There’s little question that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the standard-bearer in the realm of fantasy fiction, so it’s no surprise that many authors working in the genre try to imitate the laboriously detailed world of Middle Earth. It’s the same in any medium: it’s hard to find the true talents amidst the countless pretenders to the throne, resulting in stagnation instead of innovation. Casual and devoted readers are left sifting through a glut of trilogies and “cycles” in the form of books like doorstops, each accompanied by a map of some imaginary world.
David Petersen’s debut, Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, has a map, but its similarities to the cartographic-fetishists of fantasy end there. The story is epic, the characters larger-than-life, but the scope is scaled down, literally, to the size of mice. The book centers on three mice — Lieam, Saxon and Kenzie — that, as members of the Guard, function as “escorts, pathfinders, weather watchers, scouts and body guards for the mice who live among the territories.”
Predators from outside the mice-controlled territories — snakes, weasels and crabs — lurk through the pages of Mouse Guard, but the real threat comes from within. The three protagonists, sent out to search for a missing grain merchant, uncover a plot to overthrow Lockhaven, the central city of the mouse territories, by a separatist militia known as the Ax. Celanawe, an aged mouse who claims to be a hero from the Guard’s past, joins them in the fight to protect Lockhaven.
It’s a basic, mythic story that’s at once fresh and familiar. Petersen’s mice are no different from Tolkien’s hobbits or even the Biblical David: these characters struggle against forces both literally and figuratively bigger than themselves. By juxtaposing the characters’ physical size and the size of their struggle, the reader is further invested in the story and the metaphor is strengthened. Storytellers in every medium use these tools: Petersen uses them with precision.
In addition to the aforementioned map, Mouse Guard has a rich mythology of its own, alluded to in the prose preambles at the beginning of each chapter. Here, we learn bits of information about the matriarchal structure of the Guard (an aspect of the story, unfortunately, never fully explored), and a war with the weasels from a few years before. As in the original Star Wars trilogy (whose Jedi were obviously a model for the Guard), the larger back-story is alluded to, but only a few, spare details are given to illustrate the story we’re reading. Withholding further details lets the reader’s mind wander through this world, creating a richer experience of the story by giving us the power to expand it according to our own imagination.
Petersen never veers into melodrama, maintaining a near-perfect balance of detail and restraint, rarely going beyond the dialogue or explication needed to move the story along. The narrative is fast-paced and lean, its quiet tone amplifying the urgency of the characters’ struggle. Etched into a doorway inside Lockhaven’s storehouse are words that sum up Petersen’s storytelling style: “Only what ye need, and not a morsel more.”
Still, there’s always room for missteps. Late in the story, Gwendolyn, matriarch of the Guard, says, “The Guard will protect mice…but never at the cost of the cities and towns’ own liberties.” Though hardly irrelevant to the story, this kind of bumper sticker sloganeering is jarring and plainly overt in a story of such quiet excellence.
By contrast, Petersen’s artwork is anything but spare. Every scene is lit with a director’s eye for color, and the backgrounds, from the heavy stone walls of Lockhaven to the endless, towering forest, are rendered in beautiful detail. At no moment in the book does Petersen pander to younger readers by “going cute” with his mice. He clearly cares about the characters and the world he’s created, and his artwork shows it.
Mouse Guard is a book of endless imagination and infinite appeal, a book to be shared and celebrated by readers of all ages. Like the characters in his book, Petersen has fought and won against near-impossible odds, rising above a chorus of one-note storytellers to prove his voice must be heard.