Review: Mouse by Kaylena Radcliff
Mouse is a dystopian fantasy that juxtaposes energy guns and chip implants with swordsmen, giant wolves, and a vivid setting. This first book in the Elmnas Chronicles is a pleasant interweaving of both dystopian and fantasy tropes.
Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Mouse. I encourage you to check it out!
Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions. (You can request a review here.)
This review contains minor spoilers.
Mouse Publisher Description:
Mouse wakes not knowing who or where she is. Only the searing pain of the number 146 being burned on her arm with a white hot branding iron. A slave in Misty Summit’s Manufacturing Facility, she is alone until the discovery of a terrible truth launches her on a mission to Elmnas. When a gregarious farm boy and an ancient warrior join her, the ruling powers and a relentless bounty huntress attempt to track her down.
Will they reach the fabled country or die trying?
Follow Kaylena Radcliff:
Mouse begins in a very dystopian setting. She awakes with no memory in Misty Summit Healing Camp where she is assigned a number in lieu of a name, has a wage card implanted under her skin, and is forbidden to speak her native language. The manufacturing work she is assigned involves machine parts including guns.
However, the world beyond the walls of the compound is not limited to dismal depictions of an oppressive society. Rather, the setting is treated much more along the of the fantasy genre. For example, the environment, while significantly impacted by certain climate-altering behaviors of the past generations, is by no means completely lost.
Neither is it treated with the wistfulness of something irrevocably reduced, primarily to serve as an object lesson in environmental politics. The natural world fulfills fantasy reader expectations of beauty and magic. Mouse experiences a sense of temporary security and happiness within the stone walls of a ravine. A wild forest has an autonomous “feeling” and sense of watchfulness, and its very nature rebuffs the evil Coalition. On its edge, Mouse experiences a prophetic sort of dream.
Even the travel through the rough country is reminiscent of Strider leading the hobbits to Rivendell. The group is walking, sometimes on the road and sometimes across country, pursued by enemies. The landscapes they encounter provide opportunity for pleasant exposition about the culture, both current and past, that contributes to the development of a mild Golden Age Myth.
The dystopian elements largely relate to the plot and conflict of the story. Although there are certainly other elements, such as the advanced technologies. There is no single antagonist in this first book of the series. Instead, there is the evil corporate global authoritarian regime which pursues them.
The political landscape is not extensively developed, but when it touches individual characters, such as the family of Mouse’s new friend Toma, their reactions are believable. His parents are primarily concerned with protecting their own children, making their decision to turn Mouse over to the authorities plausible. They are not merely the “bad adults” trope of the genre, but are realistic people who struggle with making a bad choice (turn Mouse over to evil authorities) out of good motivations (protect their children).
In fact, the main character in Mouse defies genre expectations, which in the case of dystopian YA is a serious positive.
Mouse is a palatable female lead. First, she is not overpowered. There is a revelation of supernatural abilities towards the end, giving a typical fantasy promise of hidden talent. However, it builds on her dreams and the history of her people that has already been established. In this part of the series, at least, it does not contribute to a Mary Sue persona.
Furthermore, Mouse lacks the chip on her shoulder, rebellious attitude of many dystopian teens, which makes her behavior and especially her dialogue pleasant. The interactions between her and the male characters are genuine; she is not constantly seeking to win over them or compete against them. So much of female lead personality these days is feminist wish-fulfillment, but Mouse is not so antagonistic or confrontational with her allies.
She is also not a rebel in the political sense. A friend brings her into the conflict, out of her head-down mentality and desire to avoid attention. Even after she achieves her freedom, Mouse does not take a stance in opposition to the oppressors. The story does not adopt the usual “tear it all down,” pro-activism message. There is no utopia alternative envisioned either. Instead, Mouse’s goal is constructive: to help her homeland. Following a character working to build something feels more noble and hopeful and the tearing down of an evil regime in the process, gratifying.
Heritage Is Important
I found the strongest theme of the story to be about the importance of heritage. In the prison / Health Center, the global agenda victimizes people of all ethnicities and races. The inmates are very diverse. No one remembers where they came from or who they were before they arrived there. They are cut off from their memories, history, stories, religion, and people. The Elmnas people, like Mouse, are especially hated and are also forbidden their language.
Mouse seeks her past through her memory dreams and her friendship with the only other prisoner who speaks her language. Once she escapes, she eagerly listens to legends and tales of her homeland. This interest is treated positively, as something natural and worthwhile.
The distinction between peoples in our own world is so politicized that accusations of prejudice and racism nearly always intrude on the conversation. With the global element of the Coalition, it is tempting to map their behavior onto real-world Globalists: separate individuals from their people, their beliefs, their pasts and turn them into obedient wage-slaves, all races finally united under one banner. Call it for their own good, their health, even, and villainize any nationalists who desire a different outcome.
At one point, Mouse wonders if she will regret delving into her forgotten past, since it might be painful. She decides that knowing the truth is worth the risk. There is no subversion here. Mouse has a noble goal to regain her heritage, and the reader has no reason to believe that it won’t be good and satisfying for her to achieve that goal.
Check Out Mouse!
Mouse is a satisfying dystopian fantasy and opens up deeper discussion into the dystopian elements of our own world from a perspective that is usually a bit neglected by the genre. I look forward to following Mouse more in the rest of the Elmnas Chronicles!