Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one novel at a time.
Today’s entry is the 28th book, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents.
First Appearance: a YA Discworld book.
Introduced to Discworld: I dunno. Animal rights for rats?
Plot: Maurice has it good. He travels from town to town with, as he puts it, a stupid-looking kid and a bunch of talking, thinking rats. The group basically pull the pied piper bit in each town they visit, where the rats run around and make a mess and then the kid for a small fee plays his pennywhistle and has the rats dance out of town. Maurice is basically the manager.
He’s also a talking cat.
But the rats and the kid (who, it turns out, is named Keith) are getting tired of all this traveling and scamming and want to pull one last score. Pulling into a small village in Uberwald, they find a village with a massive food shortage, and a pair of rat catchers daily bringing in large masses of rat tails. Except, Maurice and his companions can find no sign of any rats anywhere. What’s really going on? And who or what is The Spider?
Can Maurice, Keith, the rats, and the mayor’s obnoxious, story-obsessed daughter get to the bottom of the mystery and still pull off one last scam?
Commentary: At this point in the series, Pratchett started writing books for young adults set in the Discworld. It’s not like he hasn’t used talking animals before, given the many appearances of Gaspode. There aren’t many references to the rest of the series here. Death, and of course the Death of Rats, both get cameos, and Maurice and the rats gained their intelligence due to hanging around the back of Ankh-Morpork’s Unseen University. Heck, this book even has chapter divisions, unlike most of his stuff which is usually one long novel with small breaks here and there.
That said, aside from an absence of some of Pratchett’s more adult humor (usually in the form of double entendres and the rare swearword), this book makes for a nice, short addition to the series. Pratchett continues to mine his favorite themes, this time by using his talking rats (all of whom take took their names from empty cans and food packages) to talk about how human treat animals and each other. It may be one thing to see Rincewind or the witches discuss how dumb and violent people can be, but it means something else when it comes from a half-blind albino rat named Dangerous Beans. Maurice himself isn’t above pointing out the problems humans cause both rats and cats, though Maurice has his own issues.
Maurice, it seems, is developing a conscience for the first time in his or any cat’s life. He makes sure any small rodent he attacks can’t talk before eating it, which it turns out was something he did once before and that was how he gained his intelligence, by eating a missing rat from the group. The guilt bothers him greatly, even though when he finally confesses, the rats don’t seem to mind all that much since it was before he was intelligent.
The theme of human abuse of other living things comes into play with the book’s main villain, the Spider. The Spider, it turns out, (SPOILERS here) is a Rat King, one of those masses of rats tied together somehow at the tail. The ratcatchers made it, but the combined eight rats now had a malevolent hivemind intelligence of its own and managed to come up with most of the bad things happening to both the humans and the rats in the village. It actually takes the aforementioned Dangerous Beans to see through the Rat King’s lies. Dangerous Beans is the thinker of the rats, the one who’s coming up with an idea of morality and how to make life better. Even the new leader of the pack, Darktan, realizes that Dangerous Beans is actually the most important rat in the colony.
Another favorite Pratchett theme is how stories don’t really work, and pragmatism is a better answer than romance. While the rats do actually develop a religion of their own (and Pratchett the atheist doesn’t suggest this is a bad thing), one that includes the Bone Rat (Death of Rats fills the role without realizing it when he shows up late), the mayor’s daughter Malicia, obsessed with the stories of her grandmother and aunt (the sisters Grim), it is obvious she’s wrong more often than not but unable to see it. It also helps that no one seems to like her very much. Maurice doesn’t. Maurice actually has weird thoughts of his own. Why does he care so much about money? He’s a cat. It has no use for him. Maurice doesn’t really have any answers for that.
That pragmatic streak, along with the running gag of pulling scams because people don’t know they’re being scammed by stories, even comes into play with the appearance of a real piper at the end of the story. The man is getting by on his reputation, and when he lets Keith in on his secrets, it really isn’t a surprise. Keith himself isn’t even all that shocked. He says at one point he only looks stupid.
The book ends with a new status quo in the village as Maurice departs alone, perhaps for an adventure Pratchett never got around to. Besides, one can never go wrong with a tap dancing rat named Sardines there to explain how much showmanship is an important part of leadership.
NEXT BOOK: Sam Vimes was chasing a serial killer through the streets of Ankh-Morpork, pining for the good old days. Then a weird time warp zaps him and the killer back in time to those very good old days, when they weren’t as good as he thought. Be back soon for Night Watch.