The Sable Quean
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.

Hallelujah and praise the spirit of Martin the Warrior, no comma splices. The writing went steeply downhill with the last three books, but now, in the twilight of the series, it seems to be picking back up again. The same can be said for the story, which is far tighter and better connected than it was in High Rhulain and Doomwyte. I’m hoping this is a trend that will continue in The Rogue Crew: I have so little of this series left, and I really would like it to end on a high note.

The Sable Quean begins on familiar ground. Once named Brockhall, now called Althier, the ancestral home of Bella of Brockhall has become a lair for a murderous sable named Vilaya, the self-titled Sable Quean, and her horde of Ravagers. Backed by fellow sable Zwilt the Shade and an army 200 strong, Vilaya settles into Althier and begins to plot her eventual conquest of Redwall. Though Zwilt runs the business end of things, Vilaya has a fearsome, almost mystical reputation owing to a tiny dagger dipped in adder venom, which she uses to ambush her enemies. Unfortunately for her, this is the extent of her combat skills, and lately Zwilt has begun to contemplate a change in leadership, especially as he and Vilaya have very different opinions on the best way to conquer the Abbey. Nevertheless, he bides his time and faithfully carries out Vilaya’s admittedly absurd plan of abducting as many young woodlanders as she can, under the theory that the Redwallers will surrender the Abbey as a ransom for their young ones. As of the beginning of the story, their prisoners include the Guosim shrew Midda and her infant brother Borti, an otter named Flandor, and a squirrel named Tura.

Several leagues away (supposedly – the scale of the map is not clear), Badger Lord Brang Forgefire finds himself dealing with the amiably disrespectful Blademaster Buckler Kordyne, a gifted swordsbeast who lacks any notion of hierarchy. Despite – or perhaps because of – his talent, he is dreadfully bored, and he also harbors resentment over the inheritance of his grandfather’s medallion and badger-forged broadsword, both of which went to his elder brother Clerun, who left the Long Patrol to become a farmer. Both his boredom and his resentment are a major problem in the militaristic environment of Salamandastron, but Brang can easily see that Buckler needs something more challenging than the regimental routine of the Long Patrol, and he packs him off on a character-building sabbatical. Accompanied by his best friend, the grossly overweight Subaltern Meliton Gubthorpe Digglethwaite (“Diggs”), Buckler sets out first to deliver a pair of new bell ropes to Redwall Abbey, and then to visit Clerun and his family. Along the way they meet an aggressive Guosim shrew named Flib (originally Petunia Rosebud), runaway daughter of Log a Log Jango, who joins up with them after they rescue her from two stray Ravagers; and they also befriend the Witherspyk Performing Players, a family of hedgehogs led by the jovial Oakheart Witherspyk and his wife Dymphnia.

What starts as a meeting of friends quickly turns into a crisis when Flib is abducted from their camp in the middle of the night, along with the hedgehog twins Jinty and Jiddle. While Buckler, Diggs, and the Witherspyks team up with Log a Log Jango and the Guosim to find their missing children, Flib and the two little hedgehogs are taken to Althier. Here Flib reunites with Midda and Borti, her two siblings, and – despite her incredible ability to rub just about everyone the wrong way – begins to formulate an escape plan for all of them. However, digging a tunnel is easier said than done, and an unexpected collapse prompts Vilaya to have the children moved into a room with harder walls, unaware that Flib and two others have been rescued by warrior mole Axtel Sturnclaw. With Axtel’s help, Flib and the two little moles find safety in the den of grandmotherly water vole Mumzillia “Mumzy” O’Chubbacutch, where they stay while Axtel tries to free the others. He does manage to grab a couple more, but the rest are caught by Vilaya’s guards, and – with no way of knowing that their guardians have formed a joint force to rescue them – discover a second tunnel and make a desperate break for freedom. Shortly after the jailbreak, the growing tension between Zwilt and Vilaya erupts into outright war when Zwilt orders the murder of Dirva, Vilaya’s trusted counselor. Their final showdown ends with Vilaya seemingly dead, and the newly unencumbered Zwilt assuming command of the Ravagers.

