So, for the past few months, I've been reading through the Redwall books. I grew up with the books, though my sister was really the one that read them. However, now that I'm older, I've established that I want to be a writer, and I've gotten nostalgic, I decided to go back through them, all twenty-two. As of this moment, I've finished the front half and I'm just recording my thoughts here before I start on the second.
For those of you who don't know Redwall, someone described it as Lord of the Rings with mice. This isn't a bad summary, but it also misses a few things. Basically, Redwall is a generational epic: the story of the various creatures of Redwall Abbey and the lands surrounding. The plots are pretty standard: some vermin causes trouble, a hero rises up to stop them with the oblique help of the ghost of Martin the Warrior and his indestructible sword. Along the way there are colorful characters, riddles, and a lot of focus on food. The books, at least in the early days, were great critical successes, and the first one in particular has garnered some attention as an animated series and a stage musical.
It's a landmark series. Before Harry Potter, it was the book that proved children could stomach books of 300+ pages and some pretty intense scenes of combat. It and me have disagreements, though.
Fans of the series, let me just say there's a lot to like. A lot of effort's clearly gone into the setting, and you get the feeling this is an established world without going into too much depth. The situations the characters find themselves in are pretty good, too, and is actually pretty clever on several occasions. There's also some good humor. However, the tension doesn't tend to last very long, and the villains tend to come off ineffective as a result. And that's not including the many times in the series that vermin are treated as inherently evil, which is spelled out so bluntly that it's more than a little uncomfortable.
Don't get me wrong, though. There's still a bunch of stuff to like in the series. As a writer, I've actually gotten a few ideas out of it, which I just love to ponder over. That doesn't excuse a lot of its flaws, though. I'm going to be reading the series twice, once after I've already finished the series, so that my thoughts will be accurate. However, this time around, I want to focus on first impressions. Thus (and since I wanted to do something), here's a ranking of all the Redwall books I've read so far, from worst to best:
This is a little unorthodox, I'll admit. Most fans don't start hating books until a little later, but I couldn't help myself. Remember when I said that Redwall books have a problem with holding tension? Well, that's on display in force here. The villains have a water rat that makes traveling by river difficult? Good guys happen to have a pike that kills the rat. Bad guy has an army? Good guys have untrackable squirrel archers. The worst part of this is a scene with a crab, where a fight against an armored juggernaut just turns into a joke. And then there's Gonff. I get the impression a lot of people in the fandom like him, and I think I get why: he's that sort of confident, unflappable kind of person like Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly but he's just too unflappable for my tastes in some of the worst places. He feels a little too unrealistically prepared. The nail in the coffin is that the plot thread featuring the focal character goes a long way just to ultimately come to almost nothing. The villainess is pretty interesting, and the good guys' ultimate plot is one of the coolest and most inventive I've ever seen, but that doesn't save the rest of the story.
10. Outcast of Redwall
I wanted to like this one. Unlike Mossflower, the plot is basically OK and it can actually hold onto tension. The premise is interesting: what happens when a vermin is raised by goodbeasts and a goodbeast is effectively raised by vermin? Even better when the goodbeasts were recently tyrannized by vermin. The problem is that the story doesn't seem to want to actually explore its own central question. So it cops out in a way that hangs like a musty smell over the whole story. It turns out being raised and abused by vermin does effectively nothing to your personality. Worst of all is Veil Sixclaw, the titular character whom we don't even meet 'til halfway through. And the story just goes out of its way to describe how evil he is because he's a vermin. This sinks him because he's unpleasant and the abbey dwellers because they expound something so unpleasant. Make a few changes, make Veil a little more sympathetic and give him a little more focus, and you'd have one of my favorites in the series. As-is, though, this is just unpleasant.
We're out of unpleasant territory now, and we've simply moved into the 'meh' section. There are a few problems here, though. Jacques has a tendency to not really discipline the dibbuns (children), so they tend to get pretty bratty. And this one has one with a bow and arrow and very few problems shooting them at random. Though at least this time he gets to see the consequences when someone else does it. There's another disconnected plot, this time involving a plague. On the plus side, we've got two vermin who (while lazy and incompetent) are sincerely interested in joining Redwall (even if it doesn't end well). This stuff could've been engaging, but it just didn't click with me.
