Mossflower

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for Redwall. You can read my review of this novel [here].

For tonight’s review, I think it’s time to take another nostalgic look at one of my childhood favourites. Redwall was an epic series of middle grade fantasy novels that was published between 1986 and 2011. It ran for twenty-one books and the series only ended due to the author’s death. The series focuses on a medieval society of woodland creatures, in which the good creatures are forced to fight against those that would enslave them. For the purpose of this review, I am going to be looking at the second book – Mossflower (1988) – only.

The creatures that live in Mossflower woods have long been oppressed by the wildcat king – Verdauga Greeneyes – who rules over them from the impenetrable fortress of Kotir. While their lives have always been hard, things are about to get worse when Verdauga is poisoned by his ambitious daughter, Tsarmina. The wily wildcat is quick to pin the crime on her brother, sentencing him to a life of imprisonment as she assumes her place as queen. Ruthless and psychotic, her first command is to crush any resistance and bring the creatures of Mossflower to heel.

It is truly fortunate for the woodlanders that Martin the Warrior happens to be passing by. When Tsarmina destroys his cherished sword and throws the mouse into Kotir’s dungeons, he swears that he will have his revenge. It is not long before he befriends Gonff – a light-hearted mouse thief – and through him learns of Corim (the Council of Resistance in Mossflower). When the rebels orchestrate a gaol break, Martin is more than happy to dedicate himself to their cause.

Yet victory will not be easy. Tsarmina has an army of rats, weasels, ferrets and stoats at her disposal, while the woodlanders are scattered and small in number. It will take a great leader in order to be able to unite them all and assure their victory. On learning of the location of the legendary badger lord – Boar the Fighter – Martin sets out with a small band of allies to find him. Yet they must hurry. Corim cannot remain hidden forever and, if Tsarmina finds them first, there will be no hope of victory…

While I did quite enjoy my re-read of Redwall, I must admit that I struggled to get to the end of Mossflower. The story this time takes the form of a prequel, set far before the first instalment of the series. The character of Martin the Warrior does appear in the first book in the form of the dreams of his distant ancestor, Matthias, but this time Jacques gives us a chance to see the warrior in his prime and learn how he became part of the abbey’s history.

While the previous book has a central hub in the form of Redwall itself, in which most of the action takes place, Mossflower has a much wider scope. While a majority of the story flits between Kotir and the Corim base at Brockhall (ancestral home of the badgers), Martin’s lengthy quest explores a lot of the surrounding countryside. From wild rivers, to crab-infested shores, to a volcano stronghold; Mossflower certainly spends a lot of time setting a grand and varied world with lots of potential for future adventures.

The world-building this time around also felt a lot tighter than before. The inconsistencies in scale seem to have been addressed, as all of the creatures now seem to be of similar size. There are also no hints of human settlements this time around, removing the odd implications that Redwall set with the existence of the farm and its domestic animals. Instead of this, the reader is treated to glimpses of a whole host of new animal colonies in the woods. These include caves full of peaceful bats, brutish tribes of toads, and frightening carnivorous fish. The novel also contains more of an indication that religion does exist in this world. Although the abbey is still oddly non-secular, the animals frequently do make references to the “Dark Forest” where they will go after death, indicating that they do at least have some belief in an afterlife.

While the novel does carry the same charm as Redwall, I unfortunately felt that it let itself down in how unfocused it was. While the story sounds very simple – a mission to free the woods from the rule of tyrannical wildcat – it was frequently derailed by distractions. An early plot line shows the villains almost reaching Brocktree, yet a small setback causes them to retreat and they never try again. After a while, even Tsarmina seems to forget about obliterating the resistance as she gets caught up in a plot cul-de-sac of her own, trying to outwit a mercenary fox who appears from nowhere to set his sights on her throne.

This lack of a clear goal is also a problem for Corim. They know that they must defeat Tsarmina, but don’t actually settle on a way to do so until very late in the story. When Martin sets out for the volcano Salamandastron in search of allies, the chapters which focus on his Corim allies show that they basically do nothing until his return. This contrasted sharply with Redwall, in which the inhabitants of the abbey were always active and fighting Cluny the Scourge, even when Matthias was not present.

After about a hundred pages of this, I was beginning to find the story a little tiring to read. Although there were a lot of scenes of Corim planning, the fruits of their labours were not seen until the final thirty pages. At this point, the pace suddenly sped up dramatically. However, at the same time, victory seemed to come far easier than it did in Redwall and at a much lower cost. There is no open conflict or prolonged battle between Martin and Tsarmina. Everything is resolved so quickly that the construction of the abbey seems to be little more than an after-thought.

In terms of characterisation, I was also left feeling very disappointed. There was virtually no time spent in developing characters, despite the fact that the novel had an enormous cast. The only real development of note was that Martin did keep his word to have revenge on Tsarmina. All other characters were particularly flat and did not have anything memorable about them. Tsarmina’s rotating selection of generals were all totally interchangeable and the woodlanders were never given any time to truly shine on their own as they generally acted as a unit.

While there were more female characters this time around – including Bella the badger, Lady Amber of the squirrels and obligatory love interest Columbine the mouse – they still did not really ever get any time to shine as the action was mostly focused on Martin and his friends. The secondary cast this time also contained a large number of moles, which have become a personal pet hate of mine. Moles in Redwall all speak with thick Yorkshire accents, which are written phonetically and always take me out of the action as I try to decipher what they are saying!

I was also very disappointed by the character of Tsarmina, as she was nowhere near as developed as Cluny the Scourge. Tsarmina as basically just a psychopath, lacking in cunning or the ability to form strategies. While I was initially pleased that Jacques portrayed wildcats to be a neutral race, as Tsarmina’s brother Gingevere becomes an important ally to the rebels, this did not really add anything to the tale. Tsarmina barely interacts with Gingevere over the course of the story and he is not even present to witness her downfall.

Anyhow, I think that about sums it up. While I did really enjoy reading Redwall again, I found Mossflower to be a big disappointment. It shared many of the problems that its precursor had, but was also bogged down by poor pacing. Here’s hoping that Mattimeo will bring this series back on form.

Mossflower can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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