Elsewhere, Buckler’s stake in the hunt for the missing children becomes intensely personal when he runs into his sister-in-law Clarinna, who tells him that Clerun was murdered by Zwilt the Shade. After challenging Clerun to an unwinnable duel, Zwilt took his medallion and broadsword, then abducted his two infant children on his way out the door, leaving Clarinna alone and badly injured. Buckler vows to avenge his brother and retrieve the children, but is forced to shelve all rescue plans when Zwilt and the Ravagers march on the Abbey. Meanwhile, Diggs becomes separated from the main party after an unsuccessful attempt to locate the remaining children, who have already escaped on their own, and is accidentally abandoned at Althier. As seems to be usual for him, his staggering incompetence bears unexpected fruit when he stumbles across Ambrevina “Ambry” Rockflash, a young badgermaid who left home following some fateful dreams of Salamandastron but has since gotten lost. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start, but their differences are quickly set aside when Ambry explains that she has been looking for her friend Flandor. Together they set out to find Flandor and the rest of the abducted children, and (despite a mutual absence of tracking skills) eventually discover that the kids unwittingly bartered their freedom away to a crazed hedgehog named Triggut Frap. Ambry and Diggs easily rescue the kids and neutralize Triggut, only to learn that Flandor is long gone, killed by Vilaya. With nothing else to do, and knowing that the Abbey is currently a war zone, they drop off the kids with Mumzy before joining the others in the battle for Redwall.

While the bulk of the Ravagers try to break into the Abbey from the front, Zwilt and a few others manage to climb over the wall, but the clever stealth of their plan is somewhat undermined when Zwilt gets sidetracked by the food in the kitchens. After a violent altercation with Diggs, who catches them with their paws in the cookie jar, Zwilt tries to return to his mission but is caught in the Great Hall by Buckler. His dreams of conquest suffer a hard death when Clarinna stabs him in the back with the sword of Martin the Warrior, and he dies without ever realizing that Vilaya – nursed back to health by one of Zwilt’s former accomplices, who turned on him when he casually sent her mate on a suicide mission – has returned and taken command of the Ravagers once more. Vilaya doesn’t outlive him by very long: the battle for the Abbey is decisively settled when Ambry and Axtel give in to their respective Bloodwraths, and the Ravager army is completely smashed. Afterwards Ambry pursues the fleeing Vilaya and catches up with her easily enough, but is robbed of the joy of taking her life when Vilaya accidentally falls onto her own venom-coated dagger.

With the Abbey saved and the children reunited with their families – or adopted by the Redwallers, as case may be – Buckler tries to give Clarinna the medallion and sword he recovered from Zwilt, but she refuses, telling him that she will raise her children in peace at the Abbey. Buckler keeps the medallion and gives the sword to Ambry, and even begins to train her in its use before he and Diggs escort her to Salamandastron, where she will become the next Badger Lady after Brang steps down. (As for Diggs, he suffers a brief identity crisis after his encounter with Zwilt, but Oakheart and Dymphnia reset him with a good whack to the head, and he quickly goes back to normal, minus one ear. But Oakheart’s mother knits him a new one, so it’s all good.) When the dust finally settles, Abbess Marjoram writes to Lord Brang to thank him for the bell ropes, and also to let him know that Clarinna and her children are thriving among their new community, which now includes Axtel, Mumzy, and the Witherspyk family. She ends her letter with an open invitation to Brang and the Long Patrol, who she hopes will visit the Abbey soon.

