Pyramids by Terry Pratchett (1989) 368 p.
Discworld #7 (stand-alone)
I still remember when I first read this one: on a family holiday to Rottnest, borrowed from the tiny library there because I hadn’t brought anything to read, part of some larger volume of three Discworld books. I’d been reading the City Watch books backwards from The Fifth Elephant and this was the first non-Watch Discworld book I’d read, so I was dubious about it. It was a relief to find that Pratchett’s a wonderful writer regardless of which band of characters he’s following.
Pyramids takes us to the nation of Djelibeybi, meaning “child of the Djel,” one of Pratchett’s most loveably terrible puns. Clearly modelled after Ancient Egypt, it’s a river valley hundreds of miles long and a few miles wide which acts as a buffer state between the enemy kingdoms of Tsort and Ephebe. The main character is Teppic, heir to the throne, who was sent away to Ankh-Morpork as a boy to receive an education from the Assassin’s Guild. The opening of the book details the night of Teppic’s final practical exam before graduating as a fully-fledged assassin, intercut with flashbacks to his earlier youth and arrival in Ankh-Morpork. It’s a great piece of writing, which reminded me of Esk’s tutelage under Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites – never mind the jokes, Pratchett’s on great form here purely for fantasy and adventure, as Teppic stalks the rooftops of Ankh-Morpork avoiding traps and deadfalls set by his examiner. (I’ve heard that Pratchett apparently wrote this sequence completely on the fly, and it was one of his favourite bits of his own writing.)
The story proper begins when the old pharaoh dies and Teppic becomes the new king, his footsteps suddenly sprouting grass in the cobbles of Ankh-Morpork. Returning to his ancestral home and taking his place on the throne, Teppic soon finds himself a stranger in his own land: a cosmopolitan young man from modern, thriving Ankh-Morpork thrust into the leadership of a kingdom in which nothing has changed for seven thousand years. Most of this plays out in his interactions with Dios, high priest of Djelibeybi and one of Pratchett’s best early characters. The only other noteworthy villains Pratchett had written up till now were the Duke and Duchess in Wyrd Sisters, who were really just Macbeth stand-ins, and both of whom were insane. Dios, on the other hand, is perfectly sane and an excellent villain: a man slavishly devoted to ritual and symbolism, whose steadfast refusal to accept change in the kingdom stems as much from his own failings and weaknesses as from his genuine belief that he’s doing the right thing. Reading this book again as an adult I was struck by how similar he is to Sourdust and Barquentine in the Gormenghast series; a master of ritual who perhaps wields more power than the monarch himself, and who treats Teppic as nothing more than a placeholder.
Other parts of Pyramids fell a little flat for me; the banter between the pyramid-builder Ptaclusp and his two sons, an accountant and an engineer, is meant to reflect the tiresome cost overruns and planning tedium of the modern building industry, like the drama in an episode of Grand Designs. It works quite well as an introductory gag but these characters go on to take up far too much of the novel. There’s a diversion to Ephebe, the Discworld’s stand-in for Ancient Greece, with a lot of jokes about philosophy which I thought were a bit stretched. And Teppic himself, while a likeable protagonist, is not a particularly well-rounded character; too often he feels like Pratchett’s voice, an author surrogate making wry comments about the fanaticism of the Djelibeybians. There’s nothing to distinguish his dialogue from that of, say, Rincewind or Mort or even any of Pratchett’s many minor characters and nameless extras who exist to make a witticism and then exit stage left. (And indeed we will never see Teppic or Djelibeybi again.)
Pyramids is a decent novel, certainly one of the better ones in the early series, but a bit of a come-down after Wyrd Sisters. Next on the chart, fortunately, we have Pratchett’s own recommended starting point and the beginning of the best character and the best story arc in the entire series: Sam Vimes, the City Watch, and Guards! Guards!