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.
How many times is too many to recycle the story-within-a-story trope? Not just yet, because I’m still into it. And stories are, of course, the backbone of the Redwall series – not just the literal stories written by Jacques, but the stories told by the characters themselves when they have outgrown their adventures, the stories told about them by others, the stories told about Martin the Warrior and other bygone heroes, all of the stories that have woven themselves into another kind of tapestry. The story of this world. I’ve said in other Redwall reviews that the stories and characters are largely the same from book to book, and I stand by that, but somehow every book feels fresh and new. I don’t care if Jacques just changed the names (or if in some cases – the Log a Logs and the Skippers and the Foremoles come to mind – he didn’t even do that). This remains the best series I have read that was longer than a trilogy, and I will die on this hill.
The Bellmaker begins, naturally, with a story. Many seasons after the actual events of the book, the elderly Rufe Brush and Durry Quill gather a band of Dibbuns together in the Abbey gatehouse on a dark and stormy day. With nothing else to do while it’s storming, they all settle in for a good, long storytelling session, accompanied by the steaming hot bowls of Pearl Queen Pudden cooked by Durry. (Also, note to self: learn how to make Pearl Queen Pudden.) Thus fortified, Rufe begins to tell his tiny audience of a faraway land called Southsward, ruled by the goodhearted Gael Squirrelking and Queen Serena of Castle Floret. Aside from its governing structure, Southsward isn’t too different from Mossflower: it is a land of plenty, and its citizens are happy and peaceful. All of that changes when the fox Urgan Nagru – also called the Foxwolf – and his mate Silvamord sweep into Southsward from the frozen wastes to the north. They arrive at the head of an army of gray rats and quickly overthrow Gael and Serena, making them prisoners in their own home. With the help of loyal otterguard Rab Streambattle and the badger nanny Muta, Serena escapes with their young son, Truffen, but Gael is thrown into the dungeons before he can follow. Knowing that Serena cannot outrun the Foxwolf, Rab and Muta sacrifice themselves in a bloody melee.
Elsewhere in Southsward, Mariel and Dandin have been wandering ever since they left Redwall at the end of Mariel of Redwall, and they are now at the end of their supplies, aside from two inedible oatcakes. After liberating the young hedgehog Bowly Pintips from a pair of weasel slavers, they take all of the weasels’ supplies and continue on their way, but shortly run into trouble again when they rescue the mole Furpp Straightfurrer and his family from a band of the Foxwolf’s rats. One thing leads to another, and, along with a hare calling himself Field Marshal Meldrum Fallowthorn, they end up helping Serena and Truffen escape Nagru’s clutches. While Serena takes shelter with Furpp and his clan, Mariel, Dandin, and Meldrum are arrested by the furious Nagru and thrown into the dungeons of Castle Floret. Following a daring escape, they become trapped on the roof of one of the castle towers, and are rescued in their turn by a small force of otters led by Rab’s bereaved mate, Iris. The rescue goes well until Mariel is captured by Nagru and Silvamord, but she escapes them immediately and makes her way farther into the castle, where she meets Egbert the Scholar, a uniquely well-spoken mole; and she also meets Rab and Muta, who survived the brawl with Nagru’s soldiers but have since suffered amnesia, and now live only to kill rats.
Across the sea in Mossflower country, Joseph the Bellmaker wakes from a dream in which Martin the Warrior told him that Mariel and Dandin are in trouble, and provided him with basic directions in the form of a riddle. (Martin has a well-documented history of being very helpful while somehow also being infuriatingly vague.) As instructed by the riddle, he sets out at the head of a crew including Rufe Brush, Durry Quill, Foremole, and the Honorable Rosemary (“Hon Rosie”) Woodsorrel. With the guidance of the Guosim, they travel down to the shores of Mossflower, where Log-a-Log introduces them to the roguish sea otter Finnbarr Galedeep. Their journey begins with a hijacking: under Finnbarr’s leadership, they steal back his ship, the Pearl Queen, which was stolen from him in the first place by searats. The Pearl Queen‘s crew is easily overthrown, and her captain, Slipp, is marooned by his resentful brother Slapp.
After a handful of misadventures, Joseph’s crew makes it to the shores of Southsward in one piece, and arrives at Castle Floret to find Mariel and her friends on the brink of slaughter by a horde led by Silvamord. During the battle that follows, Rab reunites with Iris and recovers his memories shortly before killing Silvamord. Having retaken the castle, Joseph, Mariel, and their respective groups join the final battle as the Southswarder army raised by Gael takes on the Foxwolf. Caught by surprise by the sheer number of Southswarders rising against him, Nagru slips away when the tide of the battle starts to turn and tries to escape with a select group of soldiers. Joseph’s group catches up with him before he can get to a ship, and Nagru’s retreat is completely foiled when Finnbarr forces him into single combat. Nagru cheats, but Finnbarr manages to ram him headfirst into a tree, killing him instantly. Despite his victory, Finnbarr soon dies of his injuries, bequeathing his prized swords to Rufe Brush and Durry Quill.
Meanwhile, the searat Blaggut, who found himself out of a job when he was unceremoniously heaved over the railing of the Pearl Queen, makes his way to shore and reunites with his disgruntled captain. Slipp, whose nature is fundamentally unappreciative, greets his former boatswain with curses and beatings, and forces him to row them into Mossflower. Eventually they stumble across two wandering Dibbuns, an unnamed mouse (referred to simply as “mousebabe”) and the molemaid Furrtil, and manage to weasel their way into Redwall. The dimwitted, good-natured Blaggut thrives under the well-fed simplicity of Abbey life, but Slipp is convinced that the Redwallers are hiding a fabulous treasure trove. Their stay at the Abbey turns violent in an eyeblink when Slipp learns that there is no treasure, and attacks the mousebabe in a fury. Badgermother Mellus stops him before he can kill the mousebabe, but dies herself when he stabs her.
