One for Sorrow, Two for Joy is one more in the vein of animal kingdom books, the classic one of course being Watership Down. Sorrow doesn’t approach the skill, majesty, or emotion of Watership Down but that’s hard to fault it for, as few books do. The problem is not that it doesn’t hold up well against a classic but that it doesn’t hold up well against your average book either.
The story’s premise is sound enough. Birdom is threatened by a great evil in the form of marauding magpies committing genocide against the other species. One lone robin, seemingly the last of his kind, is sent by a Great Wise Owl, part of the Great Council, on a quest to enlist the aid of three other Bird families. The second half of the book continues the story, though on a smaller, less epic framework (to say more would be to give away too much of the first plot).
One for Sorrow, Two for Joy has its stock characters: the heroic against the odds robin (Kirrick), the wise old mentor willing to sacrifice himself if necessary (Tomar the owl), the just-as-plucky-as-the hero female (Portia, Kirrick’s mate), the roguish ally cracking wise (a goldfinch), the evil overlord (Slyekin) and his as-evil aide (Traska), as well as the usual crew of unexpected allies in strange places who pop up as needed.
The plot too is pretty as expected, with the journeys (three of course) coming one after the other, the lone small hero against a more numerous, more vicious group, the falling in love, and so on. The moral is worthwhile (aren’t they all) but pretty clearly Meant To Be Learned. The most unexpected plot points are also the most graphic and most violent (including a brutal rape scene), and seem out of place in comparison to the rest of the tone. Other minor surprises are more the product of contrivance than a natural outgrowth of story or character.
The premise and characters have potential, if predictably so, but the whole thing is so shallowly and predictably presented as to bleach the book of any true impact. Characters do not grow, we are told way too much as opposed to being shown, and events, especially in Book 2, are often anti-climatic for their build up. The biggest downfall, however, is that one just doesn’t care much for the characters; they’re just too sketchily drawn, too stock, too predictable. Add that to little spark in either language or narrative and the book as a whole is disappointing and at times dully so. If one is interested in reading animal world books such as this one, try Watership Down if you haven’t already done so (even re-reading it would be a better use of time) or Rabbit Hill or Duncton Wood).