BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Brian Jaques
1994, Ace Books
Filed Under: Fantasy, Young Adult.
The Redwall books were among my favorites when I was actually a young adult reading YA books. Salamandastron stands out in my memory because it was the first I ever read. I remember first seeing the cover with the badger holding the spear, and just lighting up. I was a pudgy little dork who really liked Watership Down and the Final Fantasy games, so this book screamed awesomeness to me. I wasn’t let down, and I devoured the rest of Jacques’s books with ever-increasing voracity.
I still have all my Redwall books. The covers are worn, the pages yellow and tattered. They’ve survived moves from apartment to apartment, been lent out and miraculously returned more than once. I’ve always said I would revisit them at some point but never did. When Brian Jacques died in February, I finally decided to return to them. My initial thought was to hit the three core books (Redwall, Mossflower, Mattimeo), but then I saw that cover again and knew it had to be Salamandastron. Just look at that badger –he’s not some goofy Looney Toon. He stands there in armor, holding his pike and helmet and seeming, well, somber.
These books are full of high adventure and comedy, scores of wonderful characters, and, as many who read them will remember, long and mouthwatering descriptions of epic feasts full of creative foods. They’re also filled with death and loss.
Like many of the others in the series, Salamandastron concerns peaceful anthropomorphic critters (mice, squirrels, hares, moles, otters, badgers) besieged by a horde of villainous vermin (rats, weasels, stoats, foxes). A few unlikely heroes emerge: Samkin, a young squirrel from Redwall Abbey, quests after the treasured sword of Martin the Warrior which has been stolen by rogue stoats; Mara, a recalcitrant badger girl, storms out of the mountain fortress Salamandastron only to be captured by the horde of plunderers and murderers led by Ferahgo the Assassin , an infamous weasel brigand; Thrugg the otter and Dumble the baby dormouse trek to the mountains of the north in a race against death.
Jacques is an excellent story teller: the plots of his books are always crisp and perfectly succinct but take just enough detours and twists to keep the story exciting. Everything ties up perfectly. The two stoats who stole the sword (deserters of Ferahgo’s army) manage to infect the inhabitants of peaceful Redwall with a plague called Dryditch Fever. Samkin takes off after them while Thrugg and Dumble seek medicinal flowers from the dangerous mountains to the north to save the dying residents of Redwall.
Meanwhile, Ferahgo’s clan has surrounded Salamandastron, convinced it houses great stores of badger treasure. They take Mara hostage, but she escapes and seeks help for her embattled friends. Salamandastron is lead by the great badger warrior Urthstripe (presumably it’s him featured on the cover), and inhabited by a battalion of fighting hares. (Every species has its own idiosyncrasies and the hares, who speak like Tommy Atkinses and have bottomless appetites, are my personal favorites.) The plot follows the various characters’ paths and ultimately winds into satisfying crescendo.
Jacques’s ken for creating dynamic characters despite being completely polarized to either good or evil is testament to his ability as a storyteller. Ferahgo is wonderfully villainous. He has no redeeming qualities, yet he’s one of my favorite characters. Other creatures are so purely good you’d either hate them in real life or at least assume them Mormon. But it all fits perfectly in the world he creates. There is a balance to Jacques’s world, there are rules.
But, done right, that’s exactly what makes a great children’s story. You know from page one that the good guys will be knocked down, almost lose, then win in as heroic a fashion as possible. The fun is in the ride, in getting caught up in the excitement and adventure. Turns out that 18 years later, I still found myself able to do just that. Thanks, Brian Jacques.
Similar Reads: Redwall (Jacques), Mouse Guard 1152 (Petersen), Watership Down (Adams)