Redwall by Brian Jaques
I had fled the boat in a hurried rush after being woken from an attempt to catch up on sleep by the stinging difficulty I had trying to breath as our boat was enveloped in a cloud of ammonia released from the cannery. As you can tell, the day started auspiciously. My retreat had been made to the comfort and wifi access of the lobby at the Grand Hotel, where I discovered in my haste I hadn't brought all the paperwork I had planned on dropping off at the office. Fortunately there wasn't much and it wasn't pressing that it get there, so after puttering around on the internet for a while I retired to the bar/restaurant for a final beer with an overdue lunch before heading back to the boat to begin our next trip. By chance, another observer wandered in looking for someone else and as she couldn't find them was heading to the library. This was on my way so we hopped in a cab and I made a last ditch attempt to snag some more reading on the way back. Being unplanned, I flew through the shelves. I wanted something fun and light to read. I haven't exhausted the supplies of books I brought along, but nothing was jumping out at me so I wanted something new.
The only Terry Pratchett book they had, I've already read. No Charles Stross. Scanning the shelves, they had a whole collection of Brian Jaques novels. I've never read him, but I've seen his novels forever in libraries and in bookstores. There didn't seem to be a coherent order to the books, but grabbing one randomly I managed to grab his first, Redwall. A fantasy medieval world populated by woodland creatures in human roles? A fantasy world with numerous books in a not necessarily chronological order? Perfect.
Against my better judgment, I grabbed only the first book. I don't know how many books we are allowed to check out at once and I already had two books about fish (yeah, I'm that kind of nerd). It is the middle book of a trilogy, written first before being followed by a prequel and then the final book. After these many more stories had been added to the universe but that was as much order as I could figure out in my haste.
This whole trip I've had a serious solitaire problem. I can't stop playing compulsively. We've had rough weather and whole days where I couldn't go out on deck, so I've had tons of time that needed filling. Mostly it had been filled with solitaire. My mind was starting to slip. Hence my desperate search for fun reading. Having started Redwall yesterday, here I sit waiting for the next string of pots so I can sample, already ready to review the novel.
I sped through it because I couldn't sleep and it is an easy read. I mean really easy. I don't know that I would call it a page turner, but I enjoyed diving into the story and just floating along. There are no real twists and none of the characters is at all complicated. Good kind mice, bad evil rats; wandering rogues vs. peaceful monastery; prophetic legend foretold and fulfilled. It does take a cute path getting there and I enjoyed the meander, but it also annoyed on several fronts.
It was pleasant if I didn't ask it to be complicated and resigned to just cheering for good guys and booing the bad guys, which was easy enough. I felt like they left big gaping what-if's and why-not's in the story though that irritated and didn't fully flesh out the feel of the world we were moving through. I never got a full feeling for whether or not these creatures were moving through a human sized world or one built on their scale. True, it did clearly state that mice had built Redwall Abbey, but obviously on a scale large enough for badgers and such to wander through but also small enough that said badger might lift a table. So larger than mouse scale, smaller than human scale, but what about the trees and the forest? This was an animal scale construction but the walls were so high that a tall elm only just reached over its walls? The descriptions have the animals moving through the abbey world as if it were built for their size but then incongruously has them dwarfed against everyday objects. Nit picking, I know, but these are the details that make or break the illusion of a fictional world. This was a world which required a great deal of just setting disbelief aside and not asking questions or critiquing. You have to want to read it and enjoy it or it would be really easy to just pull apart. The seams are not tightly sown and not hidden at all.
I gave myself up to the fast and loose of the scale of the environment, which I was willing to do because you get the feeling that this was a story written enjoyably by someone who had loved dipping into this world and creating it. It feels like an exercise in imagination and I like that. So I'm being gentler than I might otherwise be. And I'll probably read further into the series when I get back. But (you knew there was a 'but'), the what-if's and why-not's really did grate at me as I read. Mostly they reconciled themselves with the weak argument, "Otherwise the story would end sooner/differently." Why was there a solitary beaver who got no name? Why only one badger? Both are naturally social animals. Only one snake/hare/family of squirrels in the whole landscape? Fine, the author can limit the characters; lines must be drawn somewhere. Still, not particularly believable. Same with tactics employed in defense of the Abbey. The badger and beaver can make a cross-bow in a matter of hours and deploy it with enough accuracy to impale the head of a rat inside a tent across the field, but they can't come up with one more stick to shoot again when they realize they hit the wrong rat and never use the weapon again? Really?
But in the end I'll read more of the series (when I'm on a boat again). You can feel how much the writer enjoyed writing this when he wrote it and perhaps it becomes more tightly crafted as the series continues. My first memory of writing as an enjoyable experience was in second or third grade. We had to write a story. i think it only had to be a few paragraphs long, but once I started, I couldn't stop. I wrote page after page, taking this assignment home and sitting in the principals office the next day trying to finish as adults exasperatedly told me to just finish it so it could be graded. But the story wasn't finished and I didn't know how to end it. It was just getting bigger and bigger (I suppose I've always been longwinded). It is worth noting that I wrote very slowly and and have horrible handwriting and as much as I enjoyed the process of daydreaming the story (isn't that what I already did during every class?), the process of writing was actually fairly torturous. Writing remained so until I learned to type. I bring all this up because reading Redwall reminded me of this story because my story was also populated by woodland creatures and I could feel behind the writing that feeling of daydreamed worlds being made manifest on the page. I don't remember what my story was actually about, but there were lizards and frogs with guns that shot grains of sand, and a salamander scientist/inventor who lived in an observatory which looked like (and could open like) a magnolia blossom which was at the end of a branch over a lake. I wonder whatever happened to that story. I know my mother has a permanent file of any writings/drawings/whatever any of us created but I somehow doubt she got that story. I think I was ashamed of it because it wasn't finished right because they rushed me and I was the kind of child who would hide something like that. I should ask her though...