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.

It may still be early in the series, but this is a damn sight more like it. As much as I liked Redwall, Mossflower has the cozy vibe that I look for when I reach for this series. This is exactly the kind of book I can imagine reading on a cold, rainy weekend while I’m baking a cake/casserole/cookies/anything that can fit into a baking dish, which actually is kinda making me wish I’d held off on my reread until fall. Any other 22-book series would probably be at least a twelve-month commitment, but I’ve found that the Redwall books go really quickly, so I may not get my wish this particular year, but I suppose I can try to slow down a bit, if only to have a couple of them left when fall rolls around.

Mossflower is the first of three books in the entire Redwall series to cover the life of Martin the Warrior exactly as it was, before it became the stuff of legends for generations of mice. At the point that Mossflower begins, Martin has already lost his father (The Legend of Luke) and the love of his life (Martin the Warrior), and he has seen more battles than probably any one creature should ever see in a lifetime. Carrying nothing but the clothes on his back and his father’s battered sword, Martin has been wandering for quite some time without too much trouble, or no more than he already saw in Martin the Warrior. Unfortunately for him, his wanderings bring him to Mossflower country, which is currently suffering under the iron-fisted regime of Verdauga Greeneye, a tyrannical wildcat who has set up shop in a crumbling castle called Kotir. Arrested for trespassing, Martin meets briefly with the dying Verdauga and his adult children, who all have different ideas on how trespassers should be treated. After her father countermands her execution orders, Verdauga’s daughter Tsarmina breaks Martin’s sword and gives him the hilt to wear around his neck before he is thrown into prison. Verdauga had originally ordered that Martin be left in the prison only temporarily, but he is assassinated that same night by Tsarmina, who then frames her gentle-hearted brother Gingivere. Gingivere is thrown into a cell a few doors down from Martin, and Martin’s own fate becomes uncertain at best. Forgotten by the world above them, both are left in their cells with only minimal food and water during a long winter.

While Martin and Gingivere rot in their cells, Tsarmina has a rocky reign ahead of her. The woodlanders who used to live in the shadow of Kotir have fled into the woods to take refuge with a badger named Bella, whose ancestral home (Brockhall) has become a place of sanctuary. This means Tsarmina has no subjects to provide her army with food, and her rapidly dwindling larders are not helped by the fact that a young mouse named Gonff, the self-styled Prince of Mousethieves and a member of the brewing woodlander rebellion, has been sneaking into Kotir to steal back the food that the woodlanders have already paid in tribute to Verdauga. He is finally caught in the spring after Martin’s arrest, but Tsarmina’s lazy guards put him into Martin’s cell to lighten their own workloads, and he and Martin quickly become friends. After a short stint as cellmates, they are rescued by the rebels, known collectively as the Council of Resistance in Mossflower (Corim). Though there are fewer trained woodlanders than Kotir soldiers, almost the entire local population has united against the wildcats under the leadership of Skipper, an otter chieftain, and Lady Amber, a squirrel queen. The rebellion is rounded out by a handful of mice fleeing distant Loamhedge Abbey, which was decimated by a terrible plague; their Abbess Germaine is an old friend of Bella’s, and, though none of them are fighters, they help feed the warriors and care for the wounded. With the arrival of spring, the woodlanders don’t lack for food, and they get along quite nicely out of reach of Kotir.

All of this adds up to a very unhappy picture for Tsarmina, as Corim finds a million ways to defy or annoy her without ever coming close enough to be captured. Worse, her army is bogged down with incompetent officers and uppity soldiers, and their ranks are regularly thinned by an aging eagle named Argulor, who – though he lusts after Ashleg, a battered pine marten in Tsarmina’s service – is perfectly happy to make do with whatever soldiers he can grab. Even the abduction of a pair of baby hedgehogs ends in Corim’s favor: in rescuing the hedgehogs, they also rescue Gingivere, who later becomes a farmer and offers his home as a secondary sanctuary when Brockhall’s safety is in jeopardy. (Gingivere even finds a wife, Sandingomm; their final descendant is Squire Julius, whom Matthias meets in Redwall.) Desperate for victory, Tsarmina allies with Bane, an ambitious fox at the head of a crew of ragtag mercenaries, but quickly comes to regret it. Nevertheless, they do manage to score a single victory against Corim, unaware that the woodlanders have been digging tunnels to flood the lake beneath Kotir. Of course, this relationship doesn’t pan out either: Bane wants Kotir and Tsarmina wants to keep Kotir, and it doesn’t take long before they’re at war with each other as much as with the woodlanders. Tsarmina finally gets the win she wanted, albeit not against Corim, when she tricks Argulor and Bane into killing each other. In the immediate aftermath of Bane’s death, Tsarmina seizes control of his army, but her victory is short-lived as she descends further and further into hydrophobic paranoia, convinced that she can hear water dripping somewhere in the depths of Kotir.

