The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983) 287 p.
Discworld #1, Rincewind #1
People are often discouraged from reading the Discworld series for a number of reasons: the sheer number of books, or the fact that they’re split into multiple story arcs based around different sets of characters, who nonetheless all occupy the same world and pop up in each other’s stories, and that these story arcs follow no particular sequential order. Most bothersome of all for potential readers is the general consensus that the first few Discworld books aren’t up to scratch with the later ones. A popular starting point is Guards! Guards!, the eighth Discworld book but the first in the City Watch arc; I’ve heard, but can’t confirm, that Pratchett himself recommended this one. You could also make a good case for Mort (Discworld #4, Death arc #1) and Wyrd Sisters (Discworld #6, Witches arc #1).
But the one thing almost everybody agrees on is: not here. Not the very beginning. Whatever you do, don’t start with The Colour of Magic.
Not that The Colour of Magic is a bad book, exactly. It’s just not very representative of why the Discworld is so beloved. The series in its prime combines plot-driven adventures with cutting social satire and hilarious writing. The Colour of Magic – not Pratchett’s first novel, but still written way back in 1983 when he was a mere 35 years old – is a very different beast. It’s basically a straight parody of the pulp fantasy popular in the 1960s and 1970s, the sort of faded yellow paperbacks with buxom women in chainmail that you can find in second-hand bookstores all over the world. Nobody would argue that the fantasy genre is certainly undergoing a renaissance right now, but in a world dominated by George R.R. Martin, the swords and sorcery style of Conan the Barbarian, Dungeons & Dragons and Fafhrd and Mouser feels charmingly quaint.
But for a book which I remembered being like an awkward TV pilot, more of a curiosity than a proper Discworld novel, the underlying concept of The Colour of Magic is actually brilliant: a naive, hapless and extremely wealthy tourist named Twoflower leaves his job as an insurance agent to visit the fantasy lands of heroes, dragons and adventure. His first port of call is the city of Ankh-Morpork, where he visits the rough-and-tumble drinking hole The Broken Drum and hires the cowardly wizard Rincewind as his tour guide. Given that this is one of Pratchett’s very early works, I was delighted to see that his wit was just as sharp, and The Colour of Magic is often hilarious:
“I just want to meet them. So that when I get home I can say that I did it.”
Rincewind thought that a meeting with most of the Drum’s clientele would mean that Twoflower never went home again, unless he lived downriver and happened to float past.
It’s nonetheless impossible to shake the feeling that you’re in a sort of bizarro alternate universe Discworld. Being a swords and sorcery parody means The Colour of Magic takes place in a generic, vaguely Central Asian fantasy-land, which exists mostly to serve the adventures of the heroes within it – a very, very different place from the semi-European world the scope of the Discworld would later focus on, with Ankh-Morpork at its centre and Lancre at its edge, roughly analogous to London and the English countryside. It occurred to me as I was reading that we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Ankh-Morpork as one of the greatest fictional cities of all time, and no longer register what a weird name it is, for a city which (in the later books) is not necessarily based on London but is certainly distinctly, fundamentally British. Here are the names of some of Ankh-Morpork’s denizens in The Colour of Magic: Cripple Wa, Ymor, Withel, Gorrin, Hrun the Barbarian, Gorphal, Zlorf Flannelfoot, Rerpf. It’s straight out of Dungeons & Dragons, a city of wizards and temples and cutpurses and shady taverns, where so many disreputable adventurers congregate that there’s “talk of organising a rota” for the nearby questing grounds during the high season.
The running joke is how dangerous it is for an ordinary person to show up, amble around and treat a Conanesque city of thieves like a tourist attraction. The great irony is that in the later books, when Ankh-Morpork is a thriving semi-industrialised city and melting pot that attracts hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the Disc, this joke wouldn’t work at all – nobody would give Twoflower a second glance.
It’s similarly disconcerting to see a gigantic inverted mountain full of magical wyrms only a few days’ ride from Ankh-Morpork, where we know there should be nothing but the boring cabbage patches of the Sto Plains; a parody of provincial Britain with youths dreaming of the big city. Or a Death figure who is malicious and evil and develops a personal vendetta against Rincewind, rather than a grandfatherly figure with a fondness and sympathy for humanity, acting as something of a de facto guardian for us in perennial battles against darker eldritch forces. This is not the Discworld we will come to know and love.
But you know what? It’s still a lot of fun. I liked this book a lot more than the first time I read it, because this time I was prepared for how different it would be. It might not stack up against the later Discworld novels, but what does? The Game of Thrones generation (and I include myself in that) might very well have never dipped a toe into the pulp fantasy of the mid-20th century, but the influence of those works remains in the modern genre in many forms, and there’s a lot of relatable comedy here.
