You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘rereading discworld’ category.
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (1991) 400 p.
Discworld #13 (Stand-alone)
This is widely regarded as one of Pratchett’s finest novels, certainly in the early days of the Discworld series. It’s a standalone – possibly the most complete standalone in the series, taking place far from Ankh-Morpork or Lancre, with only a brief cameo appearance by the Librarian and of course Death. Pratchett takes us to the vast desert kingdom of Omnia, a religious autocracy built around worship of the god Om. On the Discworld, as we’ve already learned, belief can create reality – and so gods in turn are reliant on their believers for their continued existence. Om’s problem is that people no longer believe in him as a god per se, but rather in the institution of the church. Shrunk down into the humble body of a tortoise and with his omnipotence vanished, Om finds he has only one true believer left: the naive young novice Brutha, working in the gardens of the Church’s great Citadel. Om clings to Brutha like a drowning man to a life raft, well aware that if Brutha’s belief wavers then his own existence will be imperilled, as he tries to figure out how to make the people of Omnia properly believe again.
Brutha, meanwhile, has been recruited for a special mission by one of the Church’s deacons for of his eidetic memory. Accompanying Vorbis, Pratchett’s latest Machiavellian villain of iron-cast belief, Brutha thus sets out on the journey of a lifetime to Omnia’s neighbour Ephebe, with none of his retinue suspecting their god is riding along in Brutha’s backpack.
This is a case where I really have to differ from public opinion. I remembered very little of Small Gods, and I’ve learnt on this rereading project that this usually means the book didn’t make much of an impact on me the first time around and won’t the second. The best explanation I can come to for why Small Gods doesn’t engage me is because I’m not religious, I wasn’t raised religious, and I live in probably one of the most irreligious countries in the Western world. Being an agnostic or an atheist doesn’t mean you don’t have to cope with religion’s impact on society, but in Australia it has very little effect on me compared to if I were an atheist in, say, Alabama. I just don’t find Pratchett’s ruminations on religious belief as engaging as those on racism or politics or sexism or any number of other things.
As I said, it’s one of Pratchett’s most beloved books, and apparently he received plenty of approving letters from believers and non-believers alike, praising his depiction of faith, belief, and the critical differences between organised religion and a personal relationship with God. I can believe all that, and I can appreciate why so many others love it. It just didn’t strike much of a chord with me personally, and I find myself with very little to say about it.
Next up, we’re back to the witches of Lancre with Lords and Ladies.
Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1991) 286 p.
Discworld #12 (Witches #3)
In the tiny hilltop kindom of Lancre, the witch Desiderata Hollow passes away – and passes on her magic wand and responsibilities as a Fairy Godmother to Magrat, the youngest of Granny Weatherwax’s coven. The three witches must set out for the distant city of Genua to find Magrat’s young charge Ella (as in Cinderella) and free her from the manipulations of her other, evil Fairy Godmother, Lilith – who also happens to be the de facto ruler of Genua, having deposed the old Baron.
Witches Abroad, as the title suggests, is a road story. The witches don’t actually arrive in Genua until halfway through the book. The first half is a sequence of comedic setpieces as a pair of old biddies and their exasperated younger friend bumble their way through Foreign Parts. (“Abroad” is such a classically English word.) At first – the dwarves, the vampire village, the running of the bulls – this is a reason for Pratchett to exercise his overactive imagination in amusing vignettes. As the witches approach Genua, however, their encounters are lifted straight out of fairytales – not just because Pratchett wants an excuse to satirise them, as would have been the case in previous Discworld novels, but because Lilith is deliberately engineering her local world to resemble a world of fairytales, regardless of the implications. This comes out most strongly in the Red Riding Hood analogue, as the witches save an old woman, only to find that the Big Bad Wolf is a victim as well – an ordinary wolf given human predatory instincts, slowly going insane:
She stared at the wolf, wondering what she could do for it. A normal wolf wouldn’t enter a cottage, even if it could open the door. Wolves didn’t come near humans at all, except if there were a lot of them and it was the end of a very hard winter. And they didn’t do that because they were big and bad and wicked, but because they were wolves.
This wolf was trying to be human.
There was probably no cure.
“Someone made this wolf think it was a person,” she said. “They made it think it was a person and then they didn’t think any more about it. It happened a few years ago.”
