Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review - Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen

Short review: A traitor betrays Lockhaven, a hero returns from legend, and the mice fall to open war among themselves.

Guard mice on patrol
On the trail of treachery
Return of Black Axe

Full review: Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 imagines a world in which the mice have banded together against a hostile world and a select brave few have formed the Guard, a collection of mice who patrol the wilds between the mouse towns, scout, spy, and deal with threats to mousedom. This first volume in the series mostly follows Leiam, Kenzie, and Saxon, three mice sent out on what seems to be a routine mission on the trail of a wayward grain peddler, but which leads them onto the trail of a threat to the very heart of the Mouse Guard.

In the world of Mouse Guard, mice are essentially tiny people. They talk, read, write, make maps, build castles, wield weapons, and pretty much do everything that one might have expected people to do in the 12th century. They live in fortresses like Lockhaven, or towns like Barkstone, or outposts like Calogero, many of which are built into the sides of hills or in hollowed out trees. Oddly, most other animals don't appear to be similarly anthropmorphized, as the snakes, crabs, and bees that appear in the volume seem to be nothing more than ordinary animals. There is a reference in the text to a "weasel warlord", so it seems possible that only mammals are civilized like the mice, but the answer to that question is not found in this volume. Mouse society in the book is basically human society, just with a collection of omnipresent threats that include snakes, hawks, weasels, and foxes.

The story is one of intrigue and betrayal, as Leiam, Kenzie, and Saxon discover that the grain merchant has been killed, but that he was also a traitor selling Lockbridge's secrets to an unknown enemy of the Guard. There is some added excitement in the fact that the grain merchant was killed by a snake that appears to be in the mood for some additional mouse-sized snacks. Eventually, the mice deal with the snake problem, and then head off to try to track down the traitor's contact. The narrative, although told in a fairly simple manner, with relatively limited dialog, serves to convey the character of each of the three mice: Kenzie's impetuous boldness, Saxon's weathered wisdom, and Lieam's youthful bravery and idealism. These traits are conveyed in broad strokes, but are woven into the flow of the story that one almost doesn't notice except in the few cases where character development is handled just a tiny bit less fluidly.

In the meantime, another guard mouse named Sadie is sent to the northern shore to try to find a fellow guard mouse named Conrad who hasn't been heard from in some time. This sequence highlights one of the best features of Mouse Guard by letting the images carry much of the story. Throughout the volume, the dialogue is sparse, and the exposition is mostly confined to short passages at the start of each section, while much of the heavy lifting to set the mood and tone, and even to convey the plot, is done by the lovely artwork of the book. Whereas some graphic novels are essentially simply text stories with a few images attached, Petersen is not afraid to let three or four panels, or even full pages, go by without any dialogue at all, trusting in the strength of the artwork to tell the tale visually. This reliance upon the art as the primary means of communicating with the reader is probably the most distinctive element of Mouse Guard, and is a large part of what makes it such a good series.

The plot moves along at a fairly rapid clip: A treacherous and cruel villain is revealed, noble mice engage in self-sacrifice, an old hero reemerges, and new heroes are forged. Eventually the book climaxes in an all-out assault upon the Mouse Guard stronghold of Lockhaven, giving the reader a ringside seat to its desperate defense. What makes the story interesting is that the villain, dark and brutal as he is, is backed by an army that seems to have at least some halfway-legitimate grievances. The fact that so much of the story is rooted in events that took place prior to the start of the book, almost throwing the reader into the action in media res, makes the world of Mouse Guard feel real and alive, as if one were reading a history rather than a fantasy. Further, despite the fact that much of the plot hinges on events that took place prior to the start of the story - including the legend that is used to rally the traitorous army, and the alleged failings of the Guard that drew the ire of its enemies, the reader never feels like they have missed something.

Overall, Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 is a fundamentally simple story inhabited by simply drawn characters told in a beautiful manner. With compelling images such as Leiam facing down a mouse-eating snake single-handedly, or Conrad fighting a half dozen monstrously huge crabs with nothing but a fishhook, or the apiary keepers of Lockahaven releasing their bees as a last ditch effort to turn back the invading force, or even Midnight and Celanawe dueling over the possession of the Black Axe, the volume presents the story with arresting imagery giving the reader a visual tour through the Mouse Territories. With a story about treachery, bravery, and loyalty, featuring the smallest of the small taking bold action to protect their countrymen, Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 is a spare, gorgeous, and endearing adventure.

Subsequent book in the series: Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

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