Let’s get the scarred illusionist in the room out of the way, shall we? By the time The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents was first published, in 2001, Discworld was beginning to be eclipsed by the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling’s fourth book was a genuine pop-culture phenomenon, effectively kickstarting the modern trend of adults dabbling in YA fiction (and why shouldn’t they?).
Rowling’s incredible success would cause cynics to raise an eyebrow at Pratchett’s first young adult book for the Discworld being published at a time when Potter fandom was rampant. But he praised the series as being “beautifully cooked”. And the Discworld has always had crossover appeal. Most fans I know were like me. The books were first picked up around the age of 12 or 13, and they didn’t leave our hands for a good few years afterwards. Pratchett did what any great author does, Rowling included – he never patronised the reader. If you wanted to read the Discworld, you were welcome.
Discussions about this book being his first young adult Discworld novel are moot. His popularity has shown he has had legions of teen fans and he had written several YA titles before embarking on this series. What is important is this was the first Discworld book explicitly marketed for the young adult market. The reason this is so interesting to me is because the content of Amazing Maurice is so bloody dark. Let’s do a quick list of what happens in the novel. There is cannibalism, children getting assaulted, poisoning, mind control, battles against the darkness that resides in all of us. This is coupled with debates about what makes us us and how to negotiate diplomatic solutions between very very different people (and rats. And cats).
This is children’s fiction as it should be. I’ve written before of my love of Roald Dahl, no stranger to exposing children to twisted tales. You don’t need me to tell you darkness has long been a mainstay in children’s fiction from the Brothers Grimm onwards. Amazing Maurice is considerably darker than other Discworld novels but is written with a care and intelligence that places it alongside some of his best.
It also has a drastic change in what we have seen in the Discworld over the past 27 books. We have chapters. My. God.
Amazing Maurice is the now normal Pratchett spin on classic tales, this one the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. After eating *something* left outside the Unseen University (you would, wouldn’t you?), a plague of rats have become something, um, more, along with Maurice, the streetwise alleycat (replacing Maurice with O’Malley would have made the title clunkier). Maurice brings together the rats, along with the seemingly simple Keith as their piper, and decides to con as many people as they can. They end up in Bad Blintz, where all of the rats are missing and the rat-catchers look decidedly dodgy. Finding these rodents reveals a primal darkness that the Educated Rodents thought they had left behind them.
What we get is Pratchett 101: a primer to the wider Discworld series but written with an impressive enthusiasm. There is no sense of a cash-in here. Given Pratchett’s youthful love of what his library had to offer, he seems like the last author who would churn out a children series for the money. Also: he’s absolutely loaded at this point. In a speech to the 2004 Worldcon, he said the following:
The thing is that when you write for kids you have to be more precise. You have to answer the questions. You can’t leave people hanging around. You can’t rely on them filling in too many gaps for themselves. But kids are also remarkably astute about narrative these days. They’ve got plot savvy…So it really stretches me to write the children’s books. You have to stay ahead of them.
Pratchett has a lot of fun with this in the book, lightly mocking the expectations of Malicia, the bookworm Mayor’s daughter of Bad Blintz. Malicia offers a running commentary on the events of the book, arguing that things should be happening in a certain way, because that’s how fairy-tales work:
It seems to Maurice, while he was watching Malicia make up her mind, that her mind worked in a different way to other people’s minds. She understood all the hard things without even thinking. Magical rats? Yeah, yeah. Talking cats? Been there, done that, bought the singlet. It was the simple things that were hard.
She later gets a bit postmodern, complaining about Mr Bunnsy has an Adventure, the book a lot of the rats look to as gospel. If people are going to make up stupid stories about animals pretending to be human, at least there could be a bit of interesting violence… Which Amazing Maurice has in spades.
The problem is not that books are bad, it’s that believing solely in fiction means you are removing yourself from the real world. Malicia is like Dangerous Beans, the rat who believes in Mr Bunnsy the most. While he is “a very kind and thoughtful” rat, as Keith puts it, the trouble is, see, that he thinks everyone else is like him. People like that are bad news, kid.
In another book, the thoughtful Dangerous Beans would eventually become the leader of the rat pack. But the real world in Uberwald is nasty and one where the much more pragmatic for which Darktan is appropriate. Life was real, life was practical, and life could get taken away really quickly if you weren’t paying attention…
And he’s right. This book celebrates clear thinking and knowing your weaknesses. It’s little wonder Darktan is a expert trap disarmer. The traps throughout the book represent more than just a piece of cheese on a string. Traps result in you reverting to your base nature. Humans resort to violence or cowardice, cats to hunting rats. The educated rats freak out completely when they see the multitude of cages the rat-catchers are using to kidnap and breed rodents for fighting. That’s what happens when you let yourself go, Maurice thought. They thought they’d got educated, but in a tight corner a rat is just a rat.
The figure of Spider, the rat king who is comprised of eight rats tied together, is terrifying. With his ability to control minds, Spider is the darkness inside all of us and a theme Pratchett returns to in the forthcoming Night Watch, which was originally titled The Nature of the Beast. And Spider was created by humans. His evil is our fault, the weakness of humans:
Humans have tortured and poisoned and killed and all of that is now given form in me and there will be REVENGE…I am filth and darkness! I am the noise under the floor, the rustling in the walls! I am the thing that undermines and despoils! I am the sum of all that you deny! I am your true self!
Maurice the alley-cat is streetwise and cynical but even he devolves back into his former ferocious feline state once Spider bites into his mind. He’s a neatly ambiguous character because while he overcomes his base self, helping to defeat Spider and bring peace between the rats and Bad Blintz, he chooses to leave the rats at the end of the novel because he can’t stay in one place. It’s not who he is. You’re left asking the question about how much can we change who we are.
It is down to us to make the best out of what we have, which is why Darktan is the best hope for the rats. But he realises he alone is not enough for the rats. That’s why stories are important – what Dangerous Beans helps them do is understand. He’s a trap-hunter! He goes ahead of us and finds the dangerous ideas and thinks about them and traps them in words and makes them safe and shows us the way through.
These politics of compromise are hilariously illustrated at the end of the novel, where Darktan thrashes out a settlement with the Mayor of Bad Blintz. The latter’s illustration of how leadership works is so darkly cynical (and true): I have to make it all work…And every year it turns out that I haven’t upset enough people for them to choose anyone else as mayor. So I have to do it again. It’s a lot more complicated than I ever thought it would be.
Even the happy ending is barbed. The residents of Bad Blintz welcome their new rodent neighbours, reinventing the village as one of Uberwald’s greatest tourist attractions, but it makes no difference whatsoever. The village is a wonderful demonstration of tolerance, showing visitors how we can all live together, but:
And then most of them go back to their own towns and set their traps and put down their poisons, because some minds you couldn’t change with a hatchet. But a few see the world as a different place.
It’s not perfect, but it works. The thing about stories is you have to pick the ones that last.
And that’s the book in four sentences.
It’s preposterous that Terry Pratchett had to wait some 16 years for his first major award but Amazing Maurice, which won the Carnegie Medal, definitely warranted a prize (you can read his excellent acceptance speech in full here). It is dark, intelligent, hilariously subversive and would shock most parents if they picked it from their kid’s hands to find out what they were reading. I don’t think there’s higher praise for a children’s book and it bodes well for Tiffany Aching, who is finally just a few books away.
But first Sam Vimes needs our attention. He is lost in time, travelling back to revolutionary Ankh-Morpork in a Discworldian spin on Quantum Leap. Oh boy. See you next week.