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.
Now we are coming to the end, or at least to the point in the series where I have run through all the books that I know like the back of my hand. This is a bittersweet place to be: bitter because I do not have fond memories of the final five books, sweet because all of my favorites have absolutely held up. While I wish I had paced myself a bit better and kept a couple of my old faves for fall-reading purposes, I am pleased that I haven’t yet run out of Redwall books to read. My Redwall hangover is going to be atrocious, and I suspect I might try to cure it by reading one or two of my favorites all over again. Thus we come to Rakkety Tam, which is both one of the best books in the series and the last of what I think of as the old guard, i.e., the last book before Jacques started to run out of steam.
The story begins on a storm-tossed ship in the middle of the sea as the wolverine Gulo the Savage pursues his brother Askor all the way down from the vicious northern lands. He has already murdered his father, Dramz, but Askor fled with the Walking Stone, the symbol of the wolverines’ power. Backed by a hundred-beast army of white foxes and ermine, Gulo crashes his ship not far from Salamandastron, and finds himself on the shores of Mossflower. Unbeknownst to Gulo, Askor is long dead: he just barely managed to hide the Walking Stone somewhere in Mossflower Woods before he got flattened by a tree, and his body will likely never be found. His death would have gone unremarked but for the presence of Hitheryon Jem and Wandering Walt, a hedgehog and a mole who followed Askor’s tracks out of sheer curiosity and sat with him during his final moments. Though he refused their friendship, he told them the location of the Walking Stone (in rhyme, of course – this is Redwall), and also invited them to eat him upon his death. After this disturbing encounter, Jem and Walt make their way to Redwall Abbey, where they relate their story to Jem’s cousin, Father Abbot Humble.
Not too far from the site of Gulo’s shipwreck, the warrior squirrels Rakkety Tam MacBurl and Wild Doogy Plumm get themselves tossed into squirrel prison when they refuse to participate in the vanity parade organized by their liege lords, Squirrelking Araltum and Idga Drayqueen. The parade goes forward as planned, but what should have been an innocent, idyllic afternoon turns to screaming horror when the squirrels are massacred by Gulo and his army. Freed from their prison, Tam and Doogy visit the remains of the attack, and realize that Gulo’s army eats its victims. The appallingly self-absorbed Araltum and Idga care less about their devoured subjects than they do about the royal banner stolen by the vermin, and – under considerable duress from his irate wife – Araltum reluctantly agrees to release Tam and Doogy from the oaths they swore to him if they bring the banner back. With freedom at their fingertips, Tam and Doogy set out to retrieve the flag and avenge their fallen companions, but they don’t get far before they are forcibly abducted by the grieving hares of the Long Patrol and taken to Salamandastron.
Here they meet the Badger Lady Melesme, who tells them that eight of her young hares were ambushed on the beach while playing a large drum that was intended as a gift for Redwall Abbey. Despite their rocky start, Tam and Doogy join up with the Long Patrol as they leave Salamandastron under the command of Brigadier Buckworthy Crumshaw and Sergeant Wonwill. Along the way, they befriend an injured vermin-hating goshawk named Tergen; and they also meet the Guosim shrews, who eagerly join in on the vermin-hunting, and the appropriately named Yoofus Lightpaw, a kleptomaniac water vole. Their quest takes an unexpected turn when Tam meets Sister Armel, Redwall’s young Infirmary Keeper, who brings him the sword of Martin the Warrior after receiving a prophetic vision from the mouse himself. Martin’s purpose appears to be twofold: the girls are charged with delivering Martin’s legendary sword to Tam, who is the next chosen Champion of Redwall even though he doesn’t know it yet, but it also pushes him into Sister Armel’s arms and sounds the wedding bells. (Martin is apparently a warrior first and a wingman second.)
