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The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry PratchettUK coverThree and a half stars

Buy from IndieBoundThis is the second Discworld novel Terry Pratchett published specifically aimed at a young adult readership, sandwiched between Eric and the four Tiffany Aching novels. It’s also the most un-Discworldly of all the Discworld novels. Yes, it’s frequently hilarious, but it makes almost no reference to the vast Discworld mythopoeia that Pratchett has so lovingly built up over two dozen books, and which his most ardent fans can quote with a precision exceeded only by die-hard Star Wars and Star Trek geeks. The ever-reliable Death puts in a cameo near the tail end, but overall, this is a fantasy Pratchett has taken great pains to make completely accessible to young readers who’ve never visited Discworld before. Purists may be displeased, but it’s a fine and funny yarn all the same.

The subject of Pratchett’s five-cylinder satire in The Amazing Maurice is the venerable fable of the Pied Piper. Here, the piper is the hapless Keith, a young boy with few wits and a love for music and precious little else. He won’t quite steal the fan-favorite crown from Rincewind, but Pratchett makes him perfectly likable. Keith’s companions are a horde of rats who have attained intelligence due to eating magical scraps off a wizard’s rubbish tip, and Maurice, a haughty and self-important cat who’s intelligent as well, for much the same reason. The odd group of travelers have been wandering the landscape, making a living by playing Pied Piper scams in small towns. The rats sneak in, wreak havoc, Keith presents himself and pipes them out of town, where they all split the cash.

But the rats, under the shaky leadership of the aging Hamnpork (who still can’t quite get used to thinking), the sage Dangerous Beans, and the military-minded Darktan, are developing a conscience to go along with their newfound intelligence. They’ve decided it’s morally wrong to bilk already poor towns out of money, and just want to find a place where they can settle down. Maurice gets them to agree to one final con job.

However, the town they choose, Bad Blintz, has more than your typical rat problem. Keith and Maurice hook up with the mayor’s daughter, Malicia Grim, a young girl so deeply enamored of stories and fairy tales she has issues distinguishing them from reality. Together they learn the town’s regular ratcatchers are running a scam of their own. And below the streets, the rats have discovered an even more sinister consequence of the ratcatchers’ actions. 

I suppose only Terry Pratchett could write a kid’s book, the majority of which is set in dark and slimy sewers and which features the spectacle of dead rats in various stages of having been eaten by things. Pratchett’s irrepressible humor effortlessly defuses the ick factor, and the sewer crawl scenes are among the book’s funniest. Particularly ingenious is the way Darktan has divided up the rats into commando units with various tasks — scaring housewives; disarming traps; peeing on things. But of course, Pratchett, as he’s done in his best books (Small Gods in particular) balances even the goofiest comedy with just the right amount of moral gravitas. I particularly admired the way he shows the rats attempting to develop a sense of ethics and right and wrong.

Towards the end, the book takes a rather startling turn towards the much-too-serious, with a dark confrontation sequence that’s surprisingly conventional and saps some of the fun away. But Pratchett recovers for a fine and wholly satisfying finale that shows that, in real life, problems are never solved right away, and the biggest problems take time, work, and a lot of cooperation and understanding. And shows it without the least preachiness. Because in the end, this is a Discworld novel after all. A very satisfying series entry.