Like many, I was curious to see how a ‘Young Adult’ Discworld book would differ from the rest of the series which, despite the evidence of their popularity with a young audience, would henceforth have to be classed as ‘Old Adult’ in order to retain intellectual consistency. The answer would seem to be that a YA book wasn’t told from a human perspective, but rather a by-and-large talking animal perspective, with the odd human interjection in much the same manner as when Gaspode intrudes his viewpoint into the main series.
In which case, that means that The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is the only YA Discworld actually written, because what was meant to be succeeding books in this variant turned into the Tiffany Aching series, and that became a sequel, spiritually, to the now-abandoned Three Witches series, and whilst you might get away with calling the first couple of those books Young Adult, you’re not going to be convincing anyone with Wintersmith or I Shall Wear Midnight.
Of course, there’s rather more to it than that, but we’ll discuss some of those more subtle aspects when we meet young Tiffany herself. For now, let us concentrate on Maurice himself, and those Educated Rodents.
What we have here is a children’s fairy-tale that’s got its feet so firmly on the ground that they may as well be set in stone: archetypal Pratchett territory. As is the concept of a children’s story: Pratchett had already written both the Bromeliad books and the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy by now. It’s also a typically sardonic twist on The Pied Piper of Hamelin, re-done as a scam.
Take one Piper, actually a stupid-faced kid of indeterminate age, and a pack of rats who have been magically changed so that they can now think, reason, plan, co-operate and, not unincidentally, Talk, and throw in a wily scam artist called Maurice, who happens to be a street cat, and the trick becomes fairly obvious. The stupid-faced kid (whose name is actually Keith) arrives in town on a wave of rats, carefully terrorising everyone, pipes them down to the river – what Robert Browning appears to have overlooked when renewing his poetic licence is that rats can swim – then meets then en route to the next time to divvy up the cash.
This last part is handled by Maurice. The stupid-faced kid (I’ll call him Keith from now on, it’s quicker to type) is only interested in piping, whilst the rats have their own issues to handle, both practical as led by Darktan, head of the Traps and Poison Disposal Squad, and existential, which is the role for Dangerous Beans, the near-blind albino rat who is the pack’s Shaman.
It’s a lovely gag of an idea and the dramatic tension of the story comes in the collision between the rats and a town where the rat-catchers have devised their own scam that’s bleeding the town dry. There’s an even better parallel between the two sides, for just as the rats are following the plans of the devious Maurice, so too do the rat-catchers have someone pulling their strings, only it’s a much more sinister and dangerous boss…
We all know the stories about Rat Kings, don’t we?
To complete the mix, we have young Malicia. Malicia, daughter of the Mayor and niece to the famous Sisters Grim, is a girl of an equivalently indeterminate age to Keith, and a story-teller. By that I don’t mean a liar, although the line between the two is dangerously blurred. No, Malicia tells stories because she’s obsessed with them, and that obsession demands that she turn everything she sees into a Story, obeying the tenets of narrative. She’s incapable at this stage of understanding the distinction between Story and Life.
What we have thus far is enough for a fine and entertaining children’s story from any good author, although this is perhaps a pertinent moment to point out that there is not much in this story, whether it be parameters or particulars, to make it a Discworld story. We’re not in any geographic place that can be identified on the Mapp of Discworld, and whilst the magic behind the transformation of the rats is characteristic of the sort of thing that happens when you live in rubbish tips used by Wizards, the link is too generic to necessitate a Discworld setting.
And Pratchett’s emphasis via Malicia on the contrast between children’s stories and life is itself a contrast to his normal Discworld tactic of emphasising the conventions of Story and its insistence on shaping life around human beings. Given this, it might have been more sensible to write this as a non-Discworld book, like the later Nation and Dodger.
But that would rule out the emotional ending to the story, when Maurice and Dangerous Beans, the visionary, come under the jurisdiction of Death, and the Death of Rats. Two lives are required to keep the books balanced, and two will be taken. But the cynical, self-centred, street-wise and above all feline Maurice, offers a bargain that will have susceptible readers stinging a bit about the eyes.
Only ‘our’ Death could be counted upon to accept such a deal. So Discworld it must be.
This being Pratchett, there is far more to this story than there could have been with another writer. The surface of the tale: the twist on Browning, the danger, the gags, even Sardines, the tap-dancing mouse, these are all things that could have come from another, very talented writer. Only Pratchett could embed within this story, so deeply as to be fundamental, so naturally as to escape polemic, the story of consciousness, of intelligence versus nature, and its absolute need to build a society in which the wants and needs of all are satisfied by co-operation, without fear.
To become what their new-found intelligence can make them, the rats have to change their essential, animal selves, to become more human. What Pratchett understands, and which is so important in these days of self-serving Conservative Government, based on hatred and spite and greed, is that the humans also have to become more human. In this story, an appeal to cupidity is the means to secure co-operation, a truly socialist outcome.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was published in 2001. By the time the next election comes round, the audience it was written for will be eligible to vote. May the message embedded in this airy, delightful, funny, and seemingly simple book have sunk in by then.