Meanwhile, Gulo continues to drag his army all over Mossflower, unbothered by the losses inflicted by the woodlanders and convinced that Askor and the Walking Stone are hiding in the Abbey. As he grows increasingly erratic and violent, his minions begin to think about a life without wolverines, which culminates in two separate attempts to take the Abbey: one by the runaway minions, one by Gulo after the minions have all got themselves killed. After all this drama and upheaval, it seems almost fitting that the Walking Stone, this concrete representation of absolute power (at least as far as these particular wolverines go), is in fact a little tortoise who likes to eat and walks on a leash. Adopted by Yoofus’s wife Didgety and renamed Rockbottom, the tortoise formerly known as the Walking Stone is brought to Redwall just in time to be spotted by Gulo’s few surviving soldiers, who take this as tentative evidence that Gulo may be right about Askor.
The inconclusive war between the woodlanders and the vermin finally comes to a head when Gulo kidnaps Doogy en route to the Abbey, threatening to kill him if he does not get what he wants. Knowing that Gulo is obsessed with finding and killing his brother, Tam challenges him to single combat, telling him that he killed Askor and took the Walking Stone from him. After a vicious, bloody duel, Tam finally manages to throw Gulo onto the sharpened edge of his shield, which beheads him upon impact. With the vermin wiped out, Tam and Doogy happily settle down as the two newest Redwallers. Tam and Armel get married, and fifteen seasons later Armel marches them back to Araltum and Idga’s little kingdom to finally return the royal banner that sparked their original quest. They are accompanied by Melanda, daughter of Tam and Armel, who at fourteen or fifteen is already an accomplished swordbeast and the Recorder of Redwall, and she documents the entire trip in her writings. (As for Araltum and Idga, they and their barrel-bottomed son Roopert are spontaneously deposed when they finally release Tam and Doogy from their service, and Armel throws their crowns into the sea.) With the oath finally fulfilled, the Redwallers move on to Salamandastron to visit Lady Melesme and the Long Patrol before going home to the Abbey.
I’ve never thought of it in quite these terms before, but Rakkety Tam is the best buddy comedy in the Redwall series despite a little light cannibalism. (I say “light” because the vermin are never seen eating members of their own species, but I somehow don’t think they would draw any lines.) Tam’s relationship with Doogy is lighthearted and hilarious without being shallow. Doogy’s grumbling slays me every time I read this book, particularly when he dubs Martin the Warrior “Martin the Destroyer o’ Weapons,” and then again when he calls Roopert a “bold wee barrel-bottomed babe.” I also love Tam’s relationship with Armel, whose occasional bossiness he adores. I low-key love that he only returns the royal banner because his wife makes him, and I really love that it takes him fifteen seasons, which makes me feel slightly better about my own procrastination problem. The characters in this book are some of my favorites in the series, and, though Yoofus’s compulsive thieving got on my nerves pretty quickly, I didn’t mind him too much after a while. The payoff is worth it in the end, because during the epilogue he steals Doogy’s sword and the banner, then gets such a scolding from both Didgety and Armel that he has to return them immediately.
Earlier I said that Rakkety Tam would give Marlfox a run for its money in terms of being one of the darkest books in the series, and I do have to stand by that. Jacques doesn’t shy away from the cannibalism, though, as I say, it isn’t really cannibalism. But it is also a lot funnier than I remembered it being, and the humor and the characters keep it from becoming completely grim. Even Gulo has his moments: he’s not the brightest candle and he kinda knows it, but then he loses all his best advisors and he has to think for himself, and he just throws caution to the winds and goes for it, so, like, good for him. (Not really, but you know what I mean.) While I wish we had some more background on the Walking Stone, such as the reason one little tortoise became the symbol of a ruling family, vermin have a well-documented history of latching onto all kinds of strange things to shore up their authority, so I can’t really ding the book for that.
Overall, I have no complaints and no deeper thoughts about this book, which after the adulthood-related devastation Loamhedge wreaked on me is honestly kind of a relief. I am hoping that the series won’t crash and burn during the final five books, which would be a sad finish to this almost year-long project. Yet even if it ends with a fizzle rather than a bang, I won’t be too mad. Rakkety Tam is a wild, hilarious, joyful ride, and if this is to be the last of the Redwall books that I love beyond all reason, it sure gave the series a hell of a send-off.