Shady Hollow
Juneau Black

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Fall 2023: In which I desperately try to cure my Redwall hangover by reading any book that sounds sort of similar, i.e., any book in which animals are the protagonists. (Next on my list: rereading Watership Down, even if the general consensus seems to be that it’s pretty fucked up.) This one looked particularly promising because it sounded like a Redwall-themed murder mystery, though it didn’t, in the end, quite work out that way.

Everything begins with a quiet village called Shady Hollow. Though small and somewhat lacking in a few more specialized services, the village is fully self-sufficient: its industry is built around the sawmill owned by Reginald von Beaverpelt, who provides the bulk of the jobs in town, and it is nominally regulated by Deputy Orville Braun, a large brown bear who regularly stands in for Chief Theodore Meade (also a bear, usually out fishing). It has a coffee shop called Joe’s Mug, run by the moose Joe Elkin and his son Joe Jr., and a newspaper; and it is also home to Nevermore Books, a bookstore built into a repurposed silo by the raven Lenore Lee, conveniently located across the street from Joe’s Mug. There’s even a vegetarian Chinese restaurant owned by new arrival Sun Li, a panda with a past. As a whole, the village is so safe that none of its residents seem to have locks on their doors: despite some light burglary by Lefty, the resident raccoon, everyone is happy and thriving, and crime is almost unheard of.

The village’s crime stats take an unexpected hit the morning Gladys Honeysuckle (hummingbird, busybody, and gossip columnist for the Shady Hollow Herald) finds the body of argumentative toad Otto Sumpf floating belly up in the mill pond. Stunned by her discovery, Gladys wings her way to the Herald office, where she spills the beans to coworker Vera Vixen, who – though unabashedly nosy – is a top-notch investigative reporter. After taking a look at the scene for herself, Vera proceeds to the police station, where she reports Otto’s death to Deputy Orville. What starts as a mysterious but apparently innocuous death takes a sharp turn into a murder investigation when Orville discovers a knife embedded in Otto’s back. While Orville seems determined to scapegoat Lefty, whose non-violent criminal record doesn’t actually suggest a capacity for murder, Vera begins to investigate von Beaverpelt, who is widely known to have quarreled with Otto over ownership of the pond. She is assisted by Lenore and the scholarly owl Ambrosius Heidegger, but their investigation grows more complicated when von Beaverpelt turns up dead himself, leaving his wife Edith as his successor and throwing the sawmill – and, by extension, a large chunk of the village – into turmoil.

As she feels her way through the chaos, Vera initially butts heads with Orville, but over time they begin to team up as they realize their case is far larger than they had imagined. The case grows more sinister when Vera begins to receive death threats from an anonymous source, and, though she orders a lock for her front door, she never truly feels safe. Meanwhile, Edith proves to be an uncooperative witness in the wake of her husband’s death, while her teenaged daughters Anastasia and Esmeralda start snooping around on their own. Everyone seems suspicious, but at the same time every theory seems to lead nowhere: von Beaverpelt is dead and seems to have been having troubles of his own, Sun Li turns out to be a former doctor who was banished from his home, and Lefty is more interested in odd jobs and jewel theft than murder. After a fair bit of witness-wrangling and boulder-dodging, Vera realizes the murderer is Ruby Ewing, a sheep of exceedingly loose morals, just in time to get kidnapped by her.

The most sensible option is clearly to push Vera off a cliff before anyone can intervene, which is why Ruby takes her to a cottage at the top of a cliff and then launches into a fairly standard villain monologue in which she candidly explains that she only meant to murder von Beaverpelt before he could tell the police she was blackmailing him over their past affair. Otto was simply unlucky: he drank the poisoned wine that was meant for von Beaverpelt, and that was the end of him. To keep anyone from suspecting he was poisoned, Ruby stuck a knife in his back and then let events take their course, and she would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling fox. After her villain reveal, Ruby tries to kill Vera before she can write up their conversation in the Herald. The ensuing fight moves them out of the cottage and right up to the very edge of the cliff, naturally in the middle of a thunderstorm. Vera survives the encounter; Ruby slips over the edge and plunges to her death.

