Friday, February 26, 2010

The Sable Quean (Redwall)

By Brian Jacques, illustrated by Sean Charles Rubin

Philomel Books, 2010

$23.99, ages 12 and up, 368 pages

What happens when two battle-crazed hares, one an expert with a sword, the other a champion with a spoon, set off for adventure in Mossflower Wood and run into a pack of vermin that is up to no good?

A rousing good tale of good versus evil, with plenty of breaks in the ruckus for plum duff and cordial, ditties and marching tunes, and a riddle to aide our humble heroes in uncovering what is hidden.

In this splendid 21st book in the epic, best-selling Redwall series, we find yet another vicious band of no-gooders trying to upset the bucolic world of the squirrels, otters and other gentle woodlanders of Mossflower.

Buckler Kordyne, a brave warrior hare, has been sent away from the mountain fortress Salamandastron with his food-guzzling scout Diggs to figure out what he wants from life when he stumbles upon a sinister plan to steal away Mossflower's young ones and take over Redwall Abbey.

Until now, the woodlanders had been enjoying peace in Mossflower and believed the days of battling their enemies the Ravagers were over -- which made for a pleasant time inside Redwall, but had amounted to a dull life for Blademaster Buck, who hungered for adventure.

Salamandastron's Badger Lord could see that young Buck was frustrated with teaching sword fighting; Buck disparaged it as "playing at being a warrior" and was acting rebellious. So the Badger Lord ordered him to take time off to travel with his trusted assistant, the hare Subaltern Digglethwaite, Diggs.

Buck is told to travel to his brother's farm and along the way to stop by Redwall to give the Abbess Marjoram a gift of new ropes for its bell tower, but the closer the young swordsman and his chunnery friend get to the monastery-like Redwall, the less tranquil the countryside seems to be.

First they run into a scoundrel fox and weasel trying to kidnap a shrewmaiden named Flib then meet up with a family of actors, The Witherspyk Performing Players, whose raft has run aground and before there's time to help them refloat the raft, the family's hedgehog twins and Flib go missing.

Hoping that the gentle folk at Redwall may have seen the little ones, Buck, Diggs and the Witherspyk family decide to head downstream to the abbey, aided by an army of compassionate Guosim shrews who lash their longboats to the side of the raft and join in the paddling.

But at Redwall, the news is bleak: two more babes are missing there as well. A vermin caught inside the refuge confesses that a vixen known as Vilaya the Sable Quean and her ruthless warrior Zwilt the Shade are sending Ravagers into the woodland to steal young ones.

Unless Buck, Diggs and the woodlanders can find Althier, an underground cave where the children are hidden, before a horde of Ravagers descends upon the abbey, they could lose Redwall, and worse yet, their young ones. But who is this mad hog Triggut Frap doing prowling around the babes?

It will take all of the good creatures in Mossflower, including its late savior Martin the Warrior mouse, a warrior mole, an old volewife and a heavy-handed badgermaid, to save the day.

The Sable Quean was a delight from the moment I opened it. I loved how richly the Mossflower world was imagined, from the woodlanders' brogues to their savory feasts and ballads. But the greatest draw for me was observing the animals interact, the banter that goes on, the harmless jabs, the camaraderie.

I had this strange and wonderful feeling that I was there too -- that the gentle folk had laid out a welcome mat for me to join in their adventure, a figurative pat on the back and boisterous "Over here, friend," before passing a scone and leading me along on their quest.

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