Urchin and the Raven War, by M. I. McAllister – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Urchin and the Raven War, by M. I. McAllister. (The Mistmantle Chronicles, Book 4.) Illustrated by Omar Rayyan.
NYC, Hyperion Books for Children, October 2008, hardcover $17.99 (284 pages), Kindle $6.99.
Urchin and the Rage Tide, by M. I. McAllister. (The Mistmantle Chronicles, Book 5.) Illustrated by Omar Rayyan.
NYC, Disney • Hyperion Books, July 2010, hardcover $17.99 (268 pages), Kindle $6.99.
This is a guilty review. I reviewed the first three Mistmantle Chronicles for Cubist’s Anthro magazine in 2007 and 2008. Then Anthro ceased publication. An additional complication was that the first three books appeared first as British paperbacks, with the American hardcovers as reprints. When I looked for any subsequent books, I looked on Amazon.uk and didn’t find any. This was because there weren’t any more British editions. Books 4 and 5 were only published in America. So I never reviewed them when they were first published.
Fortunately, they are still available, so I am correcting that error now. The Mistmantle Chronicles are technically children’s books, but they are very similar to Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, and those are enjoyed by readers of all ages. If you are fond of serious adventures featuring talking animals, don’t miss The Mistmantle Chronicles.
The setting of Urchin of the Riding Stars (January 2005), Urchin and the Heartstone (April 2006), and The Heir of Mistmantle (March 2007) is the isolated island of Mistmantle, hidden by thick sea mists (I was going to say fog, but McAllister makes a distinction between fog and mists). It is a kingdom shared by four British woodland animal species living in harmony: hedgehogs, moles, otters, and squirrels. When the series starts, Mistmantle is ruled by good King Brushen, a hedgehog. But there have been other dynasties in the past, and there is no prejudice against a new king from one of the other species. Whenever a dynasty does not have an heir, the senior captain becomes the next king. The captain (there are traditionally three) is a combination of a royal advisor and leader of the royal guards.
In the first three books, Urchin, a young squirrel, hopes to become a page to Captain Crispin, another squirrel. There is plotting and skullduggery at the highest level, Urchin helps expose the real villain but not before King Brushen and his heir are killed, and Crispin is chosen as the new king. In Book 2, Urchin discovers another island hidden in the sea mists, Whitewings, and gets involved in its politics. Book 3 is about the kidnapping of King Crispin’s newborn daughter, and a new crisis that casts doubt on Crispin’s leadership ability. Urchin helps to get Crispin’s heir back, and to demonstrate to Mistmantle’s people that Crispin will be a fine leader.
In Urchin and the Raven War, Urchin has become a trusted member of King Crispin’s inner Circle. The story begins when a group of swans arrive from Swan Island:
“Five swans drifted down from the sky and skimmed onto the sea so smoothly that a graceful track flared through the water behind each one. But they looked weary and ragged. Swans usually held their necks tall and their heads high, but these drooped over the waves. Their badly ruffled feathers were smudged with mud, blood, and weed. Their eyes were hollow with strain and tiredness. their leader – bigger than the rest and still struggling to hold his head and wings high – swam to the shallows and stepped on great webbed feet to the shore. Fingal [an otter], as a member of the Circle, went to greet him. The swan lowered his beak just a little.” (p. 10)
The swans report that their island has been overrun by ravens. Although ravens are usually carrion eaters, only concerned with those already dead, these ravens are killing everything first. The Circle decides that they have to help the swans, both to repay past aid and for their own self-interest:
“‘Then assuming that a good look at the Threadings proves us right,’ said Crispin, ‘we have to help Lord Arcneck, and not only for his sake. If the ravens are as bad as he says, they won’t be content with one island. When they’ve finished killing and feasting there, they’ll start on the next, and the next. Sooner or later it would be Whitewings, Mistmantle, and every other island in the sea. Battle plans, then.’” (p. 23)
“‘So we fly on swans!’ said Crispin, and smiled up brightly at the Circle animals. Some gasped with excitement, while others looked worried or, like Tay, appalled. ‘But we can’t send much of a fighting force with only five swans, even if one can carry two of us. Tactics, anyone? Very good tactics?’
