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.

Welp, apparently I stand corrected. Going into this reread, I thought this was going to be a two- or three-star read for me, because I did not like Mattimeo growing up. I really leaned into the “Matt the brat” angle, and I thought Mattimeo, as a character, was insufferable. I can see where I was coming from as a child, but as an adult I can tell you that he’s actually not that bad. If you felt the same way, give him a chance. He gets better.

Set eight seasons after the events of RedwallMattimeo begins with Orlando the Axe, a massive badger warrior and the somewhat vaguely titled Lord of the Western Plains. He has been raising his young daughter solo ever since his wife passed three winters ago, but frequently has to leave her alone in their home while he forages for food. This has never been a problem before, but during his latest trip his house was pillaged by a crew of slavers led by a masked fox, and his daughter abducted. Homeless and driven by rage and hate, Orlando treks across the countryside with one goal: to kill the fox who stole his daughter.

Elsewhere, life at Redwall Abbey continues quite as usual, though there have been some changes. The order is now headed by Abbot Mordalfus (“Alf”), who was named successor to the late Abbot Mortimer; John Churchmouse is the Abbey recorder, replacing Methuselah. Churchmouse twins Tim and Tess are in charge of the Matthias and Methuselah bells, and Matthias and Cornflower have become parents to Matthias Methuselah Mortimer (more generally called “Mattimeo” or “Matti”), a fuzzy little troublemaker if ever there was one. I mean, if I had a name like that, I’d probably be a brat too. His intentions are not malicious and he genuinely does want to live up to his father’s image, but those are some big boots to fill, and everyone in the Abbey has spoiled him senseless since the day he was born. His latest disgrace revolves around his seemingly unprovoked attack on Abbey newcomer Vitch, but this is only one in a long line of sins, the combined weight of which have given his parents enough gray furs for a lifetime. Of course, this isn’t the same as saying Vitch is innocent, which he isn’t. While Mattimeo faces the wrath of his parents, the Abbey elders, and Constance the badger, Vitch slips out of the Abbey to make his report to Chickenhound, miraculously surviving son of the two-timing vixen who tried to bamboozle Cluny the Scourge in Redwall.

The seasons have not changed Chickenhound for the better. After surviving his own execution, he gave the Redwallers accurate information on Cluny’s plans, but then ransacked the Abbey and accidentally murdered Methuselah on his way out the door. His flight from the Abbey might have been successful if he hadn’t walked straight into the adder Asmodeus, whom Matthias later slew with the sword of Martin the Warrior. When we left him, he was contemplating changing his name to “Mousedeath,” but in this present he is calling himself “Slagar the Cruel.” The venom in Asmodeus’s fangs has left his face permanently disfigured, and he now wears a mask that covers most of his head. In the seasons since the summer of Cluny, he has carved out a little niche for himself as a slaver, leading band after band of temporary minions to the south to sell young woodland creatures as slaves in the kingdom of an aged albino polecat named Malkariss. His ultimate goal is to become some kind of supreme ruler, beginning with the lands he expects to receive from Malkariss in exchange for his services; and he intends to take his revenge upon the Redwallers, whom he blames for every single thing that has ever gone wrong in his life. (We’re not really sure why, the Redwallers aren’t really sure why, even Slagar himself probably isn’t 100% sure why. The venom made him crazy. Let’s just move on.) In service to both his vengeance and his future power, he therefore has an ambitious target in sight: he will abduct the children of Redwall and spirit them away to a place where their parents will never find them. To this end, he has recruited a fresh band of minions – all of whom he intends to lose upon the way – and has sent Vitch to the Abbey as the first stage of his plan. Vitch is an unusually small rat who can pass more or less as a mouse, and in this disguise he is the perfect spy and accomplice.

At first the plan seems to go off without a hitch. Slagar and his band arrive at the Abbey in the middle of a feast, masquerading as circus performers, and put on a dazzling show. They also drug all the drinks, so most of the Abbey’s population is fast asleep when the slavers make their move. After abducting the Abbey children – a group that includes Mattimeo, Tim and Tess Churchmouse, Sam Squirrel, and Cynthia Bankvole – they hit the road, heading south fast while also laying a false trail for the parents to follow. During their long journey south, Mattimeo and the others befriend Auma, daughter of Orlando, and Jubilation “Jube” Stump, a young hedgehog abducted from a large clan. Escape is almost impossible: Slagar seems to have everything thought out and always feels he is at least ten steps ahead of everyone else, though the parents are not nearly as far behind as he thinks they are, and the kids have plans of their own. While the kids plot their escape, Matthias sets out from Redwall with Jess Squirrel and Basil Stag Hare, relentlessly tracking Slagar from the gates of the Abbey all the way to the distant south. They informally adopt a young otter named Cheek along the way, and later join up with Orlando, Jabez Stump (Jube’s father), and Log-a-Log and his army of Guosim shrews. Though they start their journey with almost no official direction other than south, information is later brought to them by Queen Warbeak, leader of the Sparra, and her warriors. Their reunion is brief and bitter: the Sparra arrive in time to see the woodlanders on the point of massacre by a large army of rats, and they sacrifice themselves to turn the tide.