Lilith’s autocratic wonderland is on full display as the witches eventually reach Genua: a swamp town, a party town, a very clear New Orleans analogue. It seems a strange place to set your novel about fairytales and princesses, but Pratchett is deliberately contrasting it with another city in the same part of the real world – Orlando, and specifically Disneyworld. In an interview he said:
[Witches Abroad] had its genesis some years ago when I drove from Orlando to New Orleans and formed some opinions about both places: in one, you go there and Fun is manufactured and presented to you, in the other you just eat and drink a lot and fun happens.
The old Genua – the swampy shanty town – still clusters around the outskirts of the new Genua, a pristine, polished wonderland which is utterly soulless, and which reminded me of Lord Farquaad’s castle in Shrek (which is, of course, another paordy of Disneyworld). The witches go about finding Ella, encountering a voodoo swamp woman who is neither quite ally or enemy, and and attempting to disrupt the threads of narrative power that will enable Lilith to cement her hold on the people of Genua.
I remember liking Witches Abroad quite a lot when I first read it, and I still do. The plot hums along very nicely considering it’s a book of two halves, treading a good balance between comedy and gravitas, much like Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! (In fact, it’s strange to me that Pratchett clearly hit upon excellent characters in Weatherwax and Vimes, yet waited so long to write their follow-up stories – six and seven books respectively, if you consider the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites to be a sort of proto-character.)
What works best of all is the dynamic between the three characters: Granny, the iron-willed leader of the group, a cranky and contemptuous woman who was “born to be good” and doesn’t like it; Nanny Ogg, the rambunctious, cheerful, drunken old hen, the kind of woman you wish you had as a crazy aunt, who’s nevertheless sharper and more powerful than she first seems; and Magrat, the youngest of them, a hippie-dippie New Age wet hen. Granny and Magrat in particular clash a lot over the use (or non-use) of magic and Granny’s scornful attitude towards Magrat’s idealism, which culminates in a very nice scene at the climax of the book in which Granny overcomes a voodoo practitioner by doing something she repeatedly told Magrat is impossible. (“When Esme uses words like ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one,’” Nanny Ogg notes, “she doesn’t include herself.”)
An excellent entry in the series, and I again have to say how puzzling it is, in retrospect, that Pratchett waited so long before reintroducing some of his best characters. He must have realised he was on to something after this one; after Small Gods, which is next (and possibly the only totally stand-alone book in the series) he went straight back to the witches with Lords and Ladies, which I recall being the high point of their arc. The City Watch books will start coming thick and fast soon as well.
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett (1991) 352 p.
Discworld #11 (Death #2)
In the early novel Mort, Pratchett expanded upon one of his best creations: Death, the anthropomorphic personification of human mortality. A Grim Reaper figure who shepherds souls into the next world, he takes a professional pride in his work and has a sort of vague fondness for humanity. Mort is largely the story of his human apprentice, though, with Death himself sidelined on a sideplot in which he goes and tries to actually live: attends a party, takes a job as a short order cook, etc. It’s the B-side to Mort’s broader adventure.
Reaper Man builds upon that concept of Death as a fish out of water, treating it far more seriously. Death is merely a servant in the cosmic order of things, and he is informed one day that he has been replaced. (His sackable offence was developing too much of a personality.) He is given his own lifetimer, a certain number of remaining days, and is allowed to keep his pale white horse Binky. With no avenue of protest, Death sets out to spend his last remaining days in the real, human world – and naturally takes a job as a farmhand, being handy with a scythe.
This sounds like a screwball comedy, but Death’s story in Reaper Man actually struck me as a sort of fairytale, which makes sense in its own contained universe. People cannot see what he really is, and most of his dealings in the remote village he moves to have a symbolic quality: the landlady who was widowed before her wedding day, the young country boys who seem to become old country men with no intermediate stage, the dreadful new combine harvester which stands as a symbol of ruthless, efficient progress. Death’s combination of wisdom and naivete makes for an enjoyable and surprisingly earnest little story.
Unfortunately Death’s story thread is also smaller than I remembered; most of the book is taken up with what’s going on in Ankh-Morpork, where in Death’s absence people have stopped dying. Windle Poons, the elderly magician from Moving Pictures, is very annoyed to find himself returned to his body after a brief stretch in limbo, and sets out to discover what’s gone wrong.