8. Martin the Warrior
This one was made into its own animated series, and it's OK. Just OK. The villain's a joke and the heroes succeed way too early and way too much. You've also got a travelogue style story with the title character and they go through some interesting locations, but the main characters aren't really that interesting. They do one thing at the end and it's done pretty well, but there really isn't much else in this story. There's a brief moment with a b-character and a rat, but that doesn't go anywhere.
7. The Long Patrol
I tend to hate hares whenever they show up. I already know the villains are going to be defeated without gaining an inch of ground, and the hares' joking around really drives home that they're jokes a lot of the time. So logically I should hate this story, right? Wrong. The main character is Tammo, a young hare wanting to join the elite Long Patrol. It doesn't sugarcoat a whole lot, either: Tammo is really reluctant to kill and every time he does so, it sends him into hyperbolics. He's not a wet blanket, though. He'll do it, he just doesn't feel good about it afterwards. That's interesting to see in a kid's series. A pity there's not really much else interesting in the book. You've got a badass squirrel but those are a dime a dozen.
6. The Bellmaker
The title is a bit of a lie. The Bellmaker (named Joseph) really has little to do with the story. The plot's OK, but the villain is a bit of a laughingstock, and certain characters don't die even when they're in a good position to. I don't mean they're annoying, they're not, it's just that they almost died but then came back for rather contrived reasons. And then you've got Blaggut, who is one of the sweetest characters in the series so far. He also happens to be a loyal vermin and that just makes his plotline even sweeter. Which makes Outcast of Redwall being the one written right after this all the more mystifying. But yeah, bland main plot, excellent subplot.
This is going to be a bit of a contradiction, and it might be its position, but this one I was glad to read. Granted, its got situations the characters escape from too easily, even for rather contrived or cliche reasons, but it tries a few interesting things. Despite a horrible false start, the Marlfoxes actually do manage to do some lasting damage to the good guys and they're easily one of the more effective villains up to this point. It also toys around with vermin and goodbeast a little bit: one tribe of vermin are only working with the villains due to fear and one tribe of goodbeasts are secretly jerks. There's even a pinch of character drama. I wish that Jacques had expanded on that stuff more, but I like what he tried.
Yes, this is only number four. This isn't a knock against the book, though. The story is self-contained, both sides get to shine at various points, and it's got good characters. Overall, it's an engaging read without any cheating to get out of tough situations. However, Cluny is made a bit of a joke through the story and I think that the three further up on this list did things a little better.
3. The Pearls of Lutra
Or simply Pearls of Lutra in the United States. You've got some good character play here, and the search for the titular pearls leads to some interesting places as well. You've also got quite a few interesting settings, easily the furthest the series has ever gone. The best part, though, is the villains. Even though they're fighting each other a lot, you still get to see how effective they are. Ublaz is my favorite, though. He's got an interesting gimmick and it's always fun to see a vermin look at Redwall and go '...eh, I think I'll pass'. The vermin are also given more room for characterization, which gives us the sympathetic Romsca. It's sympathetic, but the story never forgets that these vermin are marauders as well, so it doesn't cut them too much slack. Granted, they still die rather easily when the heroes show up, but Ublaz takes a while and they do better than the baddies in other books. All-in-all, I like it.
2. Mariel of Redwall
This is one of the darker works in the series so far. The title heroine has a backstory dark enough that it's actually psychologically affected her. We also watch the main villain, Gabool the Wild, steadily go increasingly insane. And then there's the assault on Redwall, which is actually pretty desperate compared to everything else in the series up to this point. There's some convenience right at the end, but it makes sense and the heroes' journey isn't too easy. That's why I like it.
Yes, I think of this as the best one. A lot of Redwall did, Mattimeo improved on. The villain is (in addition to familiar to readers) pretty competent, and both villains actually keep the heroes on the ropes. The final fight is actually pretty damn tense as well, and there's this sense of unfamiliarity with the land everyone ventures into that I really like. It's got a few flaws, but they don't happen too often. In short, it's the series that does the most right, and that's why it's my favorite.
So that's my list. It will change as I read the later books, but I won't be releasing a sequel list until I've read them the first time. Expect more in-depth reviews of each book including changes I'd make once I go over the series again. Until then, though, I've said my peace.