Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review #14: The Mistmantle Chronicles: Urchin of the Riding Stars

This month's Animal Fantasy Book Review returns to one of my favorite subjects: woodland critters!  The Mistmantle Chronicles by M. I. McAllister is a well-loved series with a cast of squirrel, hedgehog, otter, and mole characters.  I've seen them on bookstore shelves for years, but I admit I was a bit behind the times in picking one up.  With five books in the series, I decided it was high time for me to jump into book one, Urchin of the Riding Stars.  Here is the book blurb:

Orphan Urchin never intended to be a swashbuckling squirrel.  Abandoned at birth on a Mistmantle beach, this mild-mannered acorn hunter was raised by the island's squirrels, otters, and moles.  He gains entrance into the royal court, thanks to the support of his hero, the dashing Captain Crispin.  But something is wrong in the peaceful kingdom of Mismantle.  Under the influence of the squirrel captain Husk, the King is enforcing severe measures against his people.  Crispin himself is falsely accused of a horrific murdered and banished. 

Can little Urchin, a mere smidgen squirrel, defend his master and his people? 

First off, I want to dispel a misconception.  While the cover of this book contains a sword-wielding squirrel and the plot involves forest animals fighting for the home they love, this is NOT a Redwall knock-off.  Yes, there are many similarities between the two, and since Brian Jacques' pioneered this realm of animal fantasy, it's hard not to compare them.  But I can happily say that Mistmantle is not more of the same, but rather something else for lovers of animal fantasy to enjoy.  While there are many aspects I liked about the book, I most admired McAllister's writing style and world-building techniques which makes her series stand out in a crowd of woodland critter novels.

One of the first things readers will notice about Mistmantle is how pleasurable and easy it is to read.  Now don't get me wrong: I LOVE Jacques' Redwall books.  That being said, I sometimes find them just a teensy bit long-winded.  (Please don't hit me!)  I certainly wouldn't claim that Mistmantle is for a younger readership or pre-Redwall audience, though; the writing is just as beautiful, and the plot is just as engaging and complex.  Mistmantle simply proves that sometimes less is more.  I was pleased to find that the plot moved swiftly and didn't get bogged down in unnecessary details or characters.  With today's readers (and array of electronic distractions), this is becoming increasingly important.  If you write animal fantasy, you should definitely see how McAllister crafts a compelling, adventurous, and epic story without using 400+ pages.

In addition to writing a great story, McAllister also created a delightful, unforgettable world.  World-building is so important in any fantasy story to help the reader connect with the story.  The Isle of Mistmantle is home to lovable creatures with a distinctive culture.  The chapters are filled with careful details on what the inhabitants eat, believe, fear, celebrate, wear, use for medicine, etc.  Further, the book contains words unique to the woodland culture, such as the Riding Stars (their term for a meteor shower) and Threadings (tapestries).  The mix of details and specific terms brings such a richness to the Mistmantle world, making the reader want to return as soon as they turn the last page.  (I know I did!)

If you love animal fantasy books, then Mistmantle is a sure-fire winner for you.  If you write animal fantasy, this is a fantastic book to study, and one you'll definitely enjoy reading, too.  And if you're a die-hard fan of Jacques' work and convinced this is just a Redwall copycat, I ask you to give Mistmantle a chance.  (I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.)

You can find out more about McAllister and the entire Mistmantle series on her website here:

And if you read this book, do let me know!  I'd love to hear what you think.  :)

Happy reading!

Note: Summary blurb is from  Cover art is from McAllister's website, noted above.

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