Meanwhile, Martin and Gonff, along with a mole named Dinny, join Bella in her quest to find a map to Salamandastron, the volcanic stronghold of badger warlords since time immemorial. It is currently under the command of Bella’s father, Boar the Fighter, but, though Salamandastron was fully garrisoned in his father’s time – more on that when we get to Lord Brocktree – Boar is served by only a handful of fighting hares. (Badgers rule and hares support them; it has always been thus.) Bella has not seen her father in many years, but hopes to convince him to return to Mossflower country to defeat Tsarmina once and for all. To this end, the four of them search Brockhall from top to bottom, eventually finding a set of directions written in the form of a song. Armed with this sort-of map, Martin, Gonff, and Dinny set out for Salamandastron, leaving behind Bella, Mossflower, and Gonff’s sweetheart Columbine, one of the Loamhedge mice. Along the way they are joined by Log a Log Furmo, a lonely shrew who knows exactly where they’re going and guides them the rest of the way. Unfortunately, finding the mountain is only half of the battle: at the time that Martin and co. arrive, Boar is embroiled in a years-long war against the sea rat Ripfang, his most hated enemy, whom he is fated to destroy. Unable to answer his daughter’s plea to return to Mossflower to defeat Tsarmina, Boar reforges Martin’s sword from a chunk of fallen star and teaches him some of his own fighting techniques shortly before Ripfang’s horde surrounds Salamandastron.

While Boar fulfills his destiny, Martin and his friends steal Ripfang’s ship and return to Mossflower along with six of Boar’s hares, an entire army of shrews, and Ripfang’s freed oarslaves, including Martin’s childhood friend Timballisto (also referred to as “T.B.,” which is a truly unfortunate nickname). Together with Bella, Skipper, and Amber, Martin gives Tsarmina an ultimatum: leave or be driven out. Following Tsarmina’s violent refusal, Corim diverts the River Moss and floods Kotir, leading to the total collapse of the castle. In the panicked exodus that follows, Tsarmina tries to abandon her army to its fate, but is caught by Martin. After a nasty battle, he manages to force her back into the water, where she drowns. The victorious woodlanders banish the remains of Tsarmina’s army from Mossflower country; Martin is found and nursed back to health, Gonff marries Columbine, and Abbess Germaine begins the plans for the building that will become Redwall Abbey. At the very end, long after Boar’s death, the hares of Salamandastron greet the arrival of Sunflash the Mace, son of Bella and heir of Salamandastron.

This is exactly what I want to read when I pick up a Redwall book. There are no hints of the real world, no references to the devil or horses or anything else that might pull me out of the world of Mossflower country. The food is getting better. Like, I’m sorry, but the marinated cabbage stalks served at the Abbot’s Jubilee in Redwall really did not sound appealing. On the other hand, I happen to know that Jacques will do a deep dive on the food in future books, so I have much to look forward to. I suspect Mossflower was the point where Jacques threw all real-world references to the wind and made the series all about the animals and the mildly unrealistic foods they consume, and this was absolutely the right direction to take. I’m not even going to ask where the woodlanders get their milk and cheese without a cow in sight, because I simply do not care. I will note that later in the series the characters start drinking “greensap milk,” which I assume is vegan, but I didn’t question the dairy products when I first read the series and I sure as heck don’t plan to start questioning them now. I am perfectly comfortable assuming that vegan milk, cream, and cheese can be taken for granted in this world.

And, though it was still a minor distraction, I didn’t spend as much time working up a headache while trying to figure out the size of the characters relative to the world. I can’t say the physical scale is perfect – there were a couple of moments that made me wonder – but overall the world seems more crisply defined in this book. I don’t consider it quite classically Redwall in the way that books like The Long Patrol and Marlfox would be, but it’s getting there. Earlier in my life, I thought that Mossflower was closer to my least favorite Redwall books if not exactly among my very least favorites, and now I have no idea why, because I thoroughly enjoyed this reread. Maybe it’s the distance; maybe it’s a change in general taste. Whatever it is, it’s really making me wonder what I’ll make of the books I hated, which included MattimeoSalamandastron, and Outcast of Redwall, along with the final five books in the series, whose plots I don’t remember at all. Maybe I’ll love them this time around; maybe I’ll tear them to shreds on this blog. Either way, I’m looking forward to finding out.