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Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (1969) 403 p.
Even amongst keen readers like myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people originally heard of these books through the 2003 Peter Weir film adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe. That was how I first encountered it, and I have to say I quite like it – it’s one of those movies nobody would ever nominate as particularly great, or their favourite, but it’s nonetheless fun and enjoyable and sort of perfect by its own little standard. A good movie to watch on a plane, if you will. Ever since then I’ve noticed that the books have a strong following amongst a surprisingly diverse array of writers and readers, and nobody ever seems to have a bad thing to say about them.
Despite the film’s title the books are not actually known as “the Master and Commander series;” they go by the rather more awkward moniker of “the Aubrey-Maturin series,” after the two principal characters: Jack Aubrey, captain in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan physician, naturalist and secret revolutionary. Master and Commander, the first novel, begins on Minorca in the spring of 1800, as the two meet at a classical music performance at Government House, and get off on the wrong foot as Maturin repeatedly complains about Jack tapping his knee half a beat ahead of the musicians. Returning to his quarters Jack discovers a letter which grants him his first commission as ship’s captain, and is so delighted that when he later runs into Maturin on the street, he puts aside their argument and invites him to dinner to celebrate. It transpires that Jack’s new vessel, the Sophie, is lacking a surgeon, and so he invites Stephen to take up a position aboard. And thus a great friendship is born.
These are naval historical novels. There’s no getting around that. Did you know that in the early 19th century, as the Age of Sail was drawing to a close and the Industrial Revolution was about to begin, a square-rigged sailing ship such as the Sophie was the most complex machine yet invented by mankind? Patrick O’Brian did, and he wants to tell you about it. He takes us through the rigging and the manoeuvres and the battles and the naval administration with as much care and attention as certain other types of middle-aged English men give to steam trains or the battle logistics of WWII.
I don’t mean to make fun; obviously there are plenty of people out there interested in that sort of thing. There is absolutely no doubting O’Brian’s command of the subject, his sheer skill and insight, but your devotion to it may not be as great as his own. Certainly mine wasn’t; as much as I appreciated watching a master at work in his chosen field, I often found my eyes glazing over, like a poet at the Super Bowl. The numerous battle scenes, in particular, failed to stoke my blood in the way O’Brian doubtless intended them to. Stephen is as clueless at sea as the rest of us, and serves as a very-much intended reader surrogate during long explanations about how the ship works – but that nonetheless leaves you reading long explanations about how the ship works. And for Christ’s sake, a glossary appendix wouldn’t have gone astray, not just for all the ropes and spars and fiddly bits but for the confusing array of ranks and titles: midshipman, post-captain, landsman, loblolly boy, and so forth.
Nonetheless, O’Brian’s a very good writer: not a beautiful lyricist or a Nobel Prize contender, but a writer who perfectly captured the tone of his setting. Master and Commander was published in 1969, but I had to look that up before I wrote this review. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it was written anywhere between 1850 and 2000. I’ve seen his style compared to Jane Austen’s, and while I don’t recall much of the Pride and Prejudice we were force-fed in high school (and which I really must revisit one of these days), that sounds about right.
I don’t think you have to be interested in navy ships and battles to be attracted to this book, and therefore this series. A great appeal to me was the exoticism, the travel, the sense of adventure. The Sophie criss-crosses the Mediterranean from the sands of Egypt to the Rock of Gibraltar, and O’Brian does great work in evoking the fragrant scents of the classical realm of antiquity: Barcelona, Palermo, Malta, Valencia. Olive oil and palm trees, Madeira wine and Greek sponges. There’s another nineteen of the books to go, and a big wide world to explore – one hardy soul is mapping it all out.
The glue that really binds this story together is the unlikely friendship between Jack and Stephen. Jack is a big, bluff, loyal, straightforward Tory, who serves his King and country and his own glory in equal measure; Stephen is a smart, shrewd renaissance man, an adventurer, a former Irish revolutionary with a more nuanced view of the world than Jack. He is also charmingly penniless; one of my favourite parts is the first viewpoint scene we get from him, after he’s known Jack for a few days and given him no reason to believe he’s not a respectable citizen, when he wakes up from a night spent sleeping in a ruined chapel outside Port Mahon and eats a piece of beef he put in his pocket at last night’s dinner, which Jack was paying for, because he’s literally homeless. I also quite liked the fact that Stephen is a brilliant doctor, and yet, because he is a product of his age, has no idea whatsoever about germs – towards the end of the novel he slices himself a side of beef with the same knife he’s using to dissect a dead dolphin.
