Pearls of Lutra
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.
As per usual, this was a complete surprise. I genuinely have no idea why I thought this would be a two-star read going in, except that I had scant memories of it from childhood/earlier adulthood, beyond a vague recollection that I thought it was dull. I have nothing to say in my own defense, but I think we’ve got a great argument for giving books a second chance. I am so glad I decided to reread the series in its entirety without just skipping to my remembered favorites. As a bonus, this book marks the beginning of my favorite period in Redwall history, which begins with Pearls of Lutra and runs through Taggerung. My next several reads are going to be good ones.
Pearls of Lutra captures an unusual time in the Redwallverse, in that it marks the first – and possibly only – time the main villain has teamed up with lizards, which otherwise are usually left to their own devices. The Emperor Ublaz is a tyrannical pine marten, a former corsair who rules the tropical Isle of Sampetra and the surrounding waters with an iron fist. He is backed by a horde of monitor lizards led by the savage Monitor General Lask Frildur, and an army of trident-wielding rats led by Chief Trident-rat Sagitar Sawfang. Though few are brave enough to say as much to his face, Ublaz is called Mad Eyes behind his back owing to his hypnotic powers, with which he controls both armies and anyone else foolish enough to look into his eyes. Over the last several seasons he has turned Sampetra into a hub for corsairs, as he holds a large stockpile of the lumber necessary for ship repairs, and the shores are lined with taverns for the corsairs to visit. All of this comes at a price, of course: in exchange for the amenities, Ublaz leverages a heavy toll from every corsair who lands on his island.
You’d think he had it all, but he is in fact consumed with greed: for all his wealth, he lusts after the Tears of all Oceans, a set of six perfect rose-tinted pearls owned by the otters of Holt Lutra. Desperate to obtain the pearls by any means necessary, Ublaz sends Conva, a corsair captain, to murder the otters and steal the pearls. The raid is successful, but for two problems: the weasels Graylunk and Flairnose steal the pearls and escape into Mossflower Woods, and Conva and his crew unwittingly leave a sole survivor, Grath Longfletch, daughter of Lutra. Nursed back to health by a pair of taciturn watervoles, Grath crafts a powerful bow and a quiverful of green-fletched arrows, and sets out to avenge her slaughtered family. Meanwhile, Graylunk and Flairnose get away scot-free, but they soon get into a fight over the pearls, which ends with Flairnose giving Graylunk a crippling head wound before getting stabbed to death. The dying Graylunk lives just long enough to get taken in by the good creatures of Redwall Abbey, and, though his mind is broken, he manages to pass the pearls to his one friend, an elderly squirrel called Fermald the Ancient.
A few seasons removed from Graylunk’s time at the Abbey, the young hedgehog Tansy and the squirrelbabe Arven find their pleasant afternoon picnic interrupted by a rainstorm. Their day is further disrupted when they stumble upon a bare skeleton in a crack in a bank of sandstone, and, terrified, they get thoroughly lost in the woods before being found by Martin the Warrior, son of Mattimeo and Tess. During the investigation that follows this disturbing discovery, Martin and his co-investigators have a chance encounter with the wandering hare Cleckstarr “Clecky” Lepus Montisle and his friend, a barn owl named Gerul, and they invite them back to the Abbey, where Abbot Durral identifies the skeleton as Graylunk. From the books kept by Redwall Recorder Rollo the bankvole, they learn that Graylunk warned Fermald that Ublaz would come looking for the pearls. Fermald heeded his warning and hid the pearls around the Abbey before passing away herself, leaving a series of cryptic clues for anyone who might need to find them later.
This need arrives faster than anyone anticipated, as Ublaz sends a full crew headed by Lask Frildur and the ferret Romsca to force the pearls out of the Abbey. Instead of retrieving the pearls, which are not forthcoming, Frildur abducts Abbot Durral and the young bankvole Viola before fleeing Mossflower. Viola is rescued by a party led by Martin, but Frildur and Romsca manage to hang onto Durral, and they take him back to Sampetra. Martin and his crew follow promptly, accompanied by Grath and some of the Guosim shrews. Along the way they meet a large pod of friendly seals, and also befriend the holt of Wallyum Rudderwake, a clan of otters who have settled in a hollow rock in the middle of the sea. Here Grath meets Inbar Trueflight, the gentle-hearted son of Wallyum, and they are instantly drawn to each other. After some much-needed rest, the Redwallers finally arrive at Sampetra in time to find Ublaz deserted by the Trident-rats and currently in the middle of an ugly insurrection spearheaded by a corsair fox named Rasconza. With a lot of fighting and a bit of luck, the Abbot is rescued mostly unharmed, while Ublaz is accidentally killed by his own venomous pet snake. The Redwallers set out for home, and Grath returns to Holt Rudderwake to live with Inbar.