This is where Reaper Man stumbles: a beautifully painted, emotionally affective story about Death learning to live with ordinary people is paired with a wacky-hijinks adventure in which Windle Poons and his crew of undead oddballs follow the trail of the randomly appearing snowglobes which turn into shopping trolleys which are then accumulating into a hive that grows a shopping mall (???). I wish I’d made any of that up. It’s an absolute brain fart of an idea which Pratchett never should have put to paper, let alone shoved in alongside one of his best stories yet. He’s written silly, disjointed books that fell flat before this, but never one which was so brazenly a creature of two halves. Reaper Man isn’t quite as good as I remember – but that plot with Death, out on the farm, living out his days, is still really something special.
Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett (1990) 243 p.
Discworld #10 (stand-alone)
This is a bit of an odd one. It’s the second stand-alone in the series after Pyramids, revolving around the discovery of film by the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork. Spurred on by a newly-released hole in reality in the sunny beachside locale of Holy Wood, the Discworld soon has a thriving movie-making business going on. The main character Victor Tugelbend – student wizard, unexpected movie star and certainly one of the most forgettable characters Pratchett ever wrote – begins to uncover the origins of Holy Wood, the ancient civilisation that once lived there and the terrible danger sleeping beneath the nearby hills.
Looking at the series as a whole, Moving Pictures seems to foreshadow the twilight years of the Discworld – what some people think of as the Industrial Revolution novels, when many books would introduce new technologies or developments to Ankh-Morpork: the clacks, the newspaper, a post office, a banking system, etc. The difference was that while in each of those later books the new technology stuck around and formed part of a growing, broader fictional world, Moving Pictures may as well end with an Everything’s Back to Normal Barbecue.
It’s notable for the introduction of a few long-term characters – Gaspode the talking dog, who if memory serves will return in Men-at-Arms; Archchancellor Ridcully, the crossbow-toting new leader of Unseen University who regards most of his lazy, overweight faculty with open contempt; and that same unnamed faculty, with ludicrous professors like the Lecturer in Recent Runes and the Chair of Indefinite Studies. Oddly, the faculty aren’t introduced until about three quarters of the way through the book, and then play a part in the climax only to disappear entirely, not even worth an appearance in the sort of post-credits montage that makes up the final few pages. Yet Pratchett clearly liked them, since they’re important characters in the next book, Reaper Man. I can’t help but feel they were shoved into a late draft. We also see Detritus develop into a more complex character, although he’s still a long way from his future as a sergeant in the City Watch.
Moving Pictures, on the whole, feels too much like an excuse for Pratchett to write a bunch of jokes about the early decades of Hollywood. I actually began to find myself a little bored while reading it, which is not something I ever expect of a Discworld novel. The climax, in particular, was tiresome: creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions break through the silver screen and we have a reverse King Kong spoof as an enormous monster in the shape of a woman seizes the Librarian and climbs to the top of the Tower of Art with him. Very droll – but by my count that’s now four books revolving around the Dungeon Dimensions, three of which culminate on top of the Tower of Art.
There’s a moment in Moving Pictures where Dibbler (one of the better parts of the book – neatly going from hot-dog-selling entrepreneur to a profit-obsessed film producer) tries to explain how film works to the Patrician; Vetinari, however, has no interest in “how things work,” only in “how people work.” I think that’s true of Pratchett as well – he’s an author fascinated by human nature, by how people tick, by how we relate to each other. So I find it puzzling that even ten books into the Discworld series, when he’s already proven himself capable of writing compelling human villains (as in Pyramids and Guards, Guards) he keeps falling back on the hoary Lovecraftian trope of horrible monsters from another dimension. There’s also a lot in there about the magic of cinema and the power of human belief, the latter being one of Pratchett’s most recurrent themes, but it never solidifies into something that feels purposeful; it never seems to be elevated beyond, as I said, a bunch of jokes about Hollywood looking for a plot.
Eric by Terry Pratchett (1990) 155 p.