This is why I can get behind Patrick O’Brian: a boyish sense of adventure, a realistic sense of time and place which revels in the glories of the age without rose-tinting them, and a well-drawn friendship between two interesting characters. It seems strange to be endorsing a novel in which I can fairly say that at least 40% of the text went straight over my head, but there you go. I’m not rushing out to buy them all at once, but I can certainly see myself reading the next nineteen books over the next four or five years.
Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake (1959) 196 p.
Mervyn Peake’s first two Gormenghast novels, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, are not so much separate books as they are chapters in the same vast, powerful work of literature. Titus Groan is merely the stage-setter: it’s Gormenghast which details the climax to the twin story arcs of Steerpike’s ruthless ambition and Titus’ growing urge for freedom, for liberty, for escape from the stifling confines of the ancient castle of Gormenghast – and indeed, the novel ends with Titus finally fleeing the castle.
Titus Alone is, to put it mildly, very different. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say that we finally find out what lies beyond Gormenghast, and perhaps wish we hadn’t. Throughout the first two books, the outside world was rarely mentioned, only vaguely alluded to; we had no idea what it might contain, in this bizarre little fantasy world of Peake’s, and nobody except Titus seemed to think it even mattered. It was Schroedinger’s world, an object of intense curiosity for both Titus and the reader, and I couldn’t help but feel that for Peake to open the box is something of a betrayal.
It’s important to note that Peake was in poor health when he wrote this novel, which was supposed to be merely the third volume in a planned five-book series. He was suffering from early-onset dementia, and by the time Titus Alone was published in 1959 his mental capacity had badly deteriorated; he spent two decades in a care home before dying in 1968. There is much debate about the extent to which Peake’s illness influenced Titus Alone, and indeed the novel itself has undergone certain revisions. The 1959 edition was heavily modified by the publisher, removing certain scenes and references that readers accustomed to medieval Gormenghast might object to; in 1970 the writer Langdon Jones revised it to more accurately reflect Peake’s final manuscript, which I believe is the version I’ve read in my collected Vintage edition. It nonetheless remains a very different book from the previous two: less than 200 pages long, with many chapters lasting only a few paragraphs, and – while Peake’s writing style is as distinctive as ever – there is a certain lack of intense, baroque descriptions. In Titus Groan and Gormenghast Peake could easily spend pages describing the physical descriptions of certain characters; here, several major figures are barely described at all.
The basic question is how much Titus Alone was supposed to be different, and how much it’s a result of Peake’s crumbling sanity. I suspect it was always supposed to be a weirdly different book – breaking the barrier between Gormenghast and the outside world is no light thing, after all – but I also suspect Peake’s own fears and anxieties about his mental health greatly affected the book. Much of the novel, particularly towards the end, revolves around Titus doubting his own sanity as to whether Gormenghast ever really existed. Having lost any physical connection with the place, he has lost his identity: he stumbles through a bizarre, confusing world full of people who refuse to believe his claims of such a place. When I began reading it I thought perhaps this bubble of strangeness would be pierced, later on, by the return of old characters – Dr Prunesquallor and the Poet, for example, riding to Titus’ new abode to fetch him back to Gormenghast, and reasserting his fears about why he left in the first place – but the further I read the more I came to think such a thing might be impossible. For the first two novels, Gormenghast feels like an imperturbable reality and the outside world a mere fantasy; in Titus Alone, this formula is flipped.
Around the same time I was reading this, I was watching the Alien films again for the first time in years. Wait, come back! (It says something about the strength of Peake’s writing that although his novels are technically in the fantasy genre, and although Alien is among the hundred greatest films of the 20th century, I still feel lowbrow for comparing them. Although now that I think about it, the vast and byzantine structure of the Nostromo… anyway.) Nobody disputes that Alien and Aliens are brilliant, near-perfect examples of their respective genres of horror and action, but Alien 3 is a much more reviled beast. And certainly, it’s nowhere near as good. But watching it for a second time, knowing what to expect, I found myself strangely sympathetic to its aims. The first two films are so ensconced in pop culture canon that they feel like immutable reality, so it feels like a betrayal for Alien 3 to change gears so rapidly, to sit so awkwardly outside the box. Ripley finds herself stranded amongst prisoners in a grubby, low-tech prison colony, hunting a very improbable alien whose presence stretches suspension of disbelief, and the entire film plays out more like fantasy than science fiction. It looks, talks, and feels very different from the first two, almost like it takes place in another world altogether. At one point the leader of the prisoners says to Ripley, “The outside world doesn’t exist for us any more.” Right up until the film’s conclusion it’s possible to think this may be true: that it’s a sort of purgatory, or a nightmare she’s having in hypersleep aboard the Sulaco. Or, most terribly of all, that the opposite is the case: that the events of the first two films weren’t true, that they never happened except in Ripley’s mind, and only this horrible place is real.
