The Amazing Maurince and his Educated Rodents: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
So there’s this old story, you might have heard of it: there’s this village that is overrun by rats. They spoil the food and scare the people and nothing they do can drive them away. Then this guy shows up with a pipe (musical variety) and he plays music and the rats follow him out of town. Since the Discworld basically runs on narrative, this sort of thing happens all the time there. It particularely happens in towns visited by the titular characters.
Maurice isn’t some kind of ringmaster in a travelling show, he isn’t the guy with the pipe, and he isn’t one of the rats. He’s a cat.
Maurice and the rats are educated. They grew up in Ankh-Morpork, on the trash heap outside the Unseen University (Ankh-Morpork’s magic university) and the rats became intelligent and able to speak because they were eating the magickal waste. How Maurice became intelligent remains a mystery (though we do get a solution before the end of the book) as he certainly wasn’t eating magickal waste (he’s a cat, after all. Cats have standards). They also learned to read, which led to them naming themselves things like “Dangerous Beans” and “Hamnpork”.
Maurice supplied the piper; a stupid-looking kid who he calls “Stupid-looking Kid”, or “Kid” for short. And of course, Maurice came up with the scam. The rats are organized (they have squads that find and disarm traps, squads that steal food, squads that do synchronized swimming in the milk buckets; they have a visionary genius who is creating rat-writing (the above-mentioned Dangerous Beans) and they have a sort of religion with a giant rat underground and the Bone Rat, who comes for you when you die (that one happens to be true. We’ve met the Bone Rat; he is the Death of Rats, the only sub-death who didn’t get absorbed by the Discworld’s main Death at the end of Reaper Man. And we will see him, before the end of the book, when Maurice faces Death). They even have a sort-of-holy book, Mr. Bunnsy Has An Adventure.) And of course they have the start of a sense of ethics, which leads them to declare to Maurice, as they arrive at the start of book at the town called “Bad Blintz”, that this should be the last time that they run the scam. They’ll divide the money three ways (one to the rats, one to Maurice, and one to the kid — the rats want to find an island and create their own culture. The Kid doesn’t care what he does, as long as he gets to play music. Maurice . . . I think Maurice just wants to win; the money is a way of keeping score) and go their own ways. Maurice agrees (since he can’t talk them out of it) but says they should therefor make this one spectacular!
But there’s something going on in Bad Blintz; there’s supposedly already a rat problem so bad that the town keeps two rat catchers permanently employed, but the rats can’t find any native rats. There are lots of rat tunnels, filled with traps and poisons, but no rats except the recent arrivals. And there’s something else . . . something new, or very old. Something that lurks beneath the town. Something tha threatens humans and rats . . . and Maurice.
Pratchett has a way of taking what should be a light-hearted kids’ story and turning it into a lesson on philosophy and humanity at both its best and its worst. That’s what he’s done here, and by now we shouldn’t be surprised. The rats, for all that they often stand in for something human, are rats, and Maurice is a cat, not just a fast-talking con man (though he does struggle with what it means to be an intelligent cat, not just a bundle of instincts). There is of course the usual Pratchettian consideration of stories vs. life, particularely in the form of young Malicia Grim, the daughter of the Mayor of Bad Blintz and the descendent of the Grim Sisters, famous storytellers, who spends much of her time in the story trying to figure out what kind of story she is in.
Overall, a decent addition to the Discworld canon and a fun, thought-provoking story. What more could you ask for? Recommended.
Lovecraft Country: a novel by Matt Ruff
To begin with, let us note that this is not a novel per se; rather it is a single tale told in a collection of stories, all of which were written specially for this volume and not published separately before (and thus it is not a short-stoy collection, or anything of that sort), which involve a connected cast of characters. The episodic format was chosen deliberately because Ruff originally intended the book as a TV series (“monster of the week”). Ironically (or perhaps not) the book has since been optioned for TV production.
The protagonist of the first story, titled “Lovecraft Country”, is Atticus Turner, a recent US Army veteran mustered out after the Korean war. He makes his way from Jacksonville to Chicago, a journey not without risk for a black man in the 1950s, where he stays with his uncle George. George, the brother of Atticus’ father Montrose, and father to young Horace, who dreams of being a comic book artist. George also publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book which tells Black travelers what places will serve them (and, of course, that places not mentioned aren’t safe). It’s also worth mentioning that George, Horace and Atticus are all science fiction/fantasy readers.
Montrose isn’t around, but he has sent Atticus a letter, saying that he has tracked down Atticus’ late Mother’s heritage, which she was never interested in. He says that Atticus has a birthright. And he says that it’s in Arkham, Mass. Now, Atticus is well aware that Arkham is fictional. He read Lovecraft as a boy, and was a big fan until Montrose pointed out how Lovecraft would have regarded them. George takes a look at the letter and determines that what seems to be a ‘k’ is in fact a ‘d’. Atticus’ birthright is in fact in Ardham, a small town in Devon County, a place which the Safe Negro Travel Guide has determined is not safe for black people at all.
Once George finds a sitter for Horace he and Atticus take off to Ardham, with Atticus’ old friend Letitia making a place for herself on the trip (and very helpful she proves to be, too). What they find is a town devoted to the Braithwaite family, currently reduced to Samuel (the elder Braithwaite) and his son Caleb, who, like Atticus and Montrose, don’t get along. They lead an organization called “The Sons of Adam”, and need Atticus to make their (magickal (they call it “natural philosophy, but it’s magic)) ritual work, because only he can usefully read the “Language of Adam” (anyone can read it, but not everyone can make it do something) and complete the ritual. Doing what he’s asked to do will probably be dangerous to Atticus. Not doing it will certainly be dangerous, but not only to him. Can Atticus find a way out?
