons after Tansy passed, but, in his absence, nobody else has volunteered for the job. This is mostly fine, as Cregga Badgermum and a handful of elders – including the now-ancient Friar Butty, who serves as Redwall Recorder, and the owl Nutwing, who was born during the events of The Long Patrol – are still going strong, but the Abbey is mildly disorganized, and also dealing with a long dry season. With no vermin threats during the last several seasons, the Abbeydwellers have grown complacent as they always do, with the result that their best defense is the widowed squirrel Rusvul Reguba, a proven warrior, and his young son Dannflor “Dann” Reguba (originally named “Dannflower,” but Rusvul changed it to something more manly after his wife died). Though the Abbey is mostly inhabited by the very elderly and the very young, its population gets a boost with the arrival of Janglur Swifteye, another warrior squirrel who comes to the Abbey with Ellayo, Rimrose, and Songbreeze (“Song”), his mother, wife, and daughter, respectively; the Sensational Wandering Noonvale Companions Troupe, a group of wandering performers led by the hare Florian Dugglewoof Wilffachop; the Guosim shrews, whose logboats were stolen by two Marlfoxes and a gang of water rats when the young shrew Dippler fell asleep on guard duty; and the current Skipper of otters, who runs into the shrews in time to tag along.

What starts as a preemptive warning turns into a full-blown war as the six Marlfoxes arrive at the Abbey, which they immediately peg as the kind of place that keeps fabulous treasures in its depths. Their initial skirmishes turn nasty when Mokkan abducts Dwopple, a mousebabe under the care of the Noonvale Companions, and demands a ransom for his return. During the rescue operation that follows, Janglur manages to kill Ziral, ending the battle immediately. The Redwallers’ victory is bittersweet: though they recover Dwopple and eliminate one Marlfox, they also lose several of their friends, including the Guosim leader Log a Log, who is stabbed in the back by a treacherous shrew named Fenno. While the Redwallers are busy with Mokkan’s diversion, Ascrod and Vannan sneak into the Abbey in search of treasure. Dann, Song, and Dippler were left behind as guards, but their youth and inexperience lead to their easy defeat. After knocking out the three guards and murdering Nutwing, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Ascrod and Vannan flee, taking with them the tapestry of Martin the Warrior. In the wake of the theft and the murder, Rusvul angrily berates Dann for his failure to protect the Abbey. With his father’s words echoing in his head (and with some timely advice from the spirit of Martin the Warrior), Dann takes up Martin’s sword, and, together with Song and Dippler, sets out to recover the tapestry. Before they can get even close to the Marlfoxes’ camp, Mokkan captures the runaway Fenno and takes him along as he and a small handful of water rats abscond with the tapestry.

The search for the tapestry takes the kids first to the River Moss, where they join up with a chatty watervole named Burble, and eventually to the shores of the great lake memorialized by Samkim in Abbey records. Their journey is almost ended by Fenno, who escapes Mokkan’s clutches and tries to attack Dippler, but Dippler manages to kill him, thus avenging Log a Log. After a whirlwind adventure, Song is briefly separated from the group when she rescues an injured osprey named Megraw, who has a score of his own to settle with the Marlfoxes and their magpies, but this turns out to be a bit of lucky timing, as she also bumps into her long-lost grandfather, Gawjo Swifteye. A born wanderer, Gawjo went looking for the island of the Marlfoxes out of sheer morbid curiosity but was captured and enslaved, and is the only creature to have successfully escaped the island. In the seasons since his escape, he has adopted fourteen hedgehogs – all of them orphaned by the Marlfoxes – and devoted himself to wiping the Marlfoxes off the face of the earth, but he has always been defeated by a combination of the lake, the pike, the magpies, and the water rat army. With Megraw taking care of the magpies, however, Gawjo and his crew are finally able to land on the island.

Meanwhile, Lantur has been tormenting her mother with a painted bedsheet, which from a distance looks like the ghost of Urthwyte. After driving Silth almost completely insane with her charade, she finally poisons her and coronates herself, but her reign lasts maybe two minutes before Mokkan returns. Finding his mother dead and his smallest sister freshly crowned, he pushes Lantur into the lake, where she is eaten by the ravenous pike, and crowns himself High King Mokkan. Unfortunately for him, all his past sins catch up with him during his unexpected downtime, and it isn’t long before he is consumed by nightmares as vivid as his mother’s. Those nightmares start coming true when Gawjo and the kids free Mokkan’s slaves and stage a coup, completely crushing whatever fighting spirit the water rat army might have had. Mokkan tries to flee the island, but one of his former slaves hurls her chains after him like a hammer throw, sending him straight into the teeth of the pike shoals. With no one left to give them directions, the water rats throw their weapons and armor into the lake, then accept Megraw as their new ruler and settle down to live in peace while Song and her friends and newfound family return to the Abbey.

