After the treacherous attack on the Mouse Kingdoms by Midnight, and the siege of Lockhaven, Gwendolyn, the leader of Lockhaven, scatters some of the most trusted of her Mouse Guard through the cities, having them act as ambassadors between the city, and having them gather the supplies that Lockhaven needs to survive the coming winter.
But it isn't going to be easy. Neither Lockhaven or the other Mouse Cities are ready for the harsh winter after Midnight's little conflict. Six guardmice make for the city of Sprucetruck, whose gates are already buried beneath the ever-falling snow. The guardsmice tender Lady Gwendolyn's offer of goodwill and an invitation to a summit in seven days at Lockhaven, then ask for some of the Sprucetruck elixir. After receiving two bottles of the precious elixir, they leave to return to Lockhaven.
At Lockhaven, Rand the Shield-bearer lies in a swoon, sick and feverish. The healer despairs of his life, but Lady Gwendolyn hopes and prays that Rand will come back to her. Meanwhile the guardsmice fight off an owl, and fall prey to a pit in the snow. Only two mice, Celandine and Lieam, are left atop the snow, while the mice below, under the command of Kensie, must make their way through the abandoned weasel city of Darkheather to return home while Lieam and Celandine make their way overland.
But a plunge into a freezing river makes Lieam nearly freeze to death, and then freezing rain begins to fall. Lieam and Celandine must make for Lockhaven with all haste, while, in Lockhaven itself, the healer discovers the source of Rand's symptoms- he's been poisoned with Hemlock! Lady Gwendolyn orders the gates of the city closed to try and catch the culprit.
Meanwhile the mice in Darkhaven discover that the city is not quite abandoned after all- another animal has taken up residence in the city- bats, and they look down on mice as lesser creatures, seeing nothing wrong with killing the mice in the name of their strange and ineffable gods. And as Lady Gwendolyn seeks the one who would slay Rand, Lieam and Celanwe must fight the owl that vexed them earlier- with only themselves and Celanwe's axe between them.
I enjoyed this book, which is a follow-up to the graphic novel, "Mouse Guard, Autumn 1152" by David Petersen as well. I actually found it much like the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, if darker in tone. None of these mice seem to be as cheerful or carefree, especially in the midst of war and want, and we never seem to see any children in any of these cities. Now, this may be because they are sequestered in a nursery somewhere, but the cities all seem to be full of adult mice doing serious tasks. If I had one word to categorize this series, it would be grim.
The characters are grim, and their world seems to have an essential darkness to it that makes the stories remarkably gritty- there never really seems to be a time to rest and recover. Up until the very end, when a new source of water is discovered for Lockhaven, all that happens is war and conflict and death. But even though the story is happening to mice, and they have rabbits for horses (they can understand the speech of the rabbits), this is a remarkably fantasy universe, and it would not have been out of place with human characters doing and performing the same deeds.
This series is different. Like Maus, it shows a group of mice performing heroic deeds and surviving in a very different world. It reads like a wonderful, very grimdark fantasy, and I found myself enjoying it and looking forward to more. Recommended.