The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was published in 2001. It was Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel written for children, and also the first to receive a major award – the Carnegie medal. This year marks the book’s 20th anniversary, and it can’t have been many fewer than 20 years ago when I was first introduced to it as an audio cassette on the long drive to Tenby in my Nanna’s MG Rover. It must be no less than seventeen years since I last read it. How will an Amazing Maurice… review fare under the cynical gaze of an adult Liam?
Well. The book fares very well. But we’ll get to that. First, I need to describe what I remember about this book. We all know memory can play tricks. A recollection from childhood is as likely to be fictional as true. I remembered The Amazing Maurice… being a very dark book – full of shadows and flickering flames that can’t quite illuminate the impending twists and turns of the
tail tale. Perhaps, as a tender pre-teen reader, I couldn’t quite grasp everything that was going on?
The Dark Wood
Not at all. As an adult, I was thrilled to find it as dark as I remember. What’s more, I found the book scary. It’s no spoiler to describe the premise of the plot. The Educated Rodents are rats that gain sentient thought after eating a potion they find in the rubbish dump of the wizard’s university. Soon after they find themselves under the leadership of Maurice, a streetwise cat with an eye for a scam. Add one stupid-looking kid with a pipe and they have the beginnings of a pied-piper-inspired swindle.
We’re no more than two chapters deep before we take to the cellars and subterranea of Bad Blintz, the latest town on Maurice and Co.’s hit list. That nightmarish effect I remembered from my childhood? I recalled it right. There is a portentous and goosebump-raising quality to the prose as the rats investigate tunnels spattered with old poison and empty, rusted traps. Odd, when Bad Blintz is allegedly already in the grip of a rat plague.
The rats are coming to terms with their newfound intelligence. They discuss the dreams behind their eyes – by which they mean their souls – and if some of their philosophical musings might overshoot the heads of young adults, some of it should strike home. “What’s that word Dangerous Beans invented?” asks one rat. (The rodents name themselves after signs and labels from the rubbish tip they lived in – one of the brighter streaks of humour in the book.) “Evil,” replies another.
The Amazing Maurice… is the 28th book in the Discworld series. By this point, Pratchett assimilates the tropes of folklore and English horror like a master. Discworld fans will recognise the Hammer Horror envrions of Überwald, a realm of Transylvanian mountains and Black Forest town squares, dismantled and Frankensteined (or Igor-ed, eh, Pratchett fans?) back together using creeping mist for glue. Pratchett’s merciless subversion of narrative genre clichés is present and correct – at one point, seeking a secret passage, our heroine leans back nonchalantly and purposefully against the wall, ready to trigger a hidden switch.
I’ve heard some readers say that they don’t get Pratchett’s humour. While it’s here, present and hilarious, it’s a pared-down incarnation compared to the rest of his Discworld canon. It’s not just that he sacrifices innuendo in the name of child-friendliness. It’s more that his zanier, more fanciful projections have been sanded away. What’s left is only bright and intelligent.
I hope I’m selling this book. Having just started my placement as a trainee teacher at a primary school, I’ve been reading more young adult fiction, and a lot of it is cute. The Amazing Maurice… occupies the same magical Goldilocks Zone as Harry Potter and my beloved Whitby Witches. It doesn’t talk down to children. There’s real danger – real consequences to decisions – and real violence too, as and when it’s required. I feel as satisfied by The Amazing Maurice as I would by any adult book – its themes are affecting, its characters full and vivid. Most importantly, its story is pacey and immersive, and it opens a world beyond what’s contained in its pages. I consider it amongst Terry Pratchett’s finest contributions to fantasy.