Saturday, June 4, 2016

Review: The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel, by Radhika R. Dhariwal

Radhika Dhariwal's The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel took me back to my childhood days absorbed by Brian Jacques' epic Redwall series. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is much less daunting than Redwall, with a simpler point of view and a less complex, but no less imaginative, world. But in most other ways, the two share many similarities - animals playing the leading roles, good vs. evil, massive adventure, puzzles, and multiculturalism. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is an enjoyable story with a good heart, one that may have a stronger appeal with a younger crowd, but adults will find enough nice touches and surprises to make it worth their while as well.

The main character, Squirrel, has no name because he is a slave who serves the PetPost - the story's equivalent of the U.S. Postal Service. He is the last of his kind - the slave that is - as slavery has been banished, though unfortunately for Squirrel this banishment didn't apply retroactively. Squirrel is a slave so long as he has no name, but he isn't unhappy. He earns good wages and nobody is particularly unkind to him. Only when he realizes he can be treated as an equal and has a taste of what freedom is like does he feel differently. This happens when he is invited to the wedding of a prominent cat and dog - Smitten and Cheska. Yes, cats and dogs do have relations in this novel, though it's never mentioned if their offspring are cat-dogs.

At this wedding, Squirrel befriends one of the family members of the wedding party, a dog named Des. Des likes Squirrel so much he sneaks him out of sight to share some Wedded Wine with him, which only the married couple is supposed to drink. This Wedded Wine has an unexpected effect on Squirrel. He goes through an intense pain and recites aloud a poem, one that becomes ingrained in his memory. It's a clue. But before he can think on what has just happened, a clan of crows called the Kowas descend, and Squirrel and Des are rescued by a crow named Azulfa. They are reluctant to go with her, but her intentions seem good and they have no choice. Thus begins their journey.

There's an ingenuity to what happens to Squirrel, as he learns more and more about himself, and to the way the plot unfolds. The rest of the story becomes an adventure as Squirrel travels from place to place finding new clues to seek out a power much greater than he ever supposed he possessed. Along the way the three heroes visit a kingdom of bees, where a romance almost plays out between dog and bee (one of the novel's missed opportunities, I think, in not developing further) and the queen bee is so powerful she compels non-bee creatures to dance when she dances. The bee kingdom is where Dhariwal is at her most creative. I wish we could have spent more time there.

The heroes travel as well to a forbidden tomb, a rural land of field mice, and a desert city filled with thieves and murderers. In the meantime there are moments of mistrust and developed friendship. In the manner of many recent adventure stories, Squirrel, the hero, is one of the least interesting characters, but he does undergo some compelling changes over the course of the narrative. Many of the characters have a good heart, especially Squirrel and Des, though they come off a touch naive, making a character with sharper edges, such as Azulfa, a necessity. Perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of development for the main villain, a cat named Colonel (and later renamed). Colonel shows up in the novel's first pages, but barely turns up until the end. This dulls the menace he could have had were he included in the novel for a longer period of time.

Much of the plot of The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is so lacking in meanness that when the violence does come it's quite a shock. The violence is not PG-13 violence (though, by today's standards, maybe it is), with blood and surprisingly vivid descriptions. This doesn't necessarily hurt the novel except to provide a challenge in determining its audience. Children may enjoy the adventure elements but parents might not be too comfortable by the descriptions of gore and violent acts. This violence, though, is rare, and adds a little bit of depth to this magical tale, which has some promise for what could be a fun series of books.

***I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.***

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