With nothing left to lose, Slipp grabs the only treasure he can get his paws on – the engraved silver cup donated by Mellus as a prize for the Abbey singing contest – and flees. Deep in the woods, Blaggut finally snaps under Slipp’s continued abuse, and he strangles him to death before returning to the Abbey to return the cup and turn himself in. Despite a full pardon, he chooses not to stay at the Abbey, and instead returns to the seashore to live out his days as a carpenter. The grieving Redwallers bury Mellus with proper ceremony, and later honor her with a memorial feast when Mariel and Dandin finally lead their crew back to Redwall. In the present day, Rufe and Durry tell the Dibbuns that Joseph stayed in Southsward to help rebuild after the Foxwolf’s reign; Egbert the Scholar was given an official title by the royal family, and Blaggut remained a good friend of the Abbey. And, oh, yes – Mariel and Dandin left again in search of more adventures after staying at the Abbey for one peaceful season.
I enjoyed this book, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of the series and I’m not sure why. The writing style bothers me in the same way I was bothered by the writing in Heart of the Sun Warrior; however, this is fairly typical of the series as a whole, and it isn’t the reason I knocked off a star. I suppose the story feels just slightly off because the biggest villain – Nagru – doesn’t have a howling horde of former victims out for his blood. I mean, he does, but it’s not as deeply personal as it was when Matthias killed Cluny, or when Martin killed Badrang, or when Gabool had to go on the run from a whole group of wronged creatures who couldn’t stop fighting over which one of them should get to kill him. The need for vengeance isn’t as firmly entrenched in the story, though the stakes are no lower. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I gotta have my vengeance. Finnbarr gives everything he has to bring the Foxwolf down despite his lack of a personal stake in Southswardian politics, and, while I love him for it, Nagru’s death doesn’t have the same impact it would have had if he had been killed by, say, Gael or Muta or Rab, someone who was personally victimized by him. Everyone was lining up to kill Gabool in Mariel of Redwall, but in The Bellmaker nobody is particularly interested in the job of killing Nagru, and it feels just slightly anticlimactic. This may be mostly because I am pissed that Finnbarr dies, even though I knew it was coming. I will go to my grave swearing that Finnbarr’s death was exactly as necessary as the death of Finnick Odair, over which I am also still salty.
Additionally, I am slightly perturbed by the characterization of Rufe Brush, who is……….quite a bit different from when he was first introduced in Mariel of Redwall. Granted, his character wasn’t really fleshed out, but we at least had enough information to make the Rufe Brush who appears in The Bellmaker a bit jarring. In Mariel, he is described as the strong, silent type, unafraid of searats or at least unafraid of helping his friends get out of danger. In The Bellmaker, he is timid and sheltered, afraid to leave the Abbey and easily startled. He finds a wild courage out on the high seas and is much bolder by the end of the book, but his starting point doesn’t dovetail particularly well with his appearance, however brief, in Mariel. Continuity is something that hasn’t bothered me much so far, aside from the Killconey question, and I think Jacques has done a good job up to this point with keeping his stories and characters straight. Most of the inconsistencies I have seen have been explained to my satisfaction, which is no small feat in a series with this many books. Even so, I wish he had gone completely one way with Rufe’s character or completely the other instead of trying to do both, because this is just confusing.
If we really drill down to the bedrock of my pettiest thoughts, I am probably most peeved by Martin’s habit of speaking in riddles and rhymes when plain, simple speech would serve his recipients better. Every ominous portent doesn’t have to be delivered in verse, MARTIN. Every rescue assignment doesn’t have to be a learning opportunity, MARTIN. And, look, I love Martin, but I’m kinda over the whole “You have to solve a riddle to know what the hell I’m talking about” thing. It is literally so pointless. I suppose it would somewhat kill the mystique if Martin rolled up in Joseph’s dreams and said, “Hey mate, your damn daughter is about to get in trouble again, oh my giddy aunt she is going to stress me into my untimely second grave, she’s in Southsward, you can Google it on the way, you’ll need to get your ship into the Roaringburn if you want to make it there before she gets herself killed, these are the people you should take with you, by the way it might be nice if you stayed in Southsward and helped them out a bit when you’ve rescued that daughter of yours,” but come on. It’s lucky Martin traditionally gives his successors a headstart, because if he’d arrived just a fraction too late Joseph might not have gotten to Southsward in time. All these riddles are kind of a time suck, MARTIN. While we’re on the subject, I don’t think it’s very nice to drop lines like “Five will ride the Roaringburn,/But only four will e’er return” if nobody’s actually going to die, I mean, jeez, Martin. He really is such a drama king. I know “Martin the Drama King” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely as “Martin the Warrior,” but I am not taking that back.
Overall, I have no strong words to describe this book. If it isn’t quite what I wanted, it isn’t exactly disappointing, either. It just feels kind of random, like Jacques threw a bunch of disparate ideas into one pot and mashed them together until they sort of worked. I can’t put my finger on the reason this book feels so much less focused than the others have, given that every Redwall book is packed with events. Maybe I just need a break from this particular period in Redwall history: Mariel of Redwall kicked off the Saxtus period, and it has continued through Martin the Warrior and now The Bellmaker. Now that I think about it, I am very mildly irritated that we’re still here in Saxtus’s time, though I have nothing against Saxtus personally; however, this should be the last of the Saxtus books, unless there are any surprises hidden among the fifteen books I still have yet to reread. I’m looking forward to visiting some other time periods. Of course, having said that, I do have to admit that the next book is Outcast of Redwall, so I may very well end up eating my words when Outcast chews up the last of my patience. Fingers crossed that it won’t be as dire as I think it will.