Monday, April 4, 2011

Urchin of the Riding Stars, by M. I. Mcallister

This one is thanks to a friend of mine - we'll call her Southern Elf because she lives sort of south of me. She liked the Mistmantle Chronicles a good deal.

I think of this book {indeed, the whole series} as "like Redwall but a whole lot better." No offense to Redwall fans, of course, or to the memory of the author. The premise is not dissimilar: a world of medieval-style tech and lifestyle, inhabited by anthropomorphic small animals. It's squirrels, otters, hedgehogs, and moles in this case... with some swans, but more on them later.
However, I find the setting very interesting - the isle of Mistmantle, surrounded by protective mists that keep out most of the outside world... occasionally a ship gets through, but rarely, and not even island natives who leave by water can ever return by water.

Urchin the squirrel is found on the seashore of the island of Mistmantle, on a night of "riding stars" {meteor shower of sorts, as far as I can make out}, newly born and with no mother in sight. We the readers are treated to learning that his mother had escaped from another island because of a prophecy made about her baby: "He will bring down a great ruler." The mother dies, but Urchin survives, and is found by Captain Crispin and Brother Fir, two squirrels who are walking along the beach. He is raised on Mistmantle but knows he is a foundling.
Meanwhile, there's something up with the government of Mistmantle. King Brushen the hedgehog has been making strange laws - forced work parties, food rationing, and the "culling" {killing} of the newborn animals who are weak or disabled.
Captain Crispin invites Urchin to Mistmantle Tower to be his page when Urchin is old enough, but before Urchin is there a day, tragedy strikes: the young prince is found dead, murdered. Crispin is accused of the murder and, though he denies his guilt, he's exiled off the island and made to sail away alone.
Urchin becomes page to Captain Padra the otter instead, and he begins to discover odd secrets and what's really going on on the island... eventually leading him to dare the crossing of the mists himself... but that is far from the end of the story.

I fear my summary doesn't do it justice - this is a beautiful book. The plot is gripping and entertaining, and the many characters that come on and off are well-drawn and memorable. The villain {there is a villain} is a signifigant danger and a smart animal. Our heroes are a varied group, male and female, all ages and species and personalities. And Ms. Mcallister can write a very good fight scene, in my opinion. The writing style doesn't always hold up to scrutiny, but the point is, no one wants to spend time scrutinizing it after a while... why look at the trees when the forest is so interesting?

One of the reasons I prefer this series over Redwall: "Vermin" is how you act, not who you're born. There is no racial division of good/evil in Mistmantle.

This book is marked for middle-grade readers, but I consider it {and its sequels, more on them later} to be worth reading up through adulthood. These books are not fluff. The plots are solid and the characters believable.
There are consequences and bad things happening, though. Animals die, and there is mention of baby animals being killed due to weakness. There's a scene from the villain's perspective that might be unpleasant for sensitive or younger readers. A main character falls into a pit-trap meant for someone else. The lines of right and wrong are never blurred, though - the characters who are "good" run a secret nursery for young ones saved from the culling, and the heroes never stoop to the same underhanded and wicked tactics as their opponents do.
If a child has read the Redwall books, there's probably no reason they shouldn't go on to Mistmantle - and for the child {or teen, or grown-up} who feels they want the next thing after Redwall, I definitely recommend Urchin and its sequels.

Edited shortly after posting to add:
I can't believe I went through a whole review without mentioning one of the best things about Urchin and the rest of the series: the animals follow a religion almost synonymous with Christianity. Their beliefs are portrayed subtly, permeating into almost all parts of their lives, but never preachy or inserted in the least. {Needless to say, the villains do not adhere to this creed. If they did, many problems would be averted.} In fact, I think that it is almost exactly how a group of animals would view God. There are a few points that do not carry over to the real world, but in general, it's one of the best-written fictional Christianity-analogs. The priest Brother Fir is portrayed as one of the wisest characters on the island, as well.
Church librarians should keep an eye out for this series and see if it would be a good match for their childrens' department.


  1. This is the first I've heard of the series--thanks for the review!

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