The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett (1986) 285 p.
Discworld #2 (Rincewind #2)
Terry Pratchett never intended the Discworld to be a series, and certainly never expected it to become a best-selling, translated-into-dozens-of-languages, millionaire-author book-signing type of series. His first few (non-Discworld) novels were well-received but didn’t sell particularly well, and when he published The Colour of Magic in 1983 he was still working full-time as a press officer for an electricity utility. The Colour of Magic was far more successful than his previous novels. It didn’t happen overnight, but a few years later he’d quit his job to work full-time as an author, and began steadily producing an average of one or two books a year until his death.
Many people dream of being an author; few actually accomplish it, and fewer yet manage to do it full-time. (It’s a depressing fact that when you walk into a bookstore, most of the names you see on the spines have day jobs.) Childhood dreams of being the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling are replaced, for young aspiring writers in their twenties, with a desperate yearning to simply earn maybe thirty or forty grand a year; the kind of money you can maybe live off if you move out of the city and don’t have kids. (I am totally not projecting.) Pratchett was 35 when The Colour of Magic became an unexpected success, and he knew he was onto a winning formula — which actually sounds like a strange thing to say, given how different the later books are.
Because The Light Fantastic is still a different book from its distant progeny, no doubt about that. It’s a direct sequel to the madcap adventures of Rincewind and Twoflower from The Colour of Magic, although this time we have a single overarching plot. When we last saw the Discworld’s first tourist and his cowardly wizard tour guide, they were plummeting off the edge of the world. At the beginning of The Light Fantastic they find themselves magically deposited back on the Disc, in a gloomy forest in the middle of nowhere. Rincewind the wizard has but one all-powerful spell inside his head, which invaded his mind during an ill-advised student prank in his university days, and which makes it impossible for him to remember any others. Great A’Tuin, the space turtle which bears the weight of the Discworld through space, is travelling towards a baleful red star, and the Spell and its book-bound brethren are keen to keep Rincewind alive, as they suspect they’ll be needed. But the wizards of Unseen University have cottoned on to this, and are racing to find and kill Rincewind themselves in order to recapture the Spell, while Great A’Tuin swims ever closer to the dire red star.
That sounds fairly confusing, and it is. It holds up better than the disjointed, episodic adventures of The Colour of Magic, but it’s still fairly weak as plots go, and it’s held together by the comedy. There is nonetheless an eerie sense of potency as the Disc grows ever closer to the red star, until it becomes so huge and bright that it lights up the night-time, and the city streets are filled with apocalyptic cultists. But it’s not a patch on the later plots Pratchett would come up with, and this is still a book which is mostly about silly fun. Mere pages from the beginning, recapping the events of the prototype spaceship which catapulted Rincewind and Twoflower off the Disc, Pratchett had me smiling with the pun “no such thing as a free launch.” Later, during the chaos that envelops the city as the red star swells in the sky, Twoflower mentions people breaking into a musical instrument store; “Luters, I expect.”
We have gnomes:
Red hats! He wondered whether to enlighten the tourist about what life was really like when a frog was a good meal, a rabbit hole a useful place to shelter out of the rain, and an owl a drifting, silent terror in the night. Moleskin trousers sounded quaint unless you personally had to remove them from their original owner when the vicious little sod was cornered in his burrow. As for red hats, anyone who went around a forest looking bright and conspicuous would only do so very, very briefly.
We have gingerbread houses:
Once you had made the necessary mental adjustments, the gingerbread cottage was quite a pleasant place. Residual magic kept it standing and it was shunned by such local wild animals who hadn’t already died of terminal tooth decay.
We have the problem of metaphors:
The sunlight poured like molten gold across the sleeping landscape. Not precisely, of course. Trees didn’t burst into flame, people didn’t suddenly become very rich and extremely dead, and the seas didn’t flash into steam. A better simile, in fact, would be “not like molten gold.”
We also have Cohen the Barbarian, something of a one-note joke: the geriatric barbarian hero, clearly modelled after Conan, but the basic gag being that he’s so good at what he does that he’s reached old age without being killed, and now goes about with liniment oil and haemorrhoid rings and so forth. This joke, to me, wore out its welcome fairly soon, and the character unfortunately hangs around despite not having much more to him than that. He doesn’t recur again until the 17th book, Interesting Times (which is also incidentally the next and last time we’ll see Twoflower) but I remember liking him a lot more in that one. Possibly because Pratchett was simply a much better writer at that stage.
I suppose part of the reason The Light Fantastic is disappointing is because it’s more of the same. When The Colour of Magic was released it was a smart and funny skewering of stale fantasy tropes; and for me, re-reading it, I was surprised by how much better it was than I remembered, and how fascinating it was to revisit the early Discworld. The Light Fantastic is just a variation on that theme; Pratchett treading water before he went on to develop this world into a living, breathing fictional universe which he used to parody every single aspect of human society. It’s easy to forget that it took him many, many books to really attain greatness; I’d argue the series isn’t really on solid ground until Mort (#4) and doesn’t truly hit the golden age until Feet of Clay (#19). But you can’t really blame someone for a few missteps along the way; as I said earlier, it was perfectly reasonable that Pratchett tried to repeat his initial success while he figured out exactly what to do with a setting that seemed to have struck a chord with the reading public.
Next up is Equal Rites, which I also remember little of, and which I have mentally filed away as a dodgy, experimental book like these last two. It does, nonetheless, introduce one of the Discworld’s best characters, the cynical village witch Granny Weatherwax.