Back at the Abbey, the remaining Marlfoxes and water rats have been soundly defeated with the help of the local otter crews, and life has returned to its normal state. Dann, Song, and Dippler return with the tapestry on the last day of summer, just as repairs on the Abbey have been finished; Dann reconciles with his father, while Gawjo reunites with Ellayo and Janglur. Dippler becomes the new Log a Log; Song is named the new Abbess of Redwall, and Dann becomes the Champion, as directed by the spirit of Martin. In an epilogue, Rimrose reveals that she and her family and a number of others are settled for good at the Abbey: she has become an Apprentice Recorder under Friar Butty’s tutelage, and the Noonvale companions made one attempt to go on their merry way before their cart completely fell apart and they had to return (indefinitely). It could take them one season to rebuild their cart, or it could take three. You never know.

I don’t know what it is, but I can’t get enough of Marlfox. It isn’t the Marlfoxes, who are fairly standard Redwall villains despite their patchy fur. It isn’t really the main characters, though I cannot overstate how much I loooooooove Cregga Badgermum and the entire Swifteye family. Cregga has settled down with age, but she never loses her edge. She remains, as always, the biggest badass in the series while also being a loving, supportive surrogate mother to generations of Dibbuns. I also really appreciate Jacques’s decision to give us two different warrior philosophies: where Rusvul leans into a more toxically masculine ideal of warriorhood, which eventually takes its toll on his relationship with his son, Janglur takes a much more emotionally intelligent approach in raising his daughter. This might be who he naturally is or it might be the effect of being raised by a single mother or it might be a little of both, but, whatever the case, I am here for it. When Rusvul humiliates Dann in front of a number of other Abbeydwellers, Janglur is the one to tell him that he was too harsh, and that shame is not a good parenting technique. And yet I can’t really hate on Rusvul properly, because he does love his son and he does learn from his mistake, and he does, in the end, tell Dann that he is proud of the warrior he’s become. The picky part of me kind of wishes that their relationship didn’t still turn around their identity as warriors, that Rusvul could also be proud of a son who, say, likes to bake scones every now and then, but, well, that’s just who they are.

If there’s one thing that I wish could be better, in this as well as in other Redwall books, it is the portrayal of the Dibbuns, whose dialogue is at times painful to get through. Their conversations read so much like an adult’s idea of toddler dialogue, particularly in their garbled use of pronouns and their habit of referring to themselves in the third person. I don’t know if British kids talk like this, but I have never heard American children speak the way the Dibbuns do. Not that American children are any better at pronouns – I used to refer to myself as “you,” for instance – but there are parts of Jacques’s dialogue that feel deeply unnatural and almost forced. This is something that has become more pronounced as the series has progressed, and it’s kind of hard to ignore, no matter how cute the little woodlander babies are. The sole exception to this is the molebabes, who speak in the quaint mole dialect, which rather negates my complaints. These aren’t totally serious complaints anyway, because I die every time Dwopple names Mokkan “Mister Stickabee.” What a name. (Of course, Mister Stickabee has a large axe and some anger issues, but there’s no way Dwopple would know that.)

Stickabees aside, I have always remembered this book as being much darker than other Redwall books and I definitely wasn’t wrong, though I also seem to recall that Rakkety Tam will give it a run for its money. Nevertheless, this remains one of my favorite Redwall books, and one of my favorite books of all time, period. There is something so absorbing and so addicting about this particular story, which keeps me turning pages and low-key wishing there were more of it. I don’t like drama as a general rule, but I can never resist the intrigues and betrayals that Jacques always handles so well. Part of the reason I haven’t gotten series fatigue yet – which is, by the way, an extraordinary accomplishment on Jacques’s part when I am about to start book twelve in this series – is that each book has given me a massive Redwall hangover that can only be cured with more Redwall. I dread to think what’s going to happen when I get to the end of the last book and there aren’t any more. Admittedly I don’t remember The Rogue Crew – or any of the four books that came before it – being that great, but times and tastes clearly change. And if I, as an adult, finally made room in my heart for Mattimeo and Salamandastron despite swearing on my ancestors’ graves that I would definitely hate them, maybe there’s room in there for those last five not-so-greats, too.