‘The Amazing Maurice’ is a Discworld novel that marks two important points in the series, one general and one personal to me. Generally, it is the first Discworld that was written for ‘younger readers’, and the only one of those that does not feature Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegles. Personally, this is the first in the Discworld series that I owned and read. I was nine and it was bought for me as a present, based on nothing other than the fact I liked reading.
I’m going to make an admission: nine year old me did not like it. I didn’t get it and I am honestly not sure how it lasted so long on my shelf. It did survive though, to make the Discworld line up I now cultivate so proudly. I never attempted to read it again and I was looking forwards to finally getting to it now. I’d get it, now I was older and wiser.
Another admission: I get it now, but I still don’t like it very much.
The story revolves around Maurice, a wisecracking cat (with none of the goodness of character that Gaspode the dog has) who controls a small army of ‘educated rodents’ and a boy who plays the pipe. The scam involves taking the rats to a town, overrunning it, and then splitting the profits when the boys plays his pipe to get them out of town. It works beautifully, until they get to a town that already has the rat catchers in, and things begin to unravel from there.
The thing that struck me the most in reading this book is that it is dark. Darker than many of the other Discworlds and definitely darker than the rest of the books for younger readers. There are some really horrifying moments, such as when the hero rats discover what has been happening to the ordinary rats of the town or when they discover the rat fighting pit. These discoveries are so frightening that they cause many of the educated rats to lose the power of speech and I myself wasn’t far off it. I tried to imagine being nine years old and reading these scenes, and decided I must have blocked them out the first time around. By the time we get to the villain, the Rat King, I was ready to put the book down. There’s a chance, thinking back, I didn’t even make it this far when I read it before. There’s no denying the quality of the writing; if it was an adult novel, I would be applauding the rawness of the fear and the horror. As a children’s book, it is almost definitely too much.
I did enjoy many of the small nods to the wider Discworld world. It is set in Überwald, already a well explored area thanks to others like ‘Carpe Jugulum’. We as consistent readers are familiar with the weirdness and other-ness of this part of the Disc and I can’t imagine this story taking place in Ankh-Morpork. We are introduced early on to Malicia, the mayor’s daughter, who gives us a kid’s version of the Granny Weatherwax theory of stories and the power of stories. Knowing that Tiffany comes next for the young readers, a character who spends a lot of time with Granny and contemplates her philosophies, it is a nice introduction to the idea. Malicia is a joy of a character; precocious and smart but also kind and fearless. She’s not a forerunner for Tiffany, I don’t think, but they do share some qualities that I am glad continued on to the later books.
I also very much enjoyed the rats, who are a great group of personalities. There’s quite a few of them to keep track of but each is so distinctive it isn’t too difficult. Naming themselves things that they read on labels and signs, they have an interesting collection of names. Dangerous Beans is the visionary of the group and the leader in all but name. He’s the keeper of the dream and the one they all turn to when they need reassurance. My favourites though are Darktan and Sardines, and the more I think about it, the more I understand why. Darktan is almost literally the Sam Vimes of rats, a kind of militaristic leader and reluctant hero. Sardines is a rat who plays the fool but is actually very bright and good at what he does, not unlike one Nobby Nobbs. I don’t know if these parallels were intentional but I see them very clearly and I choose to think that they were.
‘The Amazing Maurice’ is not a book I would necessarily recommend for children, if I am entirely honest but, as a Discworld addition, it is a strong one. If you’re still in need of convincing that Pratchett has real merit as a literary authority, read the scene with the cages. It will chill you to the bone.