Discworld #9 (Rincewind #4)
I had virtually no memory of what’s possibly the slimmest entry in the Discworld series, and after reading it again I can see why. Eric is the fourth entry in the Rincewind arc, and it doesn’t even manage the more coherent plot of the last one, Sourcery; it certainly comes nowhere near the lofty heights of its immediate predecessor Guards, Guards. Rather, Eric takes us almost all the way back to the scattershot freestyle of The Colour of Magic: a series of disconnected adventures with no overarching theme, story, or really anything other than an excuse to drag Rincewind through a series of comedic setpieces.
When we last left the hapless, cowardly wizard he was trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions after the events of Sourcery; at the beginning of Eric he escapes after being accidentally summoned by Eric, a nerdy teenage demonologist from Pseudopolis. Rincewind and Eric are then dutifully thrust through time and space, visiting a Mayan-inspired jungle society, a riff on the Battle of Troy, the creation of the universe (with the Creator himself being the same shtick about dodgy builders that wore out its welcome back in Pyramids) and then back into Hell itself (where the king of demons is, again, a repeated joke – this time the concept that real hell is bureaucracy, which Pratchett already did with the villain in The Light Fantastic.)
There’s really very little to say here, other than the observation of just how odd it is that Pratchett wrote this directly after Guards, Guards, the best and most mature entry in the series yet. Possibly the problem is inherent in returning to Rincewind as a character; a character Pratchett wasn’t yet willing to abandon. (Rincewind’s books will become fewer and fewer as the series goes on, and the best of them, Interesting Times, is really more about Cohen the Barbarian.) Eric was originally published as a larger, heavily illustrated, sort-of-art book – though this still doesn’t explain why Pratchett wanted to write it in the first place, other than perhaps being unsure of himself as he rode the crest of the increasingly popular series. Or, more charitably, because it was a bit of fun that he could scribble out in a couple of weeks.
Eric is by no means a bad book – it’s breezy, funny, and readable, like everything Pratchett writes – but it’s certainly one of the least worthwhile of the Discworld series. Even The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic have the excuse of being the very first ones. Coming right after Guards, Guards, Eric is a curious anomaly.
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989) 355 p.
Discworld #8 (City Watch #1)
This is the book Pratchett advised new readers to start with; this is the beginning of the City Watch arc, the strongest thread in the Discworld series; this is the introduction of Sam Vimes, who may be “the most fully realised decent man in modern literature.” This is, in short, the highlight of the first ten books in the series.
The Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork was a proud institution, once upon a time, before the Machiavellian new ruler Lord Vetinari seized power. In an ironic joke mentioned in most of the books up to this point, Vetinari effectively legalised crime: allowing the thieves and the assassins and the beggars a certain quota of permitted activity, overseen by their powerful guilds, while also making them responsible for any unlicensed crime. While this resulted in a much safer, more predictable and prosperous Ankh-Morpork, it also sidelined the City Watch. By the time of Guards! Guards! the Night Watch has dwindled to just three men: the weaselly Corporal Nobbs, the overweight Sergeant Colon, and the wretched drunk in charge of them, Captain Sam Vimes.
The novel kicks off with two separate threads. The first is a shadowy secret society intent on restoring Ankh-Morpork’s “rightful” ruler to the throne; a collection of self-entitled idiots and half-wits manipulated by a leader who is far more intelligent and dangerous. Their plan involves magically summoning a long-extinct dragon to terrorise the city and leave the populace desperate for a hero – but as is always the case with man messing around with things he was never meant to understand, events go quite differently.
The second is the journey of young Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised in the mountains by dwarves, whose father – the local dwarf king – wants to send him off to the city to learn to live amongst his own kind. His father consults the only human he knows, the local trader Varneshi:
“I have heard that dwarfs go off to work in the Big City, ” said the king uncertainly. “And they send back money to their families, which is very commendable and proper.”
“There you are then. Get him a job in, in -” Varneshi sought for inspiration – “in the Watch, or something. My great-grandfather was in the Watch, you know. Fine job for a big lad, my grandad said. ”
“What is a Watch?” said the king.
“Oh,” said Varneshi, with the vagueness of someone whose family for the last three generations hadn’t travelled more than twenty miles, “they goes about making sure people keep the laws and do what they’re told.”
“That is a very proper concern,” said the king who, since he was usually the one doing the telling, had very solid views about people doing what they were told.
