The Rogue Crew

Ah, the faithful and grateful audience of a beloved author of books for young readers! The favorite books of childhood remain part of our souls forever, unlike those respectable tomes we amuse ourselves with as adults. And the deaths of YA creators can hit hard. Notice of the death of YA fantasist Brian Jacques (he died in February 2011 at age 71) evoked remarkably emotional responses, unanimous in their praise and shared sense of anguished loss.

Jacques amassed his loyal following mainly through his Redwall books. The first, titled Redwall, appeared in 1986, and The Rogue Crew is number twenty-two. Reader consensus seems to be that the first three entries were the best–I myself enjoyed the first very much–while later ones became a tad repetitive. But the perpetuation of familiar pleasures in their known forms is often desirable, especially to young readers. In his latest, Jacques certainly delivers all the old thrills.

Jacques’s land of sentient, anthropomorphic beasts–or at least that portion of the world known as Mossflower Country–is facing a new scourge: the piratical depredations of the Wearat (weasel-rat hybrid) known as Captain Razzid of the Greenshroud. With his crew of scurvy vermin corsairs, Razzid is out for slaughter and plunder, and fastens on the harmless Redwall Abbey as prey. Only the courageous actions of the Rogue Crew–a mixed division of bold, claymore-swinging hares and savage otters–can save the day!

Jacques’s stroke of genius in his conception of the Redwall books was to take the standard beast fable and cleverly customize it. First, he placed his stories in a quasi-medieval setting, where good and evil are easily distinguished; a chancey world of lurking dangers and primitive loyalties and old-fashioned hearthside enjoyments. (The beasts relish their lavishly described meals and domestic comforts more than any ten hobbits, and are prone to break into frequent song, the latter trait a reflection of Jacques’s own folk-singing career.)

Second, he anthropomorphized his animals just enough to allow them to wear clothes, handle tools, etc., without losing their typical species habits and qualities. Third, he layered on the Anglophile aspects right up to and sometimes past the point of cliché, including rustic accents, upstairs-downstairs relationships, and noble yet unassuming martial valor. Popular as these might be in Jacques’s native England, they proved even more so abroad. Lastly, almost counterintuitively, he de-emphasized literal magic. The minimal supernatural elements take a backseat to the naturalistic action, with which anyone can identify.

Having established this formula, Jacques hewed to it with gusto. In the current book, we get the usual vivid, charming descriptions of the animals. “With her jagged cream muzzlestripe and clouded violet eyes, she looked every inch the noble Badger Lady.”  Hearty snacks and meals abound. “An old iron battle shield is placed on the fire whilst chestnuts are piled on it to roast…Once peeled, they are dipped in a basin of cornflower honey.” As in Baum’s Oz, surprising new venues lurk around every corner. Despite being within a long march of Redwall, the colony of Bloodrippers–pygmy voles and sand lizards–is a surprise to the rabbits of the Long Patrol.

One other alluring thing for kids about the Redwall books, I suspect, is the high mortality rate, cheerfully recounted. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed! Heads are lopped off, innocents are gruesomely tortured, and a general kill-or-be-killed policy is endorsed. But of course the flipside to this carnage is heroism and self-sacrifice, which also abounds. The vanquishing of Razzid takes cooperation, inventiveness and doggedness (if you’ll pardon the pun). Good life lessons, slyly couched.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.