Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett (1988) 279 p.
Discworld #5 (Rincewind #3)
I mentioned at the end of my Mort review that I had dim memories of this one. That’s not a damning indictment – I read many of these books in my early teenage years, after all, which was nearly fifteen years ago now. I also have dim memories of, say, Reaper Man and Small Gods, which are widely considered to be Discworld classics. Sourcery, unfortunately, is not.
As we learned in Equal Rites, the eighth son of an eighth son is always born a wizard. Wizards are supposed to be celibate, but in the case of an eighth son of an eighth son himself actually siring eight sons, the result is hugely dangerous: a sourcerer, a wizard of such power that he can create magic rather than simply utilising existing magic. No sourcerer has been seen on the Discworld for aeons, but now one has risen again, and hapless wizard Rincewind finds himself caught in the middle of a titanic struggle for power.
I’d honestly forgotten how much these early Discworld books focused on wizards, and how much Unseen University dominates proceedings. Pratchett would later become a much more serious writer focused on satirising ordinary human society, and so we have characters who are policemen, journalists, industrialists and conmen; even the Witches of Lancre rely more on psychology than actual magic. But Sourcery is very much a book written in the same vein as The Light Fantastic or Equal Rites: a silly story spawned by the Dungeons & Dragons mythos, with lots of stuff about wizards and their staffs and pointy hats and dripping candles and pentagrams, et cetera. It includes a female barbarian warrior who wants to be a hairdresser and the nerdy son of a grocer who wants to be a barbarian warrior. Like the first two novels in the Discworld series (like all Rincewind novels, perhaps) it feels more like a collection of gags strung together into a story rather than a properly coherent novel. The entire thread about the Archchancellor’s hat ultimately comes to nothing, and we find ourselves yet again in a confrontation with the horrible monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions – which was already the climax of both The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites.
This would all be tolerable if the book was hilarious, but most of the jokes fall disappointingly flat. I actually found myself bored while reading it. As G argues at Pratchett Job, Sourcery is the first novel in which it feels as though Pratchett is taking a step backwards, or treading water, rather than improving.
Having said all that, it’s important to note that at this early point in the series Pratchett was churning out Discworld novels at a tremendous pace, possibly because of publisher pressure after the success of The Colour of Magic. The Light Fantastic was published in ’86, Equal Rites and Mort in ’87, and Sourcery and Wyrd Sisters both came out in ’88. That’s five novels in three years, and in between the excellent Mort and Wyrd Sisters, it’s a shame to say that Sourcery feels very much like filler. It’s hard not to sense a publisher breathing down Pratchett’s neck, and an editor glancing at his watch. The result is one of the Discworld series’ weakest and most forgettable books.
A disappointing blip on the radar, of course – next up is Wyrd Sisters, where the Witches arc properly begins.
(Side note: the edition I borrowed from the library is one of the new hardcovers. I like this re-issued series very much, but I must object to the classification used. Gollancz apparently considers Sourcery part of the “Unseen University collection.” If there is such a story arc, then to my mind it doesn’t begin until Mustrum Ridcully is introduced. It’s certainly not the revolving door of unmemorable wizard characters in these early books who mostly exist to tinker with dangerous forces and get killed in horrible ways.)