Varneshi provides Carrot with an ancient copy of The Laws and Ordnances of the Cities Ankh and Morpork, which the young lad dutifully learns off by heart on his journey to the city. The opening of Guards! Guards! is something of a fish out of water comedy, as the naive young Carrot learns how to be a policeman in a very different city to the place he imagined – a difference apparent before he even arrives:
He’d expected high white towers rearing over the landscape, and flags. Ankh-Morpork didn’t rear. Rather, it sort of skulked, clinging to the soil as if afraid someone might steal it. There were no flags.
Carrot’s determination to thrust his own ideas upon the city, however, strikes a chord with Captain Vimes: “a scruffy collection of bad habits marinated in alcohol.” By all accounts Vimes should be an unlikeable character – cynical, bitter, jaded and pathetic. But he’s admirable because he has an internal dignity, because the reason that he’s cynical and bitter and jaded is because he’s right. He hasn’t made it far in life because “every time he seemed to be getting anywhere he spoke his mind, or said the wrong thing. Usually both at once.” He’s a man of principle, and – as the book goes on – we see that he’s actually very good at his job; a keen observer and smart detective. He’s a character who, though it gains him nothing, still goes to confront the master of the secret society near the climax of the novel, and can give a speech like this:
“You can’t give me my job back,” repeated Vimes. “It was never yours to take away. I was never an officer of the city, or an officer of the king, or an officer of the Patrician. I was an officer of the law. It might have been corrupted and bent, but it was law, of a sort.”
By the closing books of the Discworld series Vimes will have gone from rags to riches, obscurity to prominence; he will be second only to Vetinari as the city’s most powerful figure. Yet he remains fundamentally the same man as the drunk in the gutter at the beginning of Guards! Guards!: a watchman, a police officer, a damn good copper. A sentry in the night, protecting the city from itself.
The ensemble cast of Guards! Guards!, who will remain the crux of the City Watch for many books to come, are also wonderful. There’s the disreputable, larcenous Corporal Nobbs, whose pay Vimes docks “for being a disgrace to the species;” Fred Colon, the red-faced man who will “automatically gravitate to the post of sergeant” and, if he hadn’t joined a quasi-military organisation, would have been a sausage butcher; Lady Sybil Ramkin, Vimes’ future wife, who has the careless attitude towards her property and her appearance that only the truly rich can get away with; and of course Carrot, the Watch’s new recruit and very possibly Ankh-Morpork’s long-lost true king, who is much sharper than he appears underneath a veneer of honest simplicity.
The characters are a huge part of why Guards! Guards! works so well. But it’s also tightly plotted, has high emotional stakes around the city’s peril, and is hilarious. I’d completely forgotten this joke but it’s one of my favourites in the series so far, as typical pulp fantasy heroes descend on the city in answer to the call for someone to kill the dragon and start talking about how hard the trade is these days:
“Monsters are getting more uppity, too,” said another. “I heard where this guy, he killed this monster in this lake, no problem, stuck its arm up over the door-”
“Pour encourjay lays ortras,” said one of the listeners.
“Right, and you know what? Its mum come and complained. Its actual mum come right down to the hall next day and complained. Actually complained. That’s the respect you get.”
Guards! Guards! simply works. It works really well: the characters, the plot, the pacing, the jokes. It’s the first really great Discworld book, surpassing both Mort and Wyrd Sisters. It’s actually quite surprising to me that Pratchett didn’t revisit the characters again (in their own book; I think they make cameo appearances for a while) until #16, Men at Arms.
In any case, Pratchett knew his own work. Guards! Guards! is the perfect starting point for a new Discworld reader, because aside from being the start of a major story arc, it encapsulates what the series does so well (and, down the line, does even better): a compelling plot with brilliant characters, sparkling dialogue, and wry observations about human nature seamlessly mixed into the prose. Highly recommended.
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!
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett (1988) 368 p.
Discworld #6 (Witches #2)
I always think of this as the first Witches book, but I decided Equal Rites counts as the first and I suppose I have to stand by that. Although really, since Esk is actually a wizard, Equal Rites really only features a single witch in a major role: the inimitable Granny Weatherwax. It’s Wyrd Sisters which firmly introduces the plural, with Granny’s newly formed coven of Nanny Ogg (a rambunctious, drunken, garrulous old matriarch) and Magrat (a flowery New Age hippie).
