The Mistmantle Chronicles by M. I. McAllister is quite simply the perfect fantasy series, in my opinion. It has all the classic elements–good vs. evil, a fantastical setting, memorable characters, etc.–but it manages to put them together in just the right order. This is not a review, though at some point I may well review each of the five books separately. This is merely my explanation for why this, of all the book series I have read, is my favorite.
For those who have not noticed by now, I have an affinity for stories in which animals, rather than humans, are the main players. All the better if they are human-like animals. Many series have this element, of course, but this one above any other I have yet seen, strikes the best balance between anthropomorphic and animal behaviors. The natural abilities for squirrels to climb, otters to swim, and moles to dig is woven naturally into the story alongside the more people-like traits that they all have in common.
Continuity & Change
This is a big one right here. The fact that I cannot to this day find a single true discontinuity in the whole series is rather amazing, and shows how much care was taken by author and editors in making sure everything made sense. Rarer still is the fact that in this series, unlike in so many others–be they book, film, or television–the characters actually seem to grow and develop as the story progresses. So often authors get stuck in the rut of giving a character a specific set of traits that seems to stick with them no matter what they go through or how old they get. This element of Mistmantle makes the players in it seem much more realistic, and thus relatable.
A Medieval-esque world is always another plus in my book, and this certainly has that. (It was something like love at first sight for me on seeing a squirrel with sword and cloak on the cover, I confess.) And yet, there is a slightly mystical aura surrounding the Isle of Mistmantle that makes it all seem timeless in a way. The island has a history that is developed throughout the series, but there is really no set beginning or “founding” and no prophesied end. It always has been and always will be.
The world in which the tale takes place may at first seem small, being an island. But it is a vast island, full of unexplored depths and secrets which really draw the reader in to want to know more about the place. It almost makes me wish there were a map in these books, but at the same time, I rather like that there isn’t one: leaves more to the imagination.
And of course, as the series progresses, it is clear that there is a vast world surrounding this place too, about which not much is known. And this is good. It establishes that this is not simply an isolated civilization, yet not so much emphasis is placed on the outside world that one loses track of what is important back at home. Again, a good balance.
This is another big one for me. So many fantasy worlds tend to skip over this element, or else relegate it to a vague sideline that is largely unimportant to the story (see item #2 on my Ten Problems with Redwall post). Not so here. In Mistmantle, the animals’ faith in the Heart (or lack thereof) plays a significant role in the story, and in determining the fate of the island. It is not hit-you-over-the-head obvious like the Narnia series can be, but nevertheless it is there, and adds yet another layer of charm to this wonderful world.
The characters in this story tend to be more believable than in some books I’ve read. They have flaws, fears, and sometimes even physical disabilities (something that is all-too-often overlooked, I think). And what is more, their motives are sufficiently explained to the reader. Sometimes those motives are plain and simple; sometimes not, but they are always presented. You may not like a given villain, but at least you know why he does what he does.
Also, unlike in some series, the black-and-white “good” and “bad” categories are not quite so clear. The thoughts and experiences of individuals are a more important factor than species. There are good squirrels; there are evil squirrels. There are good moles; there are evil moles, etc. And of course, there are those who don’t particularly take one side or the other, but simply want to be left in peace. Much like in our own world.
And last but not least…
The Good Guys
They say a story is only as good as its villain, and this may be true. However, my opinion of a story tends to be based more on what the heroes are like. Are they generally competent? Do they seem believable? Are they morally upright? The answer to all three questions in this series is undoubtedly yes. While they do make mistakes and have their flaws, the protagonists are very much the dashing, knightly figures one likes to see come and save the day…even if it cost them their lives to do so.
No doubt I could come up with many more things to admire about this much underappreciated series down to the most minute detail. However, for the sake of brevity, I shall stop here. As stated before, though, I may indeed review each book individually in future. In the meantime, if you have not read this phenomenal series, go and do so right away!
What traits do you look for in the ideal fantasy series? Or stories in general? Let me know down below!