I have other thoughts, but I feel like I need to take a moment here to memorialize Redwall’s first and only mole warrior. I have a soft spot for giant muscle mountains who turn out to be cinnamon rolls, and Axtel is no exception. (But also, I feel like a mole with a six-pack would be an impressive sight.) I love how quickly he daddies up after meeting two of Redwall’s molebabes. He’s introduced as a loner, but it takes a literal second for the molebabes’ fight to become his fight, and it’s great. Axtel aside, I have been pleasantly surprised by the characters in this book: where the last three books suffered from casts whose members were largely unmemorable, this one is more in line with my general expectations. Per usual, I don’t love every character, but I love enough of them for the rest to squeak by. I don’t even mind Diggs, who is a textbook hare – there are some issues with boundaries – but still manages to be comically endearing. Buckler is more generic, and I wish he had had a little more personality; but on the other hand, I really love Clarinna, mostly because she takes up the sword of Martin and skewers a villain. My one wish is that this hadn’t been reframed as the work of Martin the Warrior. Even if Clarinna was supposed to be a gentler character, I was perfectly content to think that she grabbed the sword and made a Zwilt kebab completely of her own initiative. The last-minute attribution to Martin totally steals her thunder, though I do love that she settles into Abbey life and starts a gardening and nature study class for the Dibbuns.

Unfortunately, I am a little disappointed with Vilaya as a villain, because she doesn’t do much. Her role is limited to giving orders and a couple of poisonings; other than that, she’s mostly a figurehead. She doesn’t even get a final showdown with Zwilt, because they die without ever laying eyes on each other again. Honestly, I kinda wanted to see Zwilt’s face when she came back from the grave. If nothing else, she really knows how to make an entrance. The scene of her resurrection is fantastic, but it doesn’t lead to much of anything, besides a desultory final attempt to conquer the Abbey. I would have liked her better if she hadn’t been so reliant on her poisoned dagger. I almost wish we’d spent less time with her; though she is important, she only matters because it’s her name on the cover. She would have been more interesting if her character had been combined with Zwilt’s, that is, if Zwilt had been eliminated and Vilaya had been her own commander instead of delegating the role to others. The synopsis makes it sound like she’s deadlier than Zwilt, but, given how close he comes to killing her, this is very clearly not the case.

I also wish Triggut’s role had been either cut or reduced, because he’s fucking annoying. He adds a few extra wrinkles to the kids’ stories and gives Diggs and Ambry something to do, but this doesn’t seem necessary. I would resent his existence less if he had gone headfirst into the shoals of hungry pike surrounding his island. And, as with High Rhulain, the fact that I am having violent fantasies about any of the characters is not good. Even if Triggut gets the beating of his life from the very angry kids, it doesn’t feel like enough. I’m assuming he’s going to get free at some point, which means he’ll be able to get off his island and take advantage of more vulnerable creatures over and over and over again until he is permanently stopped. I maybe wouldn’t have let Midda kill him in cold blood the way she wanted to, but would it really have been asking too much to have Diggs punt him into the river? And while we’re at it, can we fix the amnesia thing? No disrespect to Jacques’s memory, but Triggut’s story and Diggs’s head injury feel more like filler than anything else. Amnesia and head trauma are not a joke, and the fact that both are used for comic relief is troubling, especially when the cure is so easy. As with Loamhedge, the resolution of Diggs’s injury seems just a little too convenient. If all Jacques wanted to do was package it up with a bow, what even was the point of injuring Diggs at all?

With all that being said, this is still the best of the final five so far, and – based on the first 29 pages of The Rogue Crew – I suspect it’ll stay that way. The story is tight and the writing is good, and the characters are mostly lovable, though I still want to push Triggut off a cliff. There are a few things I would’ve liked to tighten up, but there always are. I am notoriously difficult to please, and I think it bears repeating that Jacques’s ability to keep me coming back for more and more and more is currently unmatched. I seriously can’t get enough of this series. It isn’t perfect and there are definitely parts of it that haven’t aged particularly well, but on the whole it is cozy and funny and comforting and just so sweet, and that’s really all I care about.