The second story, “Dreams of the Which House”, plays off the title of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”, which I haven’t reviewed yet but it will be coming up in November’s reviews. After getting back to Chicago from Ardham, Letitia comes into some money. Her late father apparently left an old debt uncollected; now the debtor intends to pay it off. Letitia’s sister, Ruby, doesn’t trust the money (their father was not always on the right side of the law), but Letitia has a dream: home ownership. Not just an apartment, but someplace with room for both her and Ruby, and their brother when he visits, and maybe some room for boarders . . . in order to get a place like that, she’s going to have to forcibly integrate a white neighbourhood. This will bring its own problems with angry neighbours and unhelpful police, but the house that Letitia ends up with throws her a new curve: the previous owner, though certified dead, has not left, and does not want to share his home with a bunch of . . . you know what. And he, like the Braithwaites, was a natural philosopher. Will Letitia be driven from her new home? Or can she find a solution to all her problems?
“Abdullah’s Book” starts with George and Montrose going to the bank to retrieve from their Bank Deposit Box a book left to them by their Grandmother, who had been a slave. The book is, essentially, a ledger, keeping track of all the labour she did for her master, and every time he “insulted” her — whippings and such — and what she estimates he owed her for it. Every year at Thanksgiving her descendants bring the book out, calculate the new interest for the last year, and tell the story of how it came to be. But this year, the book’s not there. It has been removed by the police, agents of the organized crime squad, who left a note summoning them to a bar on the white side of town. In the bar, in addition to a trio of cops, are Atticus (in handcuffs; he’s supposed to be in Iowa) and Caleb Braithwaite.
Braithwaite is planning an alliance with the Chicago branch of the Order, whose leader is the Captain of the Organized Crime Squad (and whose former leader is someone we’ve sort of met) and to make things work they want a book found, a book written in the language of Adam, which is hidden in a secret room in the Museum of Natural History. Assuming, because the Captain doesn’t just march in and take it that there is some risk, Braithwaite intends to pass the risk off. The deal is, a book for a book. It’s basically a heist story.
“Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe” deals with Atticus’ Aunt Hippolyta, wife to George, mother to Horace, and a brilliant woman in her own right. From her childhood she wanted to be an astronomer, but a black woman in the first half of the 20th century has two strikes against her just in the question of getting the education, never mind the position. So she ends up as wife and mother, etc, though like all her family she runs missions for George, checking places out for the Guide. During a visit to Letitia’s house she finds a hidden drawer containing A Survey of Astronomical Observatories of North America with a new one to her added in in pencil, along with a set of odd numbers. Since Hippolyta has had some luck dropping in on observatories and getting good-hearted astronomers to let her look through the telescopes, she decides to give this one a look on her way home. But it turns out this place has no mere telescope, it has a gate. And using the code from the book she finds a habitable planet. And, in fact, it’s inhabited: an elderly black woman named Ida, who used to be a maid for the owner of the “observatory”. When one of the other maids ran off with the boss’ son, and none of the staff would tell him where they went, he brought rbs ..them to the observatory and exiled them to this planet of a distant galaxy. He said he would return in a few days to see if they were ready to cooperate, but he never did. Hippolyta must not only avoid the dangers of the new world and get home, but also avoid the perhaps greater risk back on Earth.
“Jekyll in Hyde Park” has Letitia’s sister Ruby get not only a new job, but a new lover. She only needs to make a couple of changes first . . .
“The Narrow House” has Braithwaite sending Montrose after the son mentioned in “Hippolyta Disturbs . . .”, and particularely some of his father’s notebooks, which he should have. But the son was killed in 1945, with his family. Of course, as we’ve already learned, being dead doesn’t keep someone out of this story . . .
“Horace and the Devil Doll” has Hippolyta and George’s son Horace come to the attention of the cops of the Organized Crime Squad, who suspect that his family is up to something with Braithwaite. They send something after Horace, something that is too cunning to let anyone else see it and too strong for Horace to defeat. And the curse won’t let him talk about it . . .
“The Mark of Cain” has Braithwaite make his final move against the Chicago branch of the Order, with the help of the Turners, et al. But while they can (maybe) get free of the Organized Crime Squad, can they get free of Braithwate? It’s another heist, basically.
This is a marvellous book, though it should carry trigger warnings for racism, violence, and child endangerment. But if I were to complain about anything (and would it be me if I didn’t complain about something?) it would be the title: we’re never really in Lovecraft Country, per se, other than the fact that Lovecraft was a racist. For that title, the story should be a reply to Lovecraft in some fashion, and other than the Turners et al being in fact people and not the subhumans that Lovecraft would have taken them for this doesn’t interact with Lovecraft at all. To expand a bit on this, in a “The Big Idea” on John Scalzi’s blog the Whatever, Ruff said, “In addition to occult forces, Atticus and his family have to deal with the more mundane terrors of American racism, such as sundown towns. Lovecraft Country’s title is a nod to this duality of horrors—H.P. Lovecraft being known for both his tales of cosmic dread and his embrace of white supremacy.” But the book doesn’t do cosmic horror at all, and without that it’s not addressing Lovecraft but, well, all of white America. But that’s just me being a nitpicky jerk and you shouldn’t let that stop you from picking this up.