So, you’re a successful novelist, twenty four volumes into a series that has been hugely popular for over a decade. The main character arcs that have been driving the last ten or so novels seem to have come to their natural conclusions. So what do you do? Well, you take a sudden turn, introduce new characters and a new, more realistic atmosphere, kicking off a new era of your career. Hence The Truth. Surprising at the time, perhaps, but it makes sense in hindsight. Then what? Well naturally you decide to link together several parts of your world… in an illustrated novella? Bold choice: The Last Hero. Is now the time for something predictable, something safe?
No, now you go and write a children’s book.
It’s fashionable to call things like this “young adult” novels, but let’s not beat about the bush: this is Discworld for children, and it’s not ashamed to admit it. Maurice is the story of a talking cat, some talking mice, a rarely-talking boy with a pipe, the rural town they try to fleece out of its money, and the greater evils already hidden behind its façade of normalcy and poverty. It takes its name from an offhand joke way back in Reaper Man, and derives its key plot point from a passing sight-gag in Feet of Clay, but, like The Last Hero before it, there’s a sense of disconnection here: the tale is set in Uberwald, but the town of Bad Blintz is kept intentionally bland and non-specific, right down to the copy-paste dopplegangers of Colon and Nobby who serve as the town’s Watch. This could be a small neighbourhood of Ankh-Morpork, or it could be somewhere in Lancre, or it could be Sto Helit or Sto Lat, or it could be really anywhere at all. Similarly, the characters – both human and non-human – feel carved in broad outlines from a well-used and familiar quarry. In particular, the central rodent characters felt very much the descendents of Masklin, Grimma and Dorcas back in the Bromeliad, among others (although, incidentally, recognising the similarities between Dangerous Beans, Masklin, and Snibril from The Carpet People, and the context here of rodents, made me finally realise that all these characters probably descend from Watership Down’s Fiver…)
What makes this a children’s book – and what makes it work – is its simplicity. The characters are simple, with the dark complexity of his adult novels only hinted at, the setting is simple, and the plot is simple, and the structure is simple, helpfully broken up into chapters. The young audience is further lampshaded for adult readers with references to the works of Potter (through the chapter-opening quotations from Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure) and Blyton – references that are not mere in-jokes, but central to the project of the novel. Pratchett used to be very interested in stories, and in this way, as in others, Maurice is a return to those earlier themes… but, oddly, more cynically than before. Where once the Discworld was powered by stories, now we are repeatedly told that this is the real world and the real world doesn’t work like that – stories are lies and delusions. Although Pratchett does eventually come to a more balanced conclusion, and one more in line with novels like Hogfather, it’s a surprisingly bleak approach, especially in a novel for younger readers.
Not, of course, that Pratchett has ever mollycoddled younger readers. There’s plenty of bleakness, darkness and gruesomeness to be found here – but leavened by a certain cartoonish quality, which again makes it seem more like his early work than like novels like Night Watch. OK, you can tell I’m struggling along here. I don’t really know what to say. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was the first novel in this re-read to be… well, not a re-read for me. I’d never read it before, because when I was a teenager I was a snob and wouldn’t read books marketed ‘for younger readers’. On the one hand, I see now that that was rather silly; on the other hand, I’m actually glad that I was silly, because I enjoyed reading a Pratchett novel where I didn’t know what would happen next. There aren’t many more Pratchetts I can say that about!
My reaction, then, was positive: this was a good book, and a fun read, one that brought back a lot of the feel of earlier novels but in a more polished shell. That’s both good and bad, I suppose – there wasn’t much of the anarchic element to this; it all felt very controlled, like a proper story. That control – that containment, that limitation and simplicity – probably explains why Pratchett didn’t return to these characters, or this setting. Like The Last Hero, this is a one-off little fable, not a chapter in an ongoing world history.
So I enjoyed this light refreshment; but I’m glad it’s not the end of Pratchett’s journey. Because next on the road is one of his darkest, most unflinchingly adult books: the legendary Night Watch. And I’m cheating a little because I’ve already finished Night Watch as I write this, which may be why I’ve found it hard to say too much about the perfectly nice and clever and funny and somewhat macabre (this isn’t for younger children, or those prone to nightmares!) Maurice… because the next instalment is a genuine classic.
Adrenaline: 3/5. The chapter structure, the lightness and lack of depth, and the reassurance that this is a kid’s book, stopped it from getting too thrilling, but it clips along nicely with effective stakes and some tense set-pieces.
Emotion: 3/5. Touches on sore areas, but again, it doesn’t try to dig in hard, and the characters felt too generic to get really involved with them.
Thought: 3/5. Pretty straightforward – smart, but not deep or complex.
Beauty: 5/5. Really elegant, both in its polished prose and pleasing form, and in its darkly beautiful imagery.
Craft: 5/5. The limitations of the book are entirely the limitations of the intent. I suppose you could say that it reminds us how Pratchett can rely on over-generic writing when he’s in a hurry, but that’s nitpicking.
Endearingness: 4/5. Didn’t adore it, but I found it very likeable.
Originality: 2/5. I found it fairly generic, both in terms of Pratchett’s own oeuvre and in terms of the expectations for this kind of children’s adventure novel, distinctive mostly in its heavily rat-based milieu…
Overall: 5/7. GOOD.
P.S. It’s probably a case of convergent evolution, but if there are any Planescape or Planescape: Torment fans out there, there’s a pleasant feeling of meeting an old friend once you work out what’s going on in this novel…