Wyrd Sisters is the novel where Pratchett thankfully moves beyond the tiresome Dungeon Dimensions as his villains-du-jour and instead breaches fresh ground. It’s largely a mash-up of Hamlet and Macbeth, with a half-crazed duke and his imperious duchess of a wife murdering the king of Lancre and seizing the throne in his place, leaving the king to wander the castle as a powerless ghost. A loyal retainer flees with his infant son on the night of the murder and delivers him to the witches, who thoughtfully place the child into the foster care of a troupe of wandering actors, and cleverly hide the royal crown in the one place it will never be noticed – amidst the jumble of fake crowns at the bottom of the actors’ props chest.
We already met Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites and she remains the main character here, but Pratchett does a great job of making the other two just as memorable in their own ways. Magrat is the odd witch out both in terms of age and method – a younger woman who believes in fruitier, hippy-dippy nonsense and dislikes the other witches’ more practical, rural approach to magic. While Magrat remains an important character in later books, she’ll soon be sidelined as she becomes a queen and leaves the coven. Nanny Ogg, on the other hand, remains a fantastic foil to Granny Weatherwax for the rest of the series. Both are well-respected and accomplished witches, but in every other way they couldn’t be more different: Weatherwax is a solitary, rigid, crabby old woman while Ogg is the sort of crazy old aunt everybody wishes they had, a fun-loving party animal who seems to have sired half the village and whose house is serviced by her numerous daughters-in-law, “a tribe of grey-faced, subdued women whose names she never bothered to remember.” Yet while she often serves as comic relief even in a fundamentally comic series, she nonetheless has the same serious and competent core as most of Pratchett’s protagonists – one of his greatest strengths as a writer.
Lancre, too, is a wonderful invention: a rugged little mountaintop kingdom where there’s plenty of flat ground, although most of it is vertical. If Ankh-Morpork is Pratchett’s answer to London, then Lancre represents the English countryside; all the quiet little rural places like Cornwall and Herefordshire and Worcestershire, which have been a rich vein of comedy stretching back to Waugh and Wodehouse. Lancre Castle is “Gormenghast without the budget,” and while extolling its virtues Nanny Ogg concedes that the river isn’t really “a stone’s throw away,” but rather a stone’s drop.
Having said all that – this is not quite yet a great Discworld book. It has pacing issues (the actors vanish for the first half of the book only to hog most of the second) and there is a little too much handwaving in the finale for my liking. It still feels a little like Pratchett is unwilling to let the plot get in the way of whatever jokes and satire he wants to cram in there. But compared to Sourcery – in fact, compared to every Discworld book thus far except Mort – Wyrd Sisters is a huge success and one of the very first solidly good Discworld books. It’s nothing to compare to what will come later, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good starting point, alongside Mort and Guards! Guards!
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.)
Mort, by Terry Pratchett (1987) 304 p.
Discworld #4 (Death #1)
And so we pass through the funny but slapdash novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, and the flawed but taking-its-first-wobbly-toddler-steps novel of Equal Rites, and arrive at the fourth Discworld novel, Mort: the first one I believe is a genuinely good, well-rounded novel, and also the first one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a new reader. (Although it wouldn’t be my first recommendation – more on that later.)
Mortimer, or “Mort” as his family appropriately calls him, is a gangly misfit in a remote village in the Ramtop Mountains. As he comes of age, his father takes him to the village square on Hogswatchnight as the various craftsmen, artisans and traders pick their apprentices for the new year. Mort stands in the freezing cold watching other boys picked for their exciting new careers, like a modern-day kid watching as everybody else is picked for the baseball team, until at the stroke of midnight he’s the only one left. Reminding his father that it’s not midnight until the final stroke of the clock, he stubbornly remains in the square to find that there is indeed one last professional who has yet to take on a protege… and he rides a pale horse.
Death has been a background character in the Discworld books from the very beginning, transforming from an outright malicious figure in The Colour of Magic to the more benevolent fellow we meet in Equal Rites, always happy to have a pithy chat with a departed soul before ushering them into the next world. It’s the latter characterisation that Mort settles upon, and indeed, this is the Death we will become familiar with for the remainder of the Discworld series. As far as walking, talking skeletons who lack a human brain and soul go, he’s quite a likeable person. He speaks IN ALL CAPS, an easy but surprisingly effective trick, and has countless great lines:
“How do you get all those coins?” asked Mort.
