Book review: “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” by Terry Pratchett Previous item Book review: “The... Next item Book review: “Exposition”...

Book review: “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” by Terry Pratchett

Maurice, the beat-up but brainy cat, has leapt from the stable loft onto the mouse in the time-honored tradition of predator and prey — only to stop short when the mouse squeaks, “Squeak!”

“Okay, here’s the deal,” said Maurice to the shivering ball in his claws. “You only have to say something.  Anything. ‘Let me go,’ maybe, or even ‘Help!’ Squeak does not cut the mustard.  It’s just a noise.  Just ask, and I’ll let you go.  No one can say I’m not highly moral in that respect.”

“Squeak!” screamed the mouse.

“Fair enough,” said Maurice, and killed it instantly.  He carried it back to the corner, where Keith was now sitting up in the straw and eating a pickled beef sandwich.

“It couldn’t talk,” said Maurice hurriedly…“I mean, I gave it a chance…It only had to say it didn’t want to be eaten.”

Maurice is a cat with an existential problem.

“I didn’t know I was anyone!”

It all started — as Terry Pratchett explains in his 2001 novel The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents — when some rats dined on the garbage in the dump outside the wall of the Unseen University of the Discworld Wizards.

Magic, being magic, still had enough oomph as trash to transform the rats from brute creatures to thinking beings who could talk and read and, in a manner, write.  One of them, Additives, by name, had the bad luck to run into Maurice who, in eating Additives, ingested magic as well.

Result:  Maurice could think and talk — and feel guilty and sorry.

He became friends with the thinking, talking rats, as well as with Keith, a seemingly dopey kid who was good at playing a piper, actually any horn.  They worked together in an alliance that was, at times, somewhat uneasy.  Finally, Maurice has to tell some of the rats his deep, dark secret about his ingestion of Additives.

“I didn’t know he was anyone!  I didn’t know I was anyone!  I ate him!  He’d been eating the stuff on the dump and I ate him, so that’s how I got Changed!”…

“Are you sorry for what you did?” asked Dangerous Beans.

Well, yes, Maurice is sorry, so sorry that he still has nightmares.  And the worst part, he tells Dangerous Beans and his friend Peaches, is that “Cat’s don’t go around feeling sorry!  Or guilty!  We never regret anything!  Do you know what it feels like, saying, ‘Hello, food, can you talk?’ That’s not how a cat is supposed to behave!”

“Old food tins”

At the heart of Amazing Maurice is the question of what it means to be a human being.

Yes, the central characters are a cat and a whole lot of rats with odd names, but, as they are trying to figure out how to cope with all the thoughts and ideas that flood into their minds now, the result is morality, philosophy and spirituality.

Amazing Maurice is a fable about the choices each human makes every day about whether to be brutish and fearful or to be kind and hopeful — to live in a rat-eat-rat world or to cooperate.

There are two humans, both around 12 or so, who have a lot to do with the rats and Maurice — Keith, the orphan whom they have befriended, and Malicia, the mayor’s daughter who loves stories but is more than a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to these fantastical animals.

She thinks, for instance, that Dangerous Beans is a stupid name, and Keith explains:

“Shssh! They just learned words off old food tins and signs and things!  They didn’t know what the words meant — they just chose them because they liked the sounds!”

“Yes, but…Dangerous Beans? It sounds as if he makes you —”

“It’s his name. Don’t make fun of it.”

“Sad and worrying”

Dangerous Beans, one of the smallest and weakest of the rats — he’s nearly blind — is the Clan’s philosopher, although the rats haven’t gotten to the point of using that sort of word yet. 

Peaches is his aide de camp, reading to him from the children’s book the rats have found and writing down rules that he comes up with, such as one that requires rats not to eat other rats.

Malicia looked down at two rats.  One was…well, just a small rat, although sleeker than most of the ones she’d seen.  In fact most of the ones she’d seen had been dead, but even the living ones had always been…twitchy, nervy, sniffing the air all the time.  This one just…watched.  It stared right at her.

The other rat was white, and even smaller.  It was also watching her, although peering was a better word.  It had pink eyes.  Malicia had never been very interested in other people’s feelings, since she’d always considered her own were a lot more interesting, but there was something sad and worrying about that rat.

“Just a word”

The rats and Maurice and Keith have been going from town to down carrying out a minor scam to raise money.  They pretend there is a rat infestation, and, then, Keith pipes the rats out of the town in exchange for 30 gold pieces, about 1/10 the going rate.  The idea is to buy an island where they can live in freedom away from humans and other dangerous animals.

But, in the town of Bad Blintz where Malicia’s father is mayor, they discover that there’s a much more serious, much more violent and much more evil — a word they have had to come up with — scheme going on. It involves several evil — there’s that word again — humans and a telepathic rat king.

The battles that ensue are violent and deadly. For much of the time, though, Malicia thinks it’s all just a story.  As Maurice says to Keith:

“And our lady friend, she thinks life works like a fairy tale.”

“Well, that’s harmless, isn’t it?” asked Keith.

“Yeah, but in fairy tales, when someone dies…it’s just a word.”

Indeed, near the end of the book, Maurice has a conversation with that Pratchett regular, Death, who, at one point, notes, “THAT IS VERY UNCATLIKE OF YOU, MAURICE.  I’M AMAZED.”

But, of course, the title of the book is The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, so amazement, even for Death, is par for the course.

“Very private”

A final note:  Amazing Maurice was the first of six Young Adult novels by Pratchett in his Discworld series.  In fact, his final book in the series — published five months after his death in 2015 from early onset Alzheimer’s — was a Young Adult book, The Shepherd’s Crown.

As a devoted Pratchett reader, making my second trek through the 41 Discworld books, I’m not sure that it makes any sense to label Amazing Maurice and the other five as Young Adult novels.

Yes, I guess, if you look at the plots, these six might be a little simpler and a little more geared to ideas and subjects that interest pre-teens and teens.  But, really, Pratchett doesn’t pull any punches in them.

The other 35, for instance, feature serious themes, one of which is death which, as I’ve indicated above, is all over the place in Amazing Maurice.  They also feature a lot of witty and wry descriptions, and so does Amazing Maurice.

Consider this scene involving the rat Darktan fighting a terrier named Jacko.

Dancing back and forth under the spinning, yapping Jacko, Darktan waited for him moment…

…and saw it, and lunged, and bit hard.

Jacko’s eyes crossed.  A piece of Jacko that was very private and of interest only to Jacko and any lady dogs he might happen to meet was suddenly a little ball of pain.

Swashbuckling

For some reason, I want to describe Pratchett’s humor and storytelling as swashbuckling.  I think it’s because he tells his tales with such verve and such enjoyment and such skill.

And, to my mind, Pratchett’s Young Adult Discworld novels are as swashbuckling as all the other Discworld novels.  And that is the highest praise I can give.

Patrick T. Reardon

3.10.22

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