That’s probably not the best comparison in the world, but that’s what I was thinking about at the time, and there it is. Titus Alone is a novel hugely different from its predecessors, but also one obsessed with the very concept of difference: with how much our external surroundings affect our own internal world, our thoughts and our memories and our sense of reality. I can’t argue that it stands well alongside Titus Groan and Gormenghast; I can’t even argue that I’m glad to have read it, or that I’m glad it exists. But for better or worse, it’s what Peake intended for us to read. It’s a terrible shame that illness robbed us of his genius and our chance to see Titus, in those further planned novels, to return once more to his ancestral home.
My science fiction story “Loyalty,” which takes place following a botched heist in a near-future Melbourne, has been published in issue #80 of Aurealis.
Aurealis is Australia’s oldest science fiction magazine, and publishing there has been a long-held goal of mine. It was actually the first place I ever got a rejection letter from, way back in 2009 when I was 19 years old. So I’m pretty pleased with this even if I now feel super old.
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis (1973) 219 p.
Martin Amis is one of the most well-known contemporary British writers, so you have to read him, and since the local library had his first novel The Rachel Papers I figured I’d start there. I say “most well-known” rather than “greatest” or “prestigious,” because apparently he’s a bit of a Marmite figure. The Rachel Papers is a summation of recent events in the life of upper-middle-class Charles Highway, on the brink of his 20th birthday, largely surrounding his meticulous campaign of seduction towards the titular Rachel.
For the most part it’s okay. It drags a lot in the middle, and ultimately feels like a collection of gross-out comedy in the bedroom and bathroom, but it’s well-written and often quite funny. Martin Amis is of course the son of the novelist Kingsley Amis, and in many ways The Rachel Papers struck me very much as the son imitating the father: it’s a sort of bawdier 1970s version of Lucky Jim, a romantic comedy of manners updated for the cynicism of the 1970s. (There’s also Daddy Issue red flags all over it, in Charles’ relationship with his father.) Amis the younger is also apparently an influence on David Mitchell, and indeed I can already see in Charles Highway the blueprints for characters like Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas or Hugo Lamb in The Bone Clocks: young, oversexed, adventurous, witty, kinda misogynistic, destined for success, too smart for their own good.
So an okay novel, fairly forgettable, but not bad for a first go (especially considering he was 23 when he wrote it, the bastard). His next is Dead Babies, which is apparently much better.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) 365 p.
When I was about 11 or 12 one of my distant uncles or second cousins – I can’t remember who exactly – lent me a full-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings, and since I didn’t want to disappoint him I read the entire thing despite not particularly liking it. I’ve never re-read it in its entirety since then, but my opinion of it remains more or less the same. The Fellowship of the Ring starts off all right, but in the next two volumes Tolkien quickly sinks into a self-indulgent obsession with his own semi-Biblical, irredeemably nerdy fantasy lore; basically the textbook example of a fantasy or science fiction author allowing the world to come before the story. It’s all “son of Denethor” this and “son of Arathorn” that. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations are a thousand times better.
The Hobbit, on the other hand – which I probably read not long after The Lord of the Rings – is absolutely brilliant: a classic of fantasy fiction, a great children’s book, and probably among the hundred greatest novels of the 20th century. It’s actually hard to believe that this is the same author. There’s just no reasonable explanation for how a man who got it so, so wrong in The Two Towers and The Return of the King (and I wouldn’t touch The Silmarillion with a bargepole), a man who displayed such a clumsy grasp of how to write a good book, was also capable of getting it absolutely right with The Hobbit. His authorial voice is entirely different, pitched at a younger audience, perfectly capturing the spirit and the tone of a whimsical grandfatherly storyteller.
