At the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, magic leaks into all sorts of things, including the scraps from the wizards’ sumptuous dinners. Some of the rats who were helping themselves to leftovers got an unexpected dose of intelligence as part of the magic in the cooking. And a cat, Maurice, got it too when he ate some of the rats. Along with intelligence, they have acquired the ability to talk with humans. The rats mostly stayed rats, and the cat mostly stayed a cat, but not entirely. As The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents opens, cat and rats have been a team for some time. The rats have abandoned Ankh-Morpork (well, these rats, at least) and are saving their money for an island far away with lots of food and no cats. Maurice has come up with a scam that meets their needs efficiently: the rats visibly infest a town, and Maurice conveniently furnishes a human piper to play a sweet tune and draw the rats out, just as soon as the town has coughed up a hefty fee. But recently they have had what Peaches, one of the rats, calls “a number of narrow squeaks.” Besides, some of the rats are starting to have ethical qualms about the scam. Further, the rats have plenty of money.
“The reason I say we’ve got more money, Maurice, is that you said what were called ‘gold coins’ were shiny like the moon and ‘silver coins’ were shiny like the sun, and you’d keep all the silver coins. In fact, Maurice, that’s the wrong way around. It’s the silver coins that are shiny like the moon.”
Maurice thought a rude word in cat language, which has a great many of them. What was the point of education, he thought, if people went on afterwards and used it? (pp. 19–20)
So the rats and the cat agree to run the scam one last time. The kid, who seems to have no discernible wishes beyond wanting opportunities to play his flute, agrees. The Uberwald town of Bad Blintz is their last show, and they are going to make it a big one. Little do they realize how big it will turn out to be.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is the twenty-eighth Discworld novel, and the first one explicitly marked as “for young adults.” Five more of the thirteen remaining Discworld books, including the last one, are also tagged as intended for young adults. It’s a good 100 pages shorter than the adult Discworld books of this era, although that puts it back in line with the first half dozen or so that Pratchett wrote. It has chapters (which Pratchett had done without in Discworld until now), and epigraphs, and its main human characters are both teens. The main concerns of the characters, human and otherwise, are with making their way in the world, with figuring out their role in larger schemes of things, and with finding their own kind of people. Structurally and thematically, Pratchett has aimed The Amazing Maurice at younger adults.
Generational conflict plays a part in the mix, too.
“Oh you think, too, do you?” said Hamnpork. “Everyone’s thinking these days. I think there’s a good deal too much of this thinking, that’s what I think. We never thought about thinking when I was a lad. We’d never get anything done if we thought first.”
He gave Maurice a glare, too. Hamnpork didn’t like Maurice. He didn’t like most things that had happened since the Change. In fact Maurice wondered how long Hamnpork was going to last as leader. He didn’t like thinking. He belonged to the days when a rat leader just had to be big and stroppy. The world was moving far too fast for him now, which made him angry.
He wasn’t so much leading now as being pushed. (p. 18)
(Hamnpork has his name, as do the other rats such as Dangerous Beans and Sardines, because the rats could read the words on packages around them before they really understood what the words meant.)
Intelligent rats can make a far bigger fuss than ordinary rats. “One rat, popping up here and there, squeaking loudly, taking a bath in the fresh cream and widdling in the flour, could be a plague all by himself. (p. 24) For their last show, Maurice and his band are ready to pull out all the stops. An initial reconnaissance gives them pause. Things are not as they should be: the buildings are carefully painted but the people seem poor, there is almost nothing for sale at the market. Food is scarce, and bread is rationed. Maurice begins to smell a … begins to think that they are missing something important about the town.
They see a sign offering a 50-cent reward for each rat tail delivered to the town’s rat catchers, far bigger than any reward they have seen elsewhere. Maurice also observes that the catchers’ boots are unusually clean for people busily working at that particular job. Soon after, Maurice and the kid encounter Malicia, who turns out to be the mayor’s daughter, and who reads an inordinate number of fairy stories. With those pieces set, Pratchett plays out the investigation into what is really happening in the town.
The setting and the cast allow Pratchett plenty of room for hilarity, and I laughed a lot while reading The Amazing Maurice. Maurice is a classic con man, and the rats offer various kinds of foils, while Malicia not only offers meta-commentary but also sees through many of Maurice’s machinations. The comedy balances out the low and mean nature of what some of the adults in the town are getting up to. It’s also a counterpoint to the more existential threat the educated rodents face as they discover why all of the town’s rat runs appear to be empty.
In the end, it comes right, based in large part on the bedrock decency that underlies Pratchett’s heroes, even the ones like Maurice who have a large streak of the scoundrel in them. Here is what one of the intelligent rats says as he faces his nemesis:
“Because, you see, you just think for many rats,” [Dangerous Beans] said. “But you don’t think of them. Nor are you, for all that you say, the Big Rat. Every word you utter is a lie. If there is a Big Rat, and I hope there is, it would not talk of war and death. It would be made of the best we could be, not the worst we are. No, I will not join you, liar in the dark. I prefer our way. We are silly and weak, sometimes. But together we are strong. You have plans for rats? Well, I have dreams for them.” (p. 213)
“You don’t know anything about people, do you?” sighed Maurice.
“What? I’m a person!” said Malicia.
“So? Cats know about people. We have to. No one else can open cupboards. … A good plan isn’t one where someone wins, it’s where nobody thinks they’ve lost.” (p. 228)
Pratchett doesn’t add that it’s the voice of experience trying to persuade a righteous teenager. In this instance, though, the teen sees the sense of what is said. Maybe because it came from a cat.