My lock-down guilty pleasures Discworld series reread continues with another novel I have not read before.
Let me explain. I discussed at length in my previous post the fact that The Last Hero and Maurice were not originally considered part of the Discworld series of novels. The change, from them being Discworld stories to becoming part of the series happened around 2009 or thereabouts. The Amazing Maurice has even weaker claims to be part of the series than Hero – apart from the setting (Uberwald, although it really could be anywhere vaguely middle-European), a mention of the Unseen University, and a brief appearance by Death and the Death of Rats, this is very much a stand-alone novel. So although I religiously bought each Discworld novel as they were published, from as early as The Colour of Magic, I missed some of the Discworld stories, including, obviously, this one.
The Amazing Maurice is marketed as a children’s or younger reader’s novel. I don’t want to argue with that because what makes a children’s novel is a matter of authorial and publisher’s judgment that I am not in a position to question, But there are dark elements to the story that I will come back to later which could easily upset a younger audience.
The Amazing Maurice is a cat who has acquired the ability to talk. He did this by eating a rat who had the same ability, having lived on a rubbish dump outside the Unseen University, where lots of background magic had accumulated. Maurice works with a troupe of talking rats with the same powers, and their human, Keith, a piper. They travel around from town to town embezzling communities by a minor variation on the Pied Piper scam – the rats make a nuisance of themselves, and then for a modest fee Keith pipes them out of town. We join them as they arrive at a town in Uberwald called Bad Blintz. This, they promise themselves, is going to be their last heist before retirement, the set up line for so many unsuccessful adventures (and bad movies). Maurice is the brains of the operation, keeping the fairly gormless Keith out of trouble as best he can.
Bad Blintz turns out to be a troubled place. Rats have already impoverished the town, and while food continues to disappear there don’t seem to be many surviving rats left. Keith meets the mayor’s daughter Malicia who is obsessed with story-telling, and has a thin grasp on the difference between reality and fiction. For example, when she is searching the town’s rat-catchers’ hut for clues she keeps leaning casually on walls hoping false walls will open. The fact that they do find a hidden trapdoor, leading to a network of cellars full of stolen food and caged rats, naturally encourages this fantasy. Malicia learns about Maurice and the rats ability to talk but is unfazed by it – it’s the sort of things that happens in stories.
At the heart of the novel is the quest to work out what is happening in Bad Blintz – where all the food is going, and what has happened to the rats? In the course of that quest we are introduced to many of the rats in the ‘clan’ – their aging leader Hamnpork, Dangerous Beans a spiritual rat, his assistant Peaches, and Darktan, the trap expert, to name a few. In the nightmarish cellars of the town they meet and confront the sinister Rat King, Spider, who is able to control rats, cats and even humans with the powers of his mind.
Some of the scenes with the rats, caged and cannibalistic, are vivid and scary, and I can only imagine how a pre-teen reader would react to them. There are also some character deaths, not all of which are temporary, and while the happy-ever-after ending is well constructed and satisfactory, the scares and genuine sense of threat along the way contribute to that sense of darkness I mentioned earlier. Pratchett has learned from Roald Dahl and others that stories for children can be nasty.
Pratchett was a wonderfully thoughtful writer, always with something interesting and original to say about the big issues of life, so I should not have been surprised to read such insight and compassion in a children’s story about talking rats. Along with the ability to speak the rats (and Maurice) have developed consciousness, and dare I say it souls. They develop concepts such as the self, an awareness of evil, and debate moral issues such as whether to eat non-talking rats, and what happens to them after they die. The rats are not overly anthropomorphised, certainly not sentimentally. They still widdle on everything, can’t wear clothes because they get in the way, and take their names from the sides of tin cans. In case we miss the point the contrast is emphasised by the snippets from a children’s story which the rats carry around in a manner akin to a holy book. This gave Maurice and the rats a depth of character that you just don’t expect in a story about talking animals, and for a brief moment my lifelong aversion to rats was abated.
Storytelling is an important theme in the novel. Malicia think life is just a story, the kind in which there is always a happy ending. Speaking of endings, I think Maurice has one of the most satisfying and effective endings in the series. The rats work out a purpose in life, which isn’t to run away and live on an island, but to use the power of narrative force to shape their destinies;
“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.”The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
“And what if your story doesn’t work?”
“You keep changing it until you find one that does.”
Maurice is an important link in the Discworld chain because it kept the franchise alive and fresh, introducing a whole new group of readers to Discworld, who would of course go on to read the ‘main’ series. It was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 2002. This was Pratchett’s first major award, and in acceptance he gave this wonderful quote reflecting on his ambivalent about the fantasy genre:
“Stick in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer’