Normally I avoid like the plague novels with the word 'chronicles' (or 'cycle' or 'saga', etc.) in the title, but in children's stories, these words are more often not indicative of a pretentious and overblown story. This one sounded like it might be fun when I saw it in the library, and I was enamored of the first few tracks on the disk, listening as I drove in to work the next morning. It was well-written, and beautifully read, and was reminiscent of Phillip Pullman's writing. This is the start of a series of novels in this world.
I normally don't think actors are particularly good at reading stories, but in this case, the reader was Andrew Sachs, who I really like. He learned English as a second language and you may remember him from John Cleese's Fawlty Towers TV show. He was the hapless general dogsbody known as Manuel (he's from Barcelona). His voice in this novel is amazing, and he did an awesome job of reading. This story is advertised as being the squirrel version of "Watership Down" relating a tale of squirrels, moles, otters, and hedgehogs who live on the fog-shrouded island of Mistmantle, which no one but a rare and lucky ship can find. No word yet on whether King Kong is in residence there. Frankly, It didn't sound very much like Watership Down to me, but it is from a similar mold. It seemed to me to bear more relation to Lord of the Rings than ever it did to Watership Down which I've also reviewed
Urchin is a bit of a double-, if not a triple-, foundling. His mother snuck aboard one of the rare ships to find Mistmantle, knowing if she could reach it, it would be a safe haven for her newborn. She was wrong as it happened. She died after she had given birth to him, and by a strange series of events, Urchin (so-named because he was found near the ocean), was adopted by this community despite him being a very pale color for a red squirrel (no, he's not pink, but then red squirrels aren't really red!). His adoption may have been aided somewhat by the fact that he arrived on the night of the riding stars - a meteor shower, which is seen as an auspicious festival time amongst the Mistmantle community. It appeared to them that the squirrel had arrived on one of those 'stars', but until he matured and became ready to start work in the community, unloading ships, he wasn't told of his origin.
Urchin's idol is Captain Crispin, who unexpectedly appoints Urchin as his number two, saving him from every-day drudgery, but just as life seems to be looking up for our bushy-tailed bushido, it quickly becomes clear that things are not right in the Mistmantle world. The beneficent rule of King Brushen and Queen Spindle is no longer the carefree one it used to be. There is evil abroad - well actually not abroad, but right there in the court! The newborn prince is murdered, the loyal Crispin is accused and exiled, yet it seems it was at the hands of Lord Husk and Lady Aspen, in a plan to take over the kingdom, that this evil was unleashed. Are these villains blind to the strength of this community, and to ancient prophecies? Urchin discovers he must tread carefully and watch his own back as he tries to unravel what happened and tries to help the last remaining loyal captain to restore the kingdom.
This was a great story, full of inventiveness and strong character portrayals. I wasn't sure about the wine being introduced into a children's story, even though there was a reason for it, but then we have sword-fighting otters and talking squirrels, so why not? Minor quibbles like that aside, this was a very worthy, well-told and well-read tale and I recommend it.