From there, the journey goes somewhat more smoothly: armed with the map and the instructions Warbeak brought them, the woodlanders make their way into a sprawling wasteland, drawing ever closer to Slagar and his band. Everything works out in Slagar’s favor, however, and he manages to hustle the kids into the realm of Malkariss, built from the ancient ruins of Loamhedge Abbey. Shortly before their arrival, he sows the seeds of dissension among his surviving band, then sneaks off in the night with the slaves, taking only Vitch with him. The abandoned bandmembers were then supposed to turn on each other and fight to the death, but a handful survive long enough to spill the beans when the parents catch up with them. After releasing the band and warning them never to come back, the woodlanders descend into the ruins of Loamhedge, where they find an enormous underground kingdom run by a cult of creepy robed rats. In the battle that follows, they lose several friends, including Log-a-Log, who lives long enough to free the kids from their prison cell. The odds seem overwhelming, but the woodlanders’ tiny army is swelled by the slaves that Matthias frees, and they manage to drive the rats away. And after all that struggle and sacrifice, it turns out that Malkariss is about a million years old and confined to a basket, intimidating only because he has a giant statue that projects his voice, too weak even to defend himself when his own slaves rise up and stone him to death. In the aftermath of Malkariss’s death and the complete destruction of his kingdom, Slagar reemerges just long enough to taunt the Redwallers one last time before falling into a newly made mini-gorge, where he dies.

Meanwhile, Redwall is left undefended, at least from a flying vantage, and an army of birds descends from the north. They are led by a large raven calling himself General Ironbeak and his seer Mangiz, a crow who has served as his faithful advisor for several seasons. After taking over the attic spaces formerly inhabited by the Sparra, they declare war upon the Abbey itself, but find they have bitten off more than they can chew when the Redwallers fight back. Mangiz’s sight is clouded by frightening visions of a warrior mouse, and, to make matters worse, this mouse seems to be a ghost who can haunt the birds at will, which is terrible for morale. The ghost is in fact Cornflower, who saw an opportunity and has been having the time of her life putting on Matthias’s armor and terrorizing the birds, but the birds obviously don’t know that. After a long and increasingly nasty siege, things turn in the Redwallers’ favor when they rescue Stryk Redkite, a large kite with a broken wing. Delighted with her renewed gift of flight, Stryk slaughters Ironbeak when he attacks her favorite nurse, leading to a resounding defeat for the rest of his army. The surviving birds are driven out, and the Abbey is back to normal by autumn, when Matthias and Mattimeo return, accompanied by friends new and old, and the bulk of Malkariss’s former slaves. As the newcomers are welcomed to the Abbey, Basil officially adopts Cheek (who, despite being an otter, takes after Basil in endearing ways, even renaming himself Cheek Stag Otter); Orlando and Auma settle at the Abbey permanently, and Mattimeo and Tess marry, and have a son named Martin.

Despite my initial doubts, I really enjoyed this book. It hooked me right away with its opening chapter, and, though my little autofill spoiler mechanism came back on just like it did with the first two books, it didn’t ruin the book for me. I like that my memories of the books come back to me while I’m reading them. It’s like coming home. I didn’t mind Mattimeo the character nearly as much as I did as a child: yeah, he’s a bit of a brat and he’s got some anger issues, but these don’t last as long as I remembered them lasting, and he begins to grow out of them pretty quickly. He has to. In general I just love all the characters; some are more fleshed out than others, but I know who they all are, and I never get confused. I particularly like the expanded roles of some of the female characters, especially Cornflower, who is less prominent when she is first introduced in Redwall (though she does blind a rat with vegetable soup when he tries to get onto the wall of the Abbey from a siege tower, and I respect the hell out of that). She remains a kindly mousewife, but she has an edge to her that prevents her from becoming weak, and she always looks out for those who need protection more than she does. Constance and Winifred the otter are similarly badass, and even quiet Mrs. Churchmouse surprised me, though I really wish she had a name besides “Mrs. Churchmouse.”

And, per usual, I love that Jacques keeps leaning harder into the all-animals world, and that mice are no longer the sole members of the order of Redwall. How dull these books would be if the world were predominantly inhabited by mice. Mossflower country is a hodgepodge of mice, moles, otters, squirrels, hares, hedgehogs, and more, and that’s exactly the way it should be. Birds are often antagonistic, but they can just as easily become new friends: Mattimeo sees the arrival of the first resident Redwall owl, Sir Harry the Muse, who speaks almost exclusively in verse. In general – and excluding the narrative attitude towards verminous species, which will no doubt be the theme for my Outcast of Redwall reread – I love the Redwallers’ genuine inclusivity. They can’t wait to invite new friends through their gates and offer them food, shelter, sanctuary, medical care. Matthias invites an entire army of freed slaves back home with him, and nobody bats an eye because this is exactly what is expected of a Redwall resident. As of the epilogue, the former slaves have been fully integrated into the Redwall community, and they are now considered brothers and sisters of the order. Even if they had chosen not to join, the Redwallers would still have given them whatever they needed and wished them well. Hardly anything ever happens to discourage this kind of generosity (except, again, the entire plot of Outcast of Redwall), and even if it did they would still keep doing what they’re doing. They’re not kidding when they say they’ll give assistance to anyone who means them no harm; they even shelter Chickenhound for a short time, though they know he is untrustworthy. I mean, this is one instance where it maybe wouldn’t have wrecked their reputation as an order of healers if they’d exposed him on a hilltop and left him to die, but, you know, they’re good creatures and they had to at least try.

As a more general comment upon the world of Mossflower, Redwall and Mossflower weren’t quite Redwall-y enough for me, but Mattimeo is where Jacques really begins to get into his stride. This book marks the first use of the word “beast” in place of “one”: “anybeast” instead of “anyone,” “nobeast” instead of “no one.” Time is now marked by the passing of seasons, rather than years; and as for the physical scale of the world, well, it’s still weird. (Quite possibly I am never going to get over this.) I have decided that the mice are definitely mice and the birds are definitely birds, and the world is custom-fitted to their sizes, and a gallon would be sized on a rodent-based scale. Look, I’m a mess. I explain myself slightly better in my Redwall review if you really want to know. All the same, this does make me feel somewhat better, because I am a nut and this really bothered me. Now that I’ve got this so nicely settled in my mind, maybe I’ll even be able to let it go by the time I get to Mariel of Redwall.