UPDATE: Now available in paperback in the US
We know that mice are at the bottom of the food chain but how do they survive? Well, according to David Petersen’s medieval fantasy, they’ve developed a sophisticated organisation of villages and towns, with well-known and well-defended paths between them. The towns are hidden and secret, and to protect them there’s a group of selfless individuals, like a kind of militia, called the Guard. In past times the Guard has been called upon to protect the mice in times of war – a prolonged campaign against marauding weasels is hinted at in the book. But in the time the book is set (1152 according to the title, but there’s no indication of whether that’s supposed to be based on the same calendar as ours) the Guard are involved mostly as scouts, bodyguards and trackers.
The book focuses on a handful of these Guards as they uncover a plot to overthrow the order of mouse society and install an omnipotent dictator, with a view to eradicating local predators rather than protecting against them. On the way they fight snakes and crabs, and there’s an epic mouse versus mouse battle. We’re also treated to a glance at the huge world Petersen has created for his mice, from rocky, ivy covered fortresses to sleepy villages hidden in tree trunks.
It’s this perfectly formed world, with a rich and detailed history, that is part of what makes Mouse Guard such a compelling book. The background is coherent and solid, making it hard to believe this is the first volume. That Petersen has been kicking these ideas around in his head for 10 years is probably part of it – there’s nothing part-baked about any of it.
One of the other touches of magic is the illustration. Petersen has created a beautiful natural landscape and filled it with wonderfully realised mice. These critters look like real mice, who just happen to stand upright, wear capes and carry swords. Bind these these two elements together with a compelling plot and you’ve got a stunning piece of work.
The anthropomorphic characters might leave you thinking it’s a book for children, and it is suitable for kids who can handle a bit of mortality, but it’s layered and detailed enough to keep grown-ups happy too.