Brian Jacques, Mattimeo (Firebrand, 2003; originally Morrow/Avon, 1989)

Imagination is the key that unlocks the door to our mind. Without it, we would live in a very plain world, one in which badgers cannot speak, owls cannot make poetry, and a childish mouse cannot grow into a warrior who becomes an inspiration for his small friends in times of darkness and despair.

Luckily, Brian Jacques (pronounced "Jakes") has plenty of imagination -- enough so that the very halls of Redwall Abbey, where this heartwarming story begins, echo with the laughter of the woodlanders long after you set this fine book down.

According to his Web site, Jacques has been writing Redwall stories for about 16 years now, and has published the same number of stories to date (not including a few books unrelated to Redwall). Though he writes for youngsters from age 9 to 15, these stories are certainly good enough for adults to enjoy.

Mattimeo was the third Redwall book Jacques wrote, but is the tenth chronologically. (Jacques' Web site, however, urges you to read the stories in the order in which they were written lest you miss out on any surprises.) The books are illustrated; in this paperback version of Mattimeo, the drawings are small, simple black-and-white sketches at the start of each chapter.

Mattimeo follows the exploits of the Redwall residents' children, who are kidnapped by an evil, disfigured fox and his band of slavers. The fox, Slagar, is bent on revenge, feeling in his twisted mind that the Redwallers are responsible for his scarred face because of an incident when he was just a pup. His plan is to infiltrate Redwall, steal all the young ones, and sell them to a colony of rats who use the slaves to mine out an underground realm.

Chief in his plans is capturing Mattimeo, son of Redwall's great warrior mouse Matthias. Mattimeo, as the son of a warrior, lives a somewhat spoiled existence among the peaceful walls of the abbey, mostly exempt from the chores that the other young ones must perform because he is expected to someday take his dad's place. Mattimeo is of an age where he realizes his status and is starting to take advantage of it rather than work hard to follow in his father's footsteps. He has a good heart, but is mischievous.

This sets the tone for what becomes a classic coming-of-age story: Mattimeo learns who he is and grows into a stronger, wiser mouse in the long journey from his beloved Redwall to the slavers' destination. There are plans to make, frightened friends to comfort, obstacles to overcome, and battles to fight that forge the steel inside this irascible young critter.

Along the way we meet a host of other animals that populate Mossflower country, the land in which this story is set. There are the creatures who live in Redwall, including John Churchmouse, recorder and historian of Redwall Abbey; Cornflower, Mattimeo's mother; Constance Badger, one of Redwall's many guardians; Ambrose Spike, keeper of the wine (and ale) cellar; Basil Stag Hare, another guardian who once was a member of the Fur and Foot Fighting Patrol; and Sparra Warbeak, leader of a tribe of sparrows that nests in the ramparts and rafters of the abbey. There are also a host of critters that join Matthias in the search for the enslaved youngsters, including Log-a-Log and his band of shrews; Orlando the Axe, a warrior badger who is searching for his daughter; Sir Harry the Muse, an owl poet; and Cheek, a young otter. We also encounter General Ironbeak, a raven general who attempts to make Redwall Abbey his own while its warriors are away; the Wearat, a slave master; Nadaz, a rat who is the "voice" of Malkariss, the polecat leader of the evil underground kingdom of rats; and Scurl, a sneaky, tricky, nasty little newt.

This brings me to one of the few sticking points I have with this series: Jacques' animals are split into good and evil based primarily on their species. Foxes, weasels, rats and other critters generally considered "vermin" are considered bad; mice, otters, rabbits, and moles are good. Now, while I realize Jacques is only following a lead set by European folklore ages ago, I can't say that I like this concept. I fear too many children will grow up with stereotypes about "evil" animals. We've perpetuated those myths for hundreds of years in literature and other forms of media, and we've hunted scores of species to extinction based on their perceived "evil" intentions.

Another sticking point is the passage of time. Mattimeo takes place, ostensibly, over the course of a year. Yet there are references to "many seasons having passed" since the youngsters were taken. I brushed this off as one of the many inconsistencies the series is known for, but it was confusing.

Finally, I wasn t always pleased with the plot progression. I know it's a kid's book, but some things seemed to be solved a little too conveniently. I can't go into much detail without spoiling the story, but suffice it to say that there are several times in which coincidence and luck play some overly important roles at critical moments.

Jacques' charming tale, comfortable writing style and lush descriptions, however, are enough to overcome any of my criticisms. This is a charming book in a charming series. In fact, if I could, I think I'd transport myself to Redwall in a heartbeat. To be surrounded by these fun- and food-loving folk would be a welcome escape from the harsh realities that surround us in the real world.

I guess that's why I read. And why I love imagination so much.

[Patrick O'Donnell]

For more on Redwall, including a list of the books to date, click here.

Click here for Greenman Review's overview of the Redwall series.