The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett

When I decided to (re-)read all the Discworld books, in order, I was a smidgeon trepidatious. The early books, after all, weren’t very good, and I wasn’t looking forward to wading through them until I reached the better volumes.

So when I read The Colour of Magic, I got a very pleasant surprise: it wasn’t bad at all, it was fun and clever and witty and imaginative and fun and fantastic and fun. Unpolished, yes, out of keeping with the continuity, certainly, and a little hamstrung by its episodic and parodic form; but good. So maybe, I thought, this ‘complete reread’ business wouldn’t be so bad after all.

When I read The Light Fantastic, unfortunately, I got another surprise.

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Perhaps the external history of these books explains some of what I felt the difference between them was. The Colour of Magic (TCOM) was Pratchett’s fourth published novel – The Carpet People was a fairly well-received children’s book but had hardly been a bestseller, and both The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata were commercial flops. TCOM may well have been Pratchett’s last chance, and I don’t imagine he had the highest hopes. As a result, it’s easy to think of a defiant author setting out, on the one hand, to dazzle his audience and get them to finally pay attention, and, on the other, to show people what they were missing. And that’s what we get in TCOM – a superficial but very shiny book where we watch a skilled and intelligent author having some fun. It also marked a turn in Pratchett’s writing, from humorous-but-serious to outright comedy (though still not as comedic as much of his later work).

The Light Fantastic (TLF), on the other hand, was written three years later, as Pratchett set out on the grand career of Being A Professional Author. TCOM had been a massive critical and commercial success, and if Pratchett was going to make it as an author he was going to have to find a way to replicate it. And that, I’m afraid, is what we get in TLF – a replica.

The biggest change is that the episodic structure has, at least in theory, gone, with the entire book having a single plot (which shifts away from Sword and Sorcery toward Epic Fantasy). This sounds like a good idea on the surface, but is practice is a very bad thing. TCOM’s wild, meandering plotting could work when hemmed in by the shortness of each componant story – let lose on a longer format, it turns into an unstructured mess of a narrative. And it doesn’t much help it feel bigger as a story, because it’s still fundamentally a series of comic episodes, which have little connexion to one another.

The humour is turned up to eleven… which isn’t funny. There are still incredibly awful puns, which are mildly amusing, but there are just so many of them that it becomes oppressive; and the flamboyant narrative voice of the original becomes a confused, intrusive, over-stylised mumbling. Every page has at least one passage of the “I could say X… but it would be wrong” or “perhaps I could say Y… but I won’t” – just one among many examples of Pratchett flogging his jokes to death. A few of these, and the in-world justification of laws enforcing