Unlike its more famous literary brother, The Hobbit is a short and simple novel about a straightforward fantasy adventure. Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is visited one day by Gandalf the Wizard, and is more or less press-ganged into accompanying a company of thirteen dwarves to voyage across plains, mountains and forests to recover their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug, who usurped their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain back in their grandfathers’ day. Bilbo grows from being a nervous, timid person mostly concerned about his next meal into a brave and resourceful adventurer. There’s goblins and giant eagles and shapeshifters and giants and dragons and elves, and riddles and battles and prisonbreaks, and it’s all a wonderful little story that comes to a tidy conclusion. It deserves its place in the 20th century canon because a) Tolkien is the one who invented (or at least popularised) a lot of fantasy cliches, so it is in fact quite an original book even if it doesn’t seem it, and b) what it does, it does extremely well. Again, it’s difficult to see how a writer who would later drop the ball so badly was capable of getting it pitch perfect here.
It’s ironic, in a sense, that while the films are better than the books for The Lord of the Rings, quite the opposite is true for The Hobbit. I’ve watched the first, and won’t bother with the others, which I’ve heard are even worse. The essential problem with it is that Jackson couldn’t decide whether he wanted it to be a light-hearted romp like the book, or a serious drama like The Lord of the Rings. He opts to make it both and the film suffers terribly for it, failing on both fronts. It slaloms crazily between serious beard-stroking councils with Elrond and Gandalf and Saruman, and ridiculous CGI Donkey Kong video game levels. Martin Freeman is a tremendously likeable performer, and it’s pleasant enough on an aesthetic level to dip back into that world and look at the Shire while pipe music plays and Ian McKellan says something about courage or friendship, but that’s about it. As soon as they leave Hobbiton you may as well switch it off.
On that note, part of the appeal of The Hobbit is the way it taps into a fundamental dichotomy in human nature: wanderlust and the nesting instinct. The desire to see the world, but also to settle down and have a comfortable home. The Shire (not yet named as such in The Hobbit, interestingly) is an idealised version of pastoral England, and Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in particular is the perfect, cosy, comfortable home. This is one area where the movie successfully builds on a key theme, with Bilbo drawing an explicit link between his love of his own home and the fact that the dwarves were dispossessed of theirs; in the book, it’s never entirely clear whether they’re trying to retake the Mountain completely, or just steal their treasure back. I remember reading an interview with an author – it may have been Philip Reeve – who was asked which character he’d like to be from literature, and replied with Bilbo, because you get to go on adventures but still have a nice, stable home to return to.
That’s the success at the heart of The Hobbit: a sense of homeliness, of comfort and shelter from the big world, of a grandfatherly figure like Tolkien smoking his pipe and spinning yarns by the fireplace while the rains taps down on the windowpanes.
Britain goes to the polls tomorrow in one of the tightest elections in living memory. For a political nerd like me it’s been quite enjoyable living here during an election campaign. Despite having the same basic parliamentary system as Britain, Australia has certain key differences, and of course being a different country means that while you might have the same system, you have a different political environment. Both countries’ politics are fucked, but they’re fucked in different and interesting ways.
Labour and the Conservatives are neck-and-neck in the polls, which is to say they’re both on about 34% and, despite what both party leaders claim, they’re therefore both going to fall well short of the majority required to command the confidence of Parliament and thus retain or seize government. John Lanchester has been running an entertaining and informative election diary at the LRB, and he has a breakdown of the potential results here. Suffice to say that no matter how you cut it nobody will get a majority, just as in the 2010 election, when the Conservatives were begrudgingly forced into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Support for the Lib Dems has badly flagged in the five years since then, while north of the border, the Scottish National Party – despite the failed referendum last year – has grown so strong and popular that it’s not out of the question they might win every single seat in Scotland. By far the most likely scenario is that the SNP will be kingmakers, and there is zero chance they will support a Conservative government. Yet Ed Miliband has consistently ruled out a coalition with the SNP, even on an informal basis. This is bizarre. I know he needs to go out on the campaign trail and pretend Labour can win enough seats to form government, but he’s not stupid; he knows how this is going to play out, and his pre-election refusal to deal with the SNP will surely haunt him as much as Julia Gillard’s infamous words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.”
Speaking of Gillard, one of the ways in which British and Australian politics are similar is that in both countries, the electorate is mortified by the concept of a coalition or a hung parliament, despite this being the norm in most of Europe. I wrote about this a few years back. I believed then – and still believe, in both Australia and the UK – that this is a symptom of the Americanisation of politics, and a sheer lack of understanding about how the nation operates and a childish desire for a “strong” leader. The Westminster system is not supposed to produce a extremely powerful executive like an American president. It’s supposed to produce a legislative assembly which passes laws, with Prime Minister and Cabinet being an afterthought.