‘They’ll have to be brilliant tactics,’ said Captain Arran [otter], Padra’s wife. Her gold circlet was half hidden by the rough, tufty fur around the top of her head. ‘A lot of vicious creatures who can fly against a handful who can’t.’
Silence followed as Urchin tried hard to think of an idea, and couldn’t. He could see that everyone else felt the same.” (pgs. 23-24)
Uh-oh! The plot isn’t turning out as I thought it would. In fact, there are unexpected changes every few pages. Arrgh! I can’t figure out how to describe any of them without giving away major spoilers! There’s action and adventure and despair and suspense. There are spies and traitors and sacrifice and death. Many deaths.
“‘Somebody’s going to die,’ she muttered. ‘Somebody important.’
‘How do you know’ asked Urchin, but Needle [a hedgehog] shook her head.
Urchin had discovered before that he could be strong and calm when he really needed to, even when he hadn’t felt remotely strong and calm before. It worked now.
‘Needle,’ he said. ‘we all know that. We’re all important, and this is a war. Some of us are going to die.’
With pain and horror in her eyes, she swung around to face him. ‘Don’t say ‘us’!’ she cried. ‘You mustn’t say ‘us’!’ She turned and ran for the stair.” (pgs. 169-170)
Let’s move on to Urchin and the Rage Tide. A rage tide is a storm-driven flood tide that causes massive coastal and inland damage. King Crispen and his Circle (including Urchin) prepare for it as best they can, but meanwhile they have to deal with Mossberry, a mad squirrel who preaches to the animals that only he is the true deliverer, and that they should listen to him rather than to Crispen and his officials.
“He rose with a fierce intensity in his eyes. His work must be done, and nobody must stand in his way. He ran to Watchtop Hill, where he climbed a tree and looked out over the island as the tree swayed in the wind, rocking him.
It was no good trying to talk to those animals in the tower. They all thought they knew best, but he could always find animals who’d listen to him. He already had followers, animals who were weak and confused and knew how much they needed him.” (p. 31)
Since Mossberry is truly deluded and not a villain, they try go easy on him and his followers. This is a mistake, especially when this rage tide turns out to be particularly horrific. It engulfs the entire island and the seas around the neighboring islands.
“‘Heart help us!’ yelled Corr [an otter], and hoped that the Heart heard the crying of his own heart though the fury and crash of the waves drowned out his voice. The boat lurched and tipped, water swirling around Corr’s paws. He bailed furiously. Crown’s [a swan] strong beak held the tiller as the little boat pitched. A wave flung itself over them. Spray blinded Corr. A second wave hurled him into the water and threw him back against the boat, knocking the breath from him. Gripping the side with both paws he heaved himself back in, tumbling onto the soaked benches, and when he raised his head he saw something he had never seen before, and would never forget.” (p. 176)
I’ve always preferred McAllister’s Mistmantle books to Jacques’ Redwall books. For one thing, the Redwall series all seem like the same adventure with just cosmetic changes, while the Mistmantle adventures are all different. For another, the Redwall novels rely on smart Redwallers – both the adults and the children – and really stupid vermin. The Mistmantle novels pit intelligent heroes against intelligent villains. In Redwall, only the villains die. In Mistmantle, …
The two series are both alike in having illustrations that are only small chapter headings. Of these, I prefer those in the Redwall books. Omar Rayyan’s art style is too detailed, especially in his squirrels’ fluffy fur, for his small chapter heading drawings.
The five Mistmantle Chronicles are not only still available on sale, they are in most public libraries. If you don’t want copies to keep, you should be able to borrow them for free.