“My granny says that dying is like going to sleep,” Mort added, a shade hopefully.
I WOULDN’T KNOW. I HAVE DONE NEITHER.
A WHAT? said Death in astonishment, sitting behind his ornate desk and turning his scythe-shaped paperknife over and over in his hands.
“An afternoon off,” repeated Mort. The room suddenly seemed to be oppressively big, with himself very exposed in the middle of a carpet about the size of a field.
BUT WHY? said Death. IT CAN’T BE TO ATTEND YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S FUNERAL, he added. I WOULD KNOW.
Death is most importantly a loveable character because he is not malevolent; he does not take lives, but merely ensures that people die as fate has appointed. The first time Mort accompanies Death as his new master reaps a soul, the boy instinctively but fruitlessly attempts to intervene and save the murdered man’s life, and later assumes he’s in trouble:
YOU TRIED TO WARN HIM, he said, removing Binky’s nosebag.
“Yes, sir. Sorry.”
YOU CANNOT INTERFERE WITH FATE. WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE WHO SHOULD LIVE AND WHO SHOULD DIE?
Death watched Mort’s expression carefully.
ONLY THE GODS ARE ALLOWED TO DO THAT, he added. To TINKER WITH THE FATE OF EVEN ONE INDIVIDUAL COULD DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?
Mort nodded miserably. “Are you going to send me home?” he said.
Death reached down and swung him up behind the saddle. BECAUSE YOU SHOWED COMPASSION? NO. I MIGHT HAVE DONE IF YOU HAD SHOWN PLEASURE. BUT YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE.
A SHARP EDGE.
Why Death has decided he wants an apprentice is never entirely clear, unless perhaps it’s in some vague hope that Mort will fall in love with Death’s adopted human daughter, Ysabell. But the concept is great: how many fantasy or young adult novels, how many bildungsroman, have covered the notion of being slowly trained up as a wizard or assassin or ruler? Being trained as the grim reaper is a pretty fresh idea, which is perhaps why I think this is the first really good Discworld novel: because it’s the first to combine humour with a genuinely interesting, exciting story. The plot properly kicks off when, entrusted with THE DUTY on his own for the first time, Mort falls for a beautiful princess and kills her assassin instead. This sets off ripples in space-time, the universe attempts to correct itself, and Mort has to figure out what the hell he’s going to do – including whether or not he’s going to fess up to Death.
I enjoyed Mort as much as I did when I first read it many, many years ago, and I was actually surprised by how much I’d forgotten. There are some unforgettable settings and inventions, some of which will remain part of the series for many books to come: the library with billions of books constantly writing the story of everybody’s life, the hourglasses or “lifetimers” that measure out a person’s lifespan, the invisible magical circle tightening around the princess and course-correcting her altered history, the black but homely realm of Death’s Domain, and the true identity of Death’s millenia-old manservant Albert. But there was much that I’d forgotten: Death’s own jet-black skull-and-bones lifetimer which contains no sand at all, the duel in the lifetimer room with accidentally destroyed hourglasses corresponding to real-life deaths, Mort’s amusing habit of constantly discomfiting people as he forgets his developing Death-like powers and walks through walls, trips to Bes Pelargic and Klatch (because we will see far less of the Disc as the series increasingly focuses on Ankh-Morpork and the surrounding countryside), and a cameo appearance by Rincewind, which I’m frankly surprised didn’t happen in Equal Rites.
Mort is a really good book. It’s funny, it’s creative, it’s original and it’s deeply engaging. As a Discworld book? Well, it’s the first really good Discworld book – not even the first great Discworld book. It’s the beginning of the Death story arc (one of the series’ shorter ones) and, as I said, it’s a great book in and of itself. If you’re interested in reading the Discworld series for the first time and, of the Recommended Starting Titles™, your library only has Mort? Go for it. If, on the other hand, you’re perusing Amazon and have all the world’s literature before your credit card, then go ahead and buy #8, Guards! Guards! I’ll explain why when I get there.
Next up is the Discworld #5, Rincewind #3, Sourcery – a book I remember absolutely nothing about except an all-powerful wizard and a half-brick in a sock.