In Love with Squirrels: A Review of the Mistmantle Chronicles by M.I. McAllister
On the bookshelf above my desk at this moment rest five beautiful books, the bindings of which are all inscribed The Mistmantle Chronicles. If you were to reach up and pull out the first of these, a slender volume entitled Urchin of the Riding Stars, it’s possible you would be surprised at the portrait of a pale squirrel (yes, I said squirrel), on the cover, with a sword at his hip and a green cloak swirling about his shoulders. It is nighttime, and a faint Tower rises in the background on the shore of the sea. Just behind the squirrel, on the ground, crawls a black sea urchin.
This cover opens to one of my favorite novels now in residence on the aforementioned bookshelf. A few years ago, in the days when I hadn’t touched the novels and thought them rather babyish, I would have laughed to read this review, laughed at the thought that I would include Mistmantle among my most favorite of series. Now it is nothing less than truth. How did this amazing transformation occur?
I have to credit my older sister, whom most of you know as M.F., the editor of this magazine, I must have been eleven or so at the time, bored one weekday afternoon, and lounging around my sister’s room, sprawled on her bed as she feverishly typed some latest version of her novel opposite me. I don’t remember what we were talking about. More likely it was I who was doing the talking, begging to read what she was writing. Probably fed up with being interrupted, she finished some crucially important sentence before reaching up to pull down from her shelf the very book you’ve guessed. The pale squirrel gazed at me steadily from the cover.
Knowing my old self, I probably moaned. I had no idea of what these novels really contained, and didn’t care to spend the time it would take to find out. What I knew of the Mistmantle series at that point was limited basically to this: it was some story revolving around animals on an island where baby animals died, it had a strangely-named main character, and my crazy older sister loved it for some reason. She turned and handed me the volume. “Give this a try,” she told me. Rolling my eyes I took it and opened the cover.
Sometime later my sister went upstairs, leaving me still curled up on the bed – I have to admit it – engrossed. By the end of the third chapter, I was running upstairs with tears in my eyes and the novel in hand to thank my benefactress for telling me to read it. What an amazing book! The author had captivated and held my attention, and I was devastated! My favorite character, Captain Crispin, the hero of the main character Urchin, had been falsely accused of murdering the heir of Mistmantle, and was being sent into exile just as all of Urchin’s dreams were coming true!
I was crying, by the third chapter of a book which I had despised as babyish and strange. I plunged back in, totally enthusiastic now, and drank up the novel. I was intrigued by the characters, places, circumstances. The plot was woven together masterfully into an epic adventure of loss, danger, evil, beauty, battles, humor, and heroism. The characters were still the same squirrels, otters, hedgehogs, and moles that had always waited to spring to life from the dusty pages, but it was I who had changed. I had fallen in love with the enchanted Isle of Mistmantle, the young but steadfast Urchin, the heroic and empathetic Crispin, and a slew of characters whose named have been immortally engraved in my book of favorites.
The author, M.I. McAllister, is a British lady who has earned my undying respect for the emotion, characters, and beauty that she weaved into her Mistmantle stories. I have not read Brian Jacques’ Redwall or Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, but I have discovered what is to me a timeless classic from the world of small animals.
The first book, Urchin of the Riding Stars, tells of the adventures of a young squirrel, made misfit by his unusually pale fur, who becomes involved in overthrowing an evil captain’s treacherous plot to seize the throne. Urchin finds in his simple heart the courage to rise and meet each new challenge, facing his fears for the good of his island and love of his friends. I love the combination of innocence and talent in this young protagonist, and the way that he looks up to his mentors: the young, energetic Captain Crispin, the good-humored, courageous Captain Padra, the wise, loving old Brother Fir. He becomes an invaluable instrument for the overthrow of the evil Captain Husk and Lady Aspen, and he is responsible for leaving Mistmantle and bringing the exiled Captain Crispin home. The dangerous exploits of the novel wrap up with a satisfying ending that does not break the beautiful tone that M.I. McAllister was able to keep consistently throughout the novel.
Once I finished Urchin of the Riding Stars, I galloped forward into Urchin and the Heartstone, meeting new characters and new places, facing new challenges and dangers with Urchin, and finding a deep and fulfilling resolution. I devoured the 300-odd page book in a matter of hours. Then on to The Heir of Mistmantle and Urchin and the Raven War, until I had become the official fan club for Mistmantle. (If this tells you anything, I chose my original pen name for Expressions as Lady Sepia, from one of my favorite characters, Sepia of the Songs.)
McAllister’s final book, Urchin and the Rage Tide was the one book we didn’t own, and so I got it from the library and followed Urchin for the last time. I was amazed to find my dear main character all grown up, a capable warrior, in love and achieving his dream of becoming a Captain of Mistmantle. The last novel was bittersweet for me, featuring the death of a favorite character; but with a characteristic knack, McAllister drew the novel and the series to a truly good ending.
Not that the stories are without their faults, but these faults are easy to overlook in the face of all of the beauty of Mistmantle and its animals. As a novelist in the works myself, I sometimes wish that her antagonists had a more pronounced foundation for their evil, some sort of reason or event that occurred to make them turn away from goodness, instead of always having been evil for no real reason. But on the same page, I love the simple allegory of her religion: how each animal is sustained by the one Heart: the Heart which made Mistmantle, broke with love for Mistmantle, and still beats with love for the island. This startling semblance to the Most Sacred Heart of Christ is beautiful and adds a great depth to the story.
Now, there are more basic things that may turn the faint of heart away at the beginning. For instance, the main character’s name: Urchin. It comes across as strange at first. But then, as I continued to read, I recognized that the names were mostly taken from things in the nature of the island, and that they rang with a simple beauty. I’ve come to appreciate the name Urchin, because it fits him, and because my favorite character, Crispin, gave it to him.
Not everyone I’ve met is as enthusiastic as I am about the series. Not everyone is going to gulp down each book in a day and wake up the following morning ready for the next one. I’ve lent “Urchin of the Riding Stars” to different friends along the way. One friend couldn’t move past the name Urchin and the fact that the book begins with his mother giving birth to him. Another simply couldn’t get into it. But that’s okay: I’ll continue to try and share my squirrels and be happy with the fact that I’ve been to Mistmantle, that I know these characters as my own friends. I laugh at their antics, I sympathize with their struggles, I share in their sorrow and excitement. I shiver at the evil of some characters and at the valiance of others. I cried when one particularly valiant character died. I felt a silvery joy when I realized that Urchin and Sepia were falling in love. All in all, I believe that if I ever met M.I. McAllister, she would be gratified by my fan-hood.
It seems such a long time ago that I first opened the pages of Urchin’s chronicles, first ventured through the enchanted mists to the unparalleled beauty of Mistmantle. Now, I have the opportunity to pass on the legacy as I first read the books aloud to my younger brother and now to our whole family. I think they love them almost as much as I do, and I find a pleasure in sharing what I love about this story with them. All in all, it leads back to that fateful day when my sister said, “Give it a try!” And I have been grateful ever since.