I love a good saga about rabbits or moles or mice: I love it when we are invited into their mythology and their sagas. All those Watership Downs and Duncton Quests and Redwall Abbeys. Kieran Larwood’s projected ‘Five Realms’ series (it’s a series! Hurray!) promises to be a bit different in that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. Humans are gone. Huge rabbits have the run of the world. It’s a kind of Planet of the Apes scenario, with bunnyish tendencies.
It’s a rollicking great ride this first book, with hardly a second wasted, right from the arrival of the old story-telling rabbit in the snow, to the final battle with rescues and magical reversals galore. It’s a lovely mash-up a warmly familiar elements from Richard Adams and Tolkien – but with touches taken from Star Wars, too. All of this brings a pleasingly epic quality to the adventure.
The thing that elevates it all above more perfunctory by-the-numbers fantasy adventures published in recent years is the characterization. I absolutely believe in everyone we meet here. They’re all archetypes – and recognized as such within the story, but each one is wonderfully vivid. The three young rabbits forced to flee their ruined home at the start – Podkin, Paz and Pook – are immediately recognizable. What happens to the life and home they have known is horrifying, right at the start. What happens to Podkin’s ear when they escape is actually painful for us to read.
Our attention stays absolutely fixed on them as they careen through the wintry wilderness from haunted burrows to witchy hideouts. All the characters they encounter are just as well drawn, too, I think – Mish and Mash the dwarf acrobats, Crom the blind and noble soldier, Brigid the mysterious witch rabbit. And, above all of them, the terrifying figure of Scramashank the Gorm Lord – a rabbit chieftain possessed by some demonic force that manifests itself from under the earth. His zombified hordes are rather like the Borg from Star Trek with their hideous meshing of iron and necrotic flesh.
Who’d have thought the spectre of Borg Bunnies hunting down the cast of Watership Down could ever be so riveting..?
I reckon there’s something special about this series, and I’m glad to catch it at just the right point – with the second volume newly published, meaning I don’t have to wait too long for the next instalment.