Back at the Abbey, Rollo and Tansy begin an earnest hunt for the pearls, knowing they may need to ransom their Abbot. They are joined in their quest by the squirrelmaid Craklyn and her best friend, the mousemaid Piknim, and are alternately helped and hindered by the walking stomachs more generally known as Clecky and Gerul. Though they are successful in the end, the pearls bring them more loss than gain: Piknim dies while attempting to retrieve the fourth pearl, and Gerul is badly injured when he tries to protect her. With the need for a ransom mooted by the safe return of the Abbot, Tansy realizes that the pearls are tainted with violence and death, and she flings them into the sea to prevent any future fighting over their ownership. Following the instructions delivered in his dreams by the original Martin the Warrior, Durral names Tansy the Abbess of Redwall, making her – as far as I can tell – the first non-mouse to serve as Abbot or Abbess. In a brief epilogue, Craklyn reveals that she has become the new Abbey Recorder in Rollo’s place; Viola Bankvole has become the new infirmarykeeper, though her remedies are questionable, and the Abbey is, as always, flourishing.
If Salamandastron made me long for a reformed corsair or somesuch, Pearls of Lutra came so close to delivering that I could shriek. I know Romsca and Graylunk have done despicable things. I suffer no illusions on their behalf. But I genuinely wish that Graylunk could have been in his right mind when Fermald got hold of him. I wish he could have vowed to make up for his past evils and enjoyed Abbey life, and I wish it hadn’t taken a good crack on the head to make him a better creature. I have similar wishes for Romsca, because lord do I love her. She’s rough-mannered – she is, after all, a corsair – but she becomes surprisingly protective over Viola and Durral, and even seems to take a liking to Durral’s gentle ways. She protects him until the day the tensions between the lizards and her corsair crew erupt into violence. She does this without being asked, and she never expects anything in the way of repayment. With her last breaths, she tells him how to get the crewless ship to land, and she thanks him for comforting her in her final moments. She may have started out as a villain, but she never seemed that bad to me, and I hate that she dies. (On the other hand, I love that she takes Frildur with her on her way out the door. I would follow her into battle.)
Of course, some Redwall villains are better than others, and this is one case where I would say that the main villain is less compelling than the side villains. I would rate Ublaz at about the same level of blandness as the Urgan Nagru. Even if the battle at the end of this book was more personal than the one at the end of The Bellmaker, it somehow seemed lower-stakes and I’m not sure why. It may be because the hero characters spent very little time with the villain, and thus did not have the foothold for a genuine emotional investment. Where other Redwall books have twined heroes and villains in ways that make their stories more difficult to separate, Pearls of Lutra features two completely separate stories that – though closely related – never quite touch until the very end. I would also have liked some sort of explanation on the significance of the pearls. It’s not clear how Ublaz learned about them in the first place, or why they seem to hold such power. He feels that the pearls will solidify his authority as the Emperor, but there’s no obvious rationale other than the tiresome refrain of dictators everywhere: “I want it!”
All of that aside, however, this book was an excellent stepping stone to the delights that await me in The Long Patrol and Marlfox, which are and always have been two of the stand-outs in the series. As ever, I love the food and the setting and all the good creatures of the Abbey, though I will jump out a dormitory window before I let Sister Cicely get her warm nettle broth into my mouth. I love the progression of time in this series: while Pearls of Lutra proceeds directly from Mattimeo, there is just enough space between books to keep the story and the world fresh and interesting. This is something that tends to be lacking in the Abbot Saxtus sub-arc, whose books follow one on top of another with no breathing room between. I prefer it when the characters grow between books, rather than having three books in a row with exactly the same line-up. It’s been a while since I’ve read The Long Patrol, so I’m not sure how far in the future it is – Tansy is still the Abbess, but, given the events at the end of the book, I suspect Auma will have moved on by then – but I know it’s going to be a good one, and I can’t wait to get started.