November 04, 2002

Redwall, by Brian Jacques

If you've got kids of the right age, you've probably heard of Redwall; not only is it a popular and still growing series, but the first book was made into a PBS TV show. That's where David first encountered it, and he was too excited for words to find out that we actually had a copy of the book for me to read to him. It took us the tail end of September, all of October, and the first few days in November, but by golly we did it.

A quick plot summary: the peaceful mice of Redwall Abbey are known all over the countryside for their willingness to help others. But an evil rat, Cluny the Scourge, is coming with his horde; he wants to take Redwall Abbey for his castle. The Abbey was founded in part by the great warrior mouse Martin, who defended it and then pledged himself to peace. Now a young mouse, Matthias, must find Martin's armor and sword, and take up arms to defend Redwall as Martin did. So it's about knights and armor and derring do and battles and brave scouting missions; it's a coming of age story, naturally; and since it's written for kids there's lots of good stuff about the importance of forgiveness and turning enemies into friends. Martin succeeds, of course, and a great celebration is enjoyed by all.

I find I need to approach this review from two points of view, David's, and my own.

David loved it. He was thrilled. I couldn't possibly have had a better audience. If Redwall the novel has any faults, David was immune to them.

Now, my point of view. I bought our copy of Redwall some years ago; I often like kid-lit if it's done well. I liked it, with caveats, but didn't feel at all motivated to by any of the other books in the series.

Nothing about this reading changed my mind. The writing isn't great. The prose frequently edges into the purple; a good editing could make it a much cleaner, crisper read. The plot is rather contrived. The quest for Martin's sword involves hints which require Martin to have been seriously prophetic, for which no decent explanation is given.

The laws of physics get stretched in a cartoon-like way far more often than I like. And no, I'm not being overly critical here. It's one thing if the laws of physics are stretched by magic--that's part of the story. So are talking mice who live in an abbey. But in this case, they are simply stretched to make the story work properly.

I can almost hear the author saying, "Yeah, that's implausible, but the kids won't care."

And he's probably right a lot of the time. But I think that books for younger readers must play fair and follow the rules. The author is free to set the rules; and one of the rules for Redwall is that it's a world more or less like our own. The rules of physics apply. To break them just to make the story come out is an insult to the readers and an unwarrantable liberty on the author's part--the more so as (given its vocabulary) Redwall is clearly aimed at the teen market. These kids are smart enough to notice these things.

It doesn't really read-aloud well, either (most flaws are at their most visible when read aloud), and it doesn't break up into nice chunks for for bedtime reading. You finish a chapter with Matthias in a serious cliffhanger, and it doesn't get resolved until a full chapter later, for example. Plus, the chapter lengths vary widely. I can't really criticize these last two points so much, though, as it just reflects that Redwall is really a book for much older kids.

Now, there's a lot to like here as well. The plot is fine, and the storytelling was adequate. I wasn't writhing in bored horror as I read the tale to Dave. Jacques clearly accomplished what he set out to do. But I really wish the writing was better and the solutions a little less strained.

I believe this was Jacques' first book; it may be that his writing improves in the subsequent volumes. I have every reason to expect that I'll find out...but it's with a sigh of relief that I remember that we'll be starting Prince Caspian tomorrow night.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 4, 2002 08:30 PM

john said:

you should put more information about the book...and not about the author and how it became a great book!!!

ashley said:

the info about the book is very poor, but nice talk about hte author and this great book!