The buzzword of the final week of the campaign, courtesy of the Tories and the right-wing press, has been “legitimacy.” People who should know far better have been talking on the BBC and writing in newspaper columns about how unfair it would be if the party with the most seats didn’t form government. That is not how Parliament works, and there’s no excuse for not knowing that, because it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. Nor can I fathom why anybody, apart from die-hard major party supporters, considers the influence of other voices in a diverse parliament to be a bad thing. Who would prefer a single-party government which rubber stamps its agenda, rather than a minority government which must negotiate and compromise with smaller parties and independents? Which of those options sounds like a healthier democracy?
Nonetheless, I have no doubt the British populace will be subjected to constant Tory whining about legitimacy for the next five years in the same way the Australian people were forced to endure Tony Abbott’s aggressive three-year campaign against the legitimacy of the Gillard government. At the moment the Tories seem to be focusing their spite at the SNP (the word “propped up” gets thrown around a lot), which if nothing else totally validates the Yes vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. The Scots are being treated like interlopers in their own country’s general election. Still, the Tories would be wise to stay focused on that, rather than arguing that they deserve to form government because they have the most seats; that draws to attention the unrepresentative aspect of the Westminster system, in which the Greens can get 6% of the popular vote but take only one seat, while the SNP can get 4% and take fifty-nine seats. It’s not a thread the Tories should pull. (On the other hand, it worked for Abbott.)
The most important reason this is a superior system than any other, to my eyes, is how entertaining it all is. Not only does Britain have a far larger and more diverse Parliament than Australia, so you can ponder, say, how Cameron might get over the line with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party, but the sheer closeness of this election has made it fascinating. It’s essentially a four-way race, with the minor parties holding more power in the post-election negotiating stage than the major parties. An election campaign, as in any country, is the most rigidly stage-managed and predictable part of any political cycle. The real battle for Downing Street begins on Friday. (Make your own majority with the BBC’s weirdly animated tool!)
I thought about whether I should vote or not. I’m entitled to, not only as an Irish citizen, but as a Commonwealth citizen residing in the UK – a courtesy which Australia, at least, doesn’t extend back towards the British. (Curiously, EU citizens residing in Britain are ineligible.) It seems a bit dishonest to vote in an election when I’m leaving the country in a few months. On the other hand, Britain is an important enough country to influence the rest of the world; I doubt Abbott and the IPA would be trying to strip away Australian workers’ basic rights if Reagan and Thatcher hadn’t made neoliberalism the new world religion in the 1980s. I also feel like it’s morally OK to vote because I live in a safe seat anyway – Bethnal Green and Bow, which will almost certainly go to Labour. Of course, this raises the point of whether it’s worth voting at all.
This is where Britain and Australia diverge quite sharply. We have safe seats in Australia as well, of course, but we also have the Senate. Everybody in an Australian state has an equal say in the senators that state sends to Canberra, so your vote matters even if you live in the safest seat in the country. Britain, on the other hand, has the House of Lords. I consider myself a fairly well-read and knowledgeable person, but until I started doing work for the BBC a few years ago, I thought it was just a name. I hadn’t realised the House of Lords is actually an unelected upper house – in the fucking 21st century!
Furthermore, Britain doesn’t have preferential voting, although this is a case where Australia is ahead of the curve rather than Britain lagging behind. It makes the entire voting system deeply undemocratic. If you live in a swing seat, do you make a tactical vote to keep your least preferred party out of office? Or do you follow your heart and vote for the Greens or Plaid Cymru or UKIP? (If you’re a right-wing/libertarian American, think about the choice to vote for Gary Johnson or John McCain in 2012; if you’re a left-wing American, think about the choice between Ralph Nader and Al Gore in 2000.) A preferential voting system removes this undemocratic issue completely, and it still boggles my mind that the British people soundly rejected it in a referendum in 2011. I suppose you can chalk that one up to the power of negative campaigning and the Tory-dominated press.
So I can totally understand why so many British people feel apathetic and disenfranchised. The system is stacked against them. On the other hand, Australia’s compulsory voting changes the dynamics once again. In Australia, a safe seat is definitely safe, because virtually everybody votes. In Britain, the turnout was 65% at the 2010 election; slightly higher than the 58% turnout in the 2012 US presidential election, but still shameful. As long as voter participation remains so low, you can’t really argue that your vote doesn’t matter or won’t change anything, even if you live in a safe seat.
