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Mouse Guard: The Black Axe h/c (UK Edition)

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe h/c (UK Edition) Mouse Guard: The Black Axe h/c (UK Edition)

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe h/c (UK Edition) back

David Petersen


Page 45 Review by Stephen

“I did not envy knowing the true words of a beast that blames you for its death.”

Well, that made me sit up and think. It occurs early on after Guardmouse Celanawe is first visited by his last living relative Em, who flew in on a crow she can communicate with. Whilst unattended, the crow is savaged by weasels which use the crow’s loose reins as its own leash, pinning it to the shore so that it cannot escape their murderous claws.

All Celanwe can hear are its caws of alarm and desperation; but elderly Em can comprehend every single sound, and tears well up her eyes as she clasps her paws to her muzzle in heart-stricken horror and grief.

This is surprisingly powerful stuff, and if you think that’s the last moment of stomach-churning guilt you will be made to feel vicariously, you are very much mistaken. One moment of elation much later on is shot down in a second as the repercussions of Celanawe’s understandable actions are unveiled. That this is done visually is the genius of it all, for it strikes home immediately; and that you will have been rooting for Celanawe with such passion will leave you feeling guilty by association. Then, I suspect, the ferret king’s strict code of honour, uttered pages before with complete conviction, will come back to haunt you, as it does the brave Guardmouse.

When recommending these all-ages MOUSE GUARD books to parents on the shop floor, I tend to qualify my unqualified admiration for their craft with, “It’s not Watership Down, but then reading Watership Down aged ten can scar you for life…” Well, this instalment is pretty damn harrowing in places.

THE BLACK AXE is a prequel to the earlier instalments, although its prologue kicks off in Spring straight after them and will return there in the epilogue. The body of the book harks back to Spring 1115 with Em bringing loyal Guardmouse Celanawe secret – and partially cryptic – instructions from his Matriarch to treat Em’s commands as her own. Their mission is to retrieve the legendary but lost Black Axe from its last known location on the island of Ildur.

The Black Axe is both a physical ebony weapon granting longevity and the name conferred to whichever warrior wields it. There are strict rules for bequeathing it as Celanawe will learn later, but for now it is enough for him to know what his Matriarch requires of him. For this, they will need stout hearts and a boat – which is where Conrad comes in.

“The younger mouse wasn’t as grizzled, rough, and dead in the eyes as the others. But his fur was stiff from the sea salt and I could catch a whiff of spirits from its muzzle.”

Petersen has immersed himself thoroughly in the perspective of small but stoical rodents, so that the seasons, environment, dietary requirements and in particular the condition of their fur mean different things than they would to us. It’s all in the detail and Petersen does bedraggled very well. The voyages are epic, the individuals’ skill sets so clearly defined so it is impressed upon you how vital each is for the mission and what would be lost if they were as well. They make the most of their natural environment, improvising and adapting as necessary and – while we’re talking about the environment – when you finally spy the ferrets’ Hall On The Hill, you may smile to discover that is also a Hall In The Hill, so similar to the modern eco-home with its thick-turfed roof.

The panel grids are crystal clear, the perspectives quite thrilling, and there are occasional cross sections so you can see more of some structures, often as fully realised as landscape artist Gerhard’s. The compositions within each panel are full-bodied – I cannot think of a weak one – even more so when larger beasts like bears, boars and foxes loom into view. This imparts a palpable sense of danger for mice so small, Black Axe or no. This time round I particularly relished the visualisations of the ferrets, quite distinct from the earlier, skull-adorned weasels, and especially the behaviour of the ferret king himself, which will take you by surprise.

My only qualm is the type-face, though I concede it could just be me: its lower case is adorned with flourishes like accents aigus to represent the medieval times (oh yes, sorry – normally my first words are “feudal fantasy”) which I found difficult to read. But this merely delayed my already slow reading process down; it didn’t impede it.

This is the finest incarnation of an already impressive library so far, hence the length and depth of this review. That it is riven with so much tragedy – not in its Shakespearian sense, necessarily, more heart-rending loss – makes it all the stronger, while the stoicism of Celanawe makes the legend of the Black Axe all the more impressive.