Since 1983, when the first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic was published, the Discworld novels have been a place for me to dive into that will leave me laughing and happy.
A confession: I like puns.
There. I’ve said it.
So does Terry Pratchett.
So when I noticed that The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was available at the library, I pounced on it. Pratchett won the Carnegie medal in 2001 for this, his first young adult novel. It is a delightfully screwed-up reworking of the Pied Piper.
If you are a rat foraging in the University of Wizards’ garbage dump, there’s bound to be some side effects. Like…suddenly talking and reading. Add in a cat with the usual moral sensibilities of a cat, and a kid that can play a flute, and you have the ingredients for a great scam.
Roll into a town, the rats run around and widdle everywhere (and occasionally tap dance across a pudding), and then the piper arrives and the rats follow him out of town. For a quite reasonable fee.
The cat is the mastermind, of course. He doesn’t actually do any work.
It’s all told with Pratchett’s love of wordplay, skewed humor, and keen eye for personality–here is the cat not really explaining why he talks:
“So, you really are a magical cat, then?” she finished, pouring the milk into a saucer. It oozed rather than gushed, but Maurice was a street cat and would drink milk so rotten it would try to crawl away.
“Oh, yes, that’s right, magical,” he said, with a yellow-white ring around his mouth. For two fish heads he’d be anything to anybody.
“Probably belonged to a witch, I expect, with a name like Griselda,” said the girl, putting the fish heads on another saucer.
“Yeah, right, Griselda, right,” said Maurice, not raising his head.
“Who lived in a gingerbread cottage in the forest, probably.”
“Yeah, right,” said Maurice. And then, because he wouldn’t have been Maurice if he couldn’t be a bit inventive, he added: “Only it was a melba toast cottage, ‘cos she was slimming.”
Pratchett is a genius at creating personalities–his mice and the cat have truer voices than the majority of the human characters I read in books. One of the things that makes Pratchett’s books so very enjoyable is that his characters inhabit a universe in which they are all basically good, even the crooks. They are true to themselves in a way that makes us like and care about Maurice, even though he has the moral compass of Gordon Gekko.
Rather than spoil the ending, I’ll just tell you that there are many far larger themes being explored in this book. The rats construct a religion around Mr. Bunnsy, a rabbit in a waistcoat from a children’s book–and are then confronted with the truth that their theology is based on fiction. A young rat learns what it means to be a leader. There are scary bits, heroic sacrifices, and a lot more widdling.
It’s all done without any of the ickle-sweetness that could so very easily be part of a book about talking animals and making ethical choices. In fact, that’s part of what Pratchett is poking fun at.
I finished the book, happy that all’s well that ends well. And suddenly, I was crying.
Pratchett was on BBC this week, in a documentary about assisted suicide. He has Alzheimer’s, and knows that soon he will be unable to write, or take care of himself. He is planning to go early via suicide. Pratchett can no longer type, so is dictating what will probably be his last novel–entitled “Snuff.”
I don’t really think I was crying for me, and the loss of the books he certainly would have written–Pratchett’s only 63, and has been a very prolific writer. I think I was just sad for my inability to FIX things. It is so wrong for this disease, of all diseases, to strike this person, of all people.
Loosing your words and memory is a terrible punishment for…nothing. It’s one of those things that strikes down with no rhyme or reason. Which is wrong, the same way it was so horribly wrong for my sister to get cancer, or for a million other crappy things that happen to good people to happen.
And I can’t fix any of it.
So I cried.