The Colour of Magic‘s major flaw is that it’s rather disjointed; a collection of disparate adventures undertaken by the optimistic/pessimistic odd couple of Twoflower and Rincewind, held together mostly by jokes. It begins well with Twoflower’s arrival in (and accidental indirect burning down of) Ankh-Morpork, but then gets bogged down in the middle with a Lovecraftian-inspired section and a riff on Dragonriders of Pern that goes on for a little too long. Fortunately, it picks up again in the final section, as the duo arrive at what might be considered the main event: a location which, for the first book in his brand new fantasy series, Pratchett could not have contemplated leaving out.
What’s the most immediately recognisable aspect of the Discworld series? If you’ve read it, you’d probably offer Pratchett’s distinct writing style, the hilarious and beloved characters, the unique mix of fantasy, philosophy and satire. But because it figures in virtually none of the books, it wouldn’t even occur to you to mention the one thing most people vaguely familiar with the series know about: the deliberately ludicrous setting of a flat world on top of four elephants on top of a giant turtle flying through space.
So it’s quite impressive, even though this is a reread and we’ve been here before, to visit the very edge of the Disc. After decades spent following Sam Vimes through the mean streets of Ankh-Morpork or Granny Weatherwax in rural Lancre, it actually feels like we’re going there for the first time. Pratchett puts his world-building skills to exemplary use as Rincewind and Twoflower are swept into the Circumfence, a ten thousand mile long net strung out at the very edge of the world by the island kingdom of Krull to collect the bounty of the sea. The unlucky pair are told by the water troll manning their section that they’ll soon be sent to Krull as slaves, and when Rincewind replies that he’d rather die, that he’d jump off the edge, the troll drags him across his tiny, rocky island to the precipice and – in a brilliantly written and genuinely vertiginous scene – forces him to simply look down. Even without the bounty of literature which we know lies down the track, there’s proof right here that Pratchett had greater writing skills than just a razor-sharp wit:
“Stop that or I really will throw you over the edge,” snapped the troll. “I’m holding you, aren’t I? Look.”
In front of him was a soft black night whose mist-muted stars glowed peacefully. But his eyes turned downwards, drawn by some irresistible fascination.
It was midnight on the Disc and so, therefore, the sun was far, far below, swinging slowly under Great A’Tuin’s vast and frosty plastron. Rincewind tried a last attempt to fix his gaze on the tips of his boots, which were protruding over the rim of the rock, but the sheer drop wrenched it away.
On either side of him two glittering curtains of water hurtled towards infinity as the sea swept around the island on its way to the long fall. A hundred yards below the wizard the largest sea salmon he had ever seen flicked itself out of the foam in a wild, jerky and ultimately hopeless leap. Then it fell back, over and over, in the golden underworld light.
Huge shadows grew out of that light like pillars supporting the roof of the universe. Hundreds of miles below him the wizard made out the shape of something, the edge of something –
Like those curious little pictures where the silhouette of an ornate glass suddenly becomes the outline of two faces, the scene beneath him flipped into a whole, new, terrifying perspective. Because down there was the head of an elephant as big as a reasonably-sized continent. One mighty tusk cut like a mountain against the golden light, trailing a widening shadow towards the stars. The head was slightly tilted, and a huge ruby eye might almost have been a red super-giant that had managed to shine at noonday.
Below the elephant –
Rincewind swallowed and tried not to think –
Below the elephant there was nothing but the distant, painful disc of the sun. And, sweeping slowly past it, was something that for all its city-sized scales, its crater-pocks, its lunar cragginess, was indubitably a flipper.
It’s a wonderful scene, as the troll explains that he himself is a slave, who has been trapped here for five years and never had the courage to jump; an almost poignant story, lightened by the running joke that he keeps intoning “here on the Edge” in italics, to Rincewind’s wailing distress.
It may be a bit clumsy, it may be a very disconcerting read compared to what we’re used to, but The Colour of Magic stacks up far more strongly than I remembered. When I read it the first time back in high school, I’d probably read about half the rest of the series at that point, in random bits and pieces, and I slotted it away as a curiosity: something of interest to people who liked Pratchett, but not worth much on its own compared to a book like Hogfather or Jingo. That was an unfair verdict. It’s certainly one of the weakest books in the Discworld series, and it remains out of place in the grand scheme of things, but even when Pratchett isn’t at his best he’s still pretty great. Having said that, I still don’t think it can be disputed that The Colour of Magic is not an ideal starting point for readers coming fresh to the series. That will have to wait.
Next up is The Light Fantastic, a direct continuation of Twoflower and Rincewind’s adventures – and a good thing, too, since The Colour of Magic ends on an almost literal cliffhanger.