In the aftermath of Ruby’s fall, life begins to return to normal in Shady Hollow. Despite some mild injuries, Vera publishes an article detailing the end of the case, then eagerly signs up to cover a local spelling bee. As a sorely needed dose of good news, Edith von Beaverpelt promotes her husband’s former accountant, a timid mouse named Howard Chitters, to sawmill director, thereby laying all sawmill-related worries to rest. At last, when it looks as if the village’s murder days are solidly behind it, Vera and Orville go out on a date, sending the gossip mills into another hysterical spiral.

I came out of Legends & Lattes wanting to open a coffee shop, but clearly I was wrong. I now want to move to Shady Hollow. I don’t even know what I’ll do. I just want to live in this cozy little village where everything is within walking distance and nobody seems to own a car, though admittedly I’m not sure how Vera moved to the village in the first place. I don’t particularly care either way. The writing could be better, but the story is exactly what I wanted when I picked up the book, even if it is a bit predictable. (Ruby’s reveal was not as surprising as I think it was meant to be, by which I mean I was not surprised at all.) I even love the opening chapter, in which the village is described before any of the characters are formally introduced. Give me all the cozy details. I want to know everything. That prologue could’ve been twenty pages long and I still would’ve eaten it up and asked for more. As for the physical scale of the world: I am surprisingly unbothered by the idea of a mouse ordering coffee from a moose. The relative sizes of the characters don’t bother me here the way they did in Redwall, and, though the authors take pains to plead suspension of disbelief before the story even gets started, I have no problem assuming the characters are sized on a scale similar to humans.

This is both good and bad: good in that it didn’t distract me from the actual story, bad in that the characters don’t quite scratch my Redwall itch. There are people on goodreads who have tagged this book as middle grade, and for the life of me I have no idea why because it is very much an adult read. (Not that that would have stopped middle school me, who read the very inappropriate Xanth series and thought nothing of it, but anyway.) I’ve gotta admit that I’m not really onboard with the interspecies relationships, which are slightly weird and did drop me out of the story a little bit. I’m having a hard time accepting a sheep getting it on with a beaver. Again, this comes back to the physical scale of the world, but I did just say that I’ve been picturing these critters as more or less human-sized, so I guess it’s fine as long as they’re happy and not killing each other. I am curious whether such unions will produce children in later books. That might be a little too much, but I will be interested to see how the authors handle that, if they handle it.

That being said, I am disappointed with the mature tone of the book – not because I object to mature themes in general, but because the characters feel too human. I am having trouble buying into the keystone of this world – that is, that animals evolved in a way that mimics humans, who presumably do not exist – when the characters seem less like woodland creatures and more like humans in animal suits. And to be completely fair, the Redwall characters also act like humans, but this is mitigated by the strength of Jacques’s world-building. The animals are an inextricable part of the world created by Jacques, and every story would be completely different if they were replaced by humans. Shady Hollow, on the other hand, is looser and harder to sink into, and the characters could reasonably be transfigured into humans without the story shifting significantly. The animals feel less like a building block of the world and more like a cute gimmick to distinguish the series from other cozy mysteries. I mean, it is what it is, but in a book that is so reliant on a strong vision, it’s a bit of a letdown.

To be honest, I really can’t put my finger on the reason my brain is rebelling against the world of Shady Hollow. It can’t just be the maturity of the themes: the Redwall series also dabbles in some darker topics, among them alcoholism, abuse, and murder. Whatever the case, the vibe is just slightly off, and it is somewhat disorienting when all I wanted was an enchanted forest murder mystery. For the record, I am glad that the characters are not human; the book wouldn’t be as good if they were. This is only the first book in its series, and, while I don’t expect the themes of subsequent books to decrease in maturity, I am looking forward to seeing how the authors develop this world. I still wish the characters were less human, but I consider this a decent first installment, and the authors definitely left themselves room to play around with the setting. I am now in possession of the other three books, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Vera gets up to next.