So I’m going to vote tomorrow. If I was in a marginal I’d vote for Labour, but I’m not, so I’ll vote Green. The Green Party of England is a little more soy-and-lentil than their respectable (and respectably successful) Australian counterparts, but I nonetheless feel it’s an important movement that needs support. Tim Winton once said that a hundred years ago it was a case of “Daddy, what did you do in the war?” whereas in the future it will be “Daddy, what did you do to stop our planet turning into a salt pit?” But, yes, really, I’m going in to vote because I’m an irredeemable nerd and I’m curious to see what the process is like in another country.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986) 302 p.
I read a book when I was in primary school called Castle In The Air, a great little Arabian Nights-styled fantasy adventure which stands by itself for the most part, and only becomes confusing towards the end when it becomes clear that it’s a sequel to another book and a bunch of old characters pop up. I suppose my reading choices were limited by what the school library had in those days, because I never ended up reading the first one, Howl’s Moving Castle, or any of Jones’ other books – I think I tried Hexwood but found its plot far too confusing for my age. Howl’s Moving Castle was, however, adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004. It’s not his objective best (that would be Spirited Away) but it’s far and away my favourite of his films: a beautifully creative unconventional fantasy which also slots neatly into my beloved genre of “oddball crew on a weird vehicle.”
So anyway, I thought I’d give the book a shot. It was an experience oddly similar to reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: obviously very different novels, but both cases where the film adaptations are equally brilliant, and pretty faithful – in some instances Miyazaki has replicated the book right down to certain gestures or seemingly unimportant lines of dialogue. The plot, in both the film and the book, revolves around a young woman named Sophie working in a hat shop in a town at the edge of a wild waste, which is the domain of the mysterious wizard Howl and his legendary moving castle, and also of an evil witch. After being paid a visit by the witch for reasons unknown, Sophie finds herself magically transformed into an old woman, with the curse also preventing her from telling anybody about what’s happened. She leaves the hat shop, sets off into the Waste and encounters Howl’s castle.
I think it’s a good book, but as with The English Patient, found it difficult to judge it separately from the film. I prefer the film, which is unsurprising since I’ve loved it for so long, but it’s also because the book has a few too many extraneous characters and plots, and is written in a sort of semi-fairytale style which makes the characters’ motivations and feelings more muddied. (That’s a first – the Japanese story making more sense.) I still liked it quite a bit, intend to read Castle In The Air again, and would recommend it for young fantasy readers. Watch the film as well, though.
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.
I started reading Terry Pratchett when I was about twelve years old; I think I’d finished most of his enormous Discworld series by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. Two months ago, after coping with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease for several years, Pratchett passed away at the age of 66 – far, far too young for one of the greatest writers of our time. I wrote a short piece after his death about how much his books influenced me, both as a writer and a person: how much they shaped my understanding of human nature, of how people work, of how society ticks along. The Discworld books were fundamentally a humorous fantasy series, but they were really so much more than that – smart, funny satires about every element of human behaviour, and all the ridiculous orthodoxies and contradictions that make up society.
I’ve been meaning to reread the Discworld series for a long time, and with Pratchett having passed away now seems like an appropriate time to do it. I’ll begin with The Colour of Magic, and keep this post up as a running index.
Part of the trouble with the Discworld series, for the uninitiated, is that it’s sort of complicated to figure out where to start. I’ll be discussing that as I go along – it’s partly a matter of opinion – but meanwhile, if you’re thinking of trying the series for the first time, this diagram is very helpful.
1. The Colour of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
6. Wyrd Sisters
8. Guards! Guards!
10. Moving Pictures
11. Reaper Man
12. Witches Abroad
13. Small Gods
14. Lords and Ladies
15. Men at Arms
16. Soul Music
17. Interesting Times
19. Feet of Clay
22. The Last Continent
23. Carpe Jugulum
24. The Fifth Elephant
25. The Truth
26. Thief of Time
27. The Last Hero
28. The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents
29. Night Watch
30. The Wee Free Men
31. Monstrous Regiment
32. A Hat Full of Sky
33. Going Postal
36. Making Money
37. Unseen Academicals
38. I Shall Wear Midnight
40. Raising Steam
41. The Shepherd’s Crown