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The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins, 241 pages

Chris Gall
The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett lives in Somerset, England, where he spends all his time, and more, writing his rigorously naturalistic, curiously entertaining, shamelessly popular Discworld novels which have earned him extravagant acclaim and puzzled stares from millions of readers around the world.

SF Site Reading List: Terry Pratchett
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Thief of Time
SF Site Review: Nanny Ogg's Cookbook
SF Site Review: The Truth
SF Site Review: City Watch Trilogy
SF Site Review: The Fifth Elephant
SF Site Review: The Discworld Assassins' Guild Yearbook and Diary 2000
SF Site Review: The Science of Discworld
SF Site Review: The Last Continent
SF Site Review: Hogfather
SF Site Review: Jingo
SF Site Review: Feet of Clay
SF Site Review: Maskerade
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Appearing poised to become a one-man franchise, over the past year or so Terry Pratchett has been a very busy man, since November 2000 publishing two Discworld novels, a fully-illustrated coffee-table edition called Last Heroes, The Fool's Guild Yearbook and Diary, a calendar bearing his name, and now a retold folktale, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents.  While one keeps expecting the recent increased pace in publishing and merchandising spin-offs (earlier Discworld merchandise, all still available, includes a cookbook, maps, and a tourist guide, and I keep anticipating action figures, but as yet have seen none show up in the malls, though a hand puppet of Death might prove amusing), but so far, whether due to the author's own considerable energy and efforts, or the offices of a good business manager, any adverse impact upon the writing appears to be negligible.  In fact, one could argue that Pratchett's last three "regular" Discworld novels -- The Fifth Elephant, Truth, and Thief of Time -- are among the best he has offered.

Ostensibly billed as a book for children, ages 9 through 12, there really is little, in terms of writing style and story, to distinguish the Amazing Maurice from previous Discworld novels.  The cast is new and debatably cuter: rats, a cat, and a couple of kids.  Adults are rather silly.  And, although taking place in Überwald, not a troll, goblin, dwarf, vampire, werewolf, or Igor is in sight.  Still, this seems in most respects typical Terry fare.  In this retelling of the pied piper Discworld-style, the reader encounters a travelling menagerie of rats led by a cat that have accidentally gained human intelligence by eating the refuse dumped outside Unseen University (well, the cat has come about his abilities differently, but that's a story best left unspoken). Their new-found reasoning and speech outweighing past instincts and traditional behaviour, they have banded together to make their way through the world by, suitably enough, scamming Discworld's human inhabitants.  Having enlisted the aid of a quiet and unassuming kid named Keith, this unlikely troupe have been combing the countryside, infesting towns with sudden plagues of rats that Keith, appearing conveniently at hand, is fortuitously ready to rescue in his guise of pied piper.  This cooperative effort has made all -- rats, cat and kid -- quite wealthy, and as Maurice is quick to explain, really doesn't represent theft or dishonesty, as their sleight of tail gains come from "gov-ern-ment money ... trickery [being] what humans are all about," people "so keen on tricking one another all the time that they elect governments to do it for them."  Maurice and his band of rodents give a town's residents tangible "value for money," with all participants pleased and satisfied with the results.  Through the eyes of a cat, criminal intent or ethics is a matter of perception: can't call it a crime if the victims acquiesce and participate in the theft.

But the rats have begun to develop a social conscience, as well as national aspirations, nurtured by the wisdom of a human book they have come upon, Mr. Bunnsy Has an Adventure, whose teachings and examples are gradually being divined and interpreted by a blind, ratty prophet and his disciple. Starting to ascertain that there may be more to a rat's existence than simply scouring for food amongst human garbage, living in sewers or getting back at humanity for generations of traps, poisons, and persecution by widdling in the cream or duping them in their present, possibly publicly-sanctioned confidence game -- a vague musing upon something after death; whispered rumours of maybe the existence of a Big Rat Deep Under the Ground -- they decide that after one more town, they will abandon their part in the pied piper caper, to strike out and establish somewhere their own ratty kingdom.  Yet, as happens in stories with an agreement "to one more time," the town chosen for their final performance, Bad Blintz, ends up posing challenges and dangers that threaten the very existence of an emerging rodent consciousness. 

As with the best Discworld novels, Pratchett uses his Monty Pythonesque approach to fantasy to question and throw barbs both humorous and pointed at human institutions and behaviour, in this case, most tellingly perhaps, in the garb of sentient rats, whose emerging ability for independent thought is constantly threatened by the more primal and fear-inspired instincts of the mob, as well as by the seductions of religion or the security and promise offered by uniting within a homogeneous social order.  Nor is the author's choice of narrative simply a reflection of his desire to draw upon familiar folklore for material, but instead, largely through the delightful observations of life-as-a-story found in the character of Malicia Grimm, or the running commentary sifted from a fictional bedtime tale, a look at the questionable way we inculcate our children with romanticized and often nonsensical notions of life, perceptions of which do not always disappear as we grow into adulthood, a tendency to mythologize or fictionalize our lives and the world persisting long after we've laid the fairy tales of childhood aside.  And within this insight can be seen a criticism not only of folklore, but of the fantasy genre itself.

Much of this is likely to elude the average 9- or 12-year-old (those of you believing you have potential Mensa aspirants on your hands can ignore the caution).  This is not to say that older children may not enjoy this title, but that it seems more directed at the usual or potential Discworld reader than specifically written with a child in mind, regardless of any relevance they may possess to the themes contained within the story.  This, I suspect, is more due to Pratchett being Pratchett than any intention to mislead the reader, and fans of the series, as well as the unknowing that should be, will gladly welcome this newest addition to the Discworld saga.  And while perhaps not among his best efforts, there is much thought here hidden amongst the comedy, and the humour contains all the vitality, whimsicality and at times acerbic wit that the author's readers have come to expect, along with a few notable and new denizens for Discworld that I hope will make reappearances (and yes, Death has a cameo, along with his ratty assistant).  Overall, a pleasant outing and a satisfying supplement to Pratchett's ongoing wink and a nod to parables.  Better that than to only "think of the future as a big trap with no cheese."

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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