© Terry Pratchett, illustration © Chris Gall.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this is only the second book I’ve read by Terry Pratchett, the first being “Good Omens,” which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman. I’ve always meant to give his Discworld books a try, and I finally got around to it. If this book is a typical example, I’m going to be looking for more!
The setting of this story is apparently somewhere on the imaginary flat world that resembles Earth in some ways, not others. Here it could well be a mediaeval northern Europe with Magic. Think “Pied Piper of Hamelin” for the basic setup, and you’ve got it. Maurice is an intelligent, talking cat, and something of a con artist. He and the band of talking rats he travels with (a large group of about 100) all gained intelligence from eating magical leftovers in a refuse dump outside a college of magicians, or so they believe. The rats each have odd and often funny names that they took from packaging labels in the refuse, like “FeedsFour” and “Hamnpork.” Traveling with them is a boy, Keith, who is rather passive, but an excellent flute player.
Together the group travels from town to town performing a sort of scam involving an instant and impressive “rat plague,” and an equally impressive “rat piping away” by Keith. They’re about to meet their comeuppance in the town of Bad Blintz, though. There’s already a massive scam underway there involving rats and rat removal, and the scammers do not take this encroachment on their territory lightly. Further, deep in the tunnels and abandoned basements of the town is an even more dangerous menace, a magical one that threatens to take over the very minds of Maurice and his rats. By chance they cross paths with Malicia, the daughter of the town’s mayor, who lives in a fantasy world of her own, informed by the many fairytales she’s read. Malicia seems another menace at first, but when the real trouble starts, she comes down on the side of Maurice and his comrades. Good thing, they need all the help they can get!
This is a fine book, very funny at times, but with terrific characters and convincingly dark and evil menaces that create real suspense and thrills, too. Some of the rats, like “Dangerous Beans,” the mystic and prophet, “Peaches,” the quiet but firm conscience of the group, “Darktan,” the trap and poison specialist, and “Hamnpork,” the grouchy old leader are so well developed that you begin to forget they’re rats after a while, until the plot brings it all back into focus. It’s also a cleverly developed plot with lots of twists and turns that are not predictable, a bit contrived at times, but generally entertaining. A good read in every way, and I can see why it won the Carnegie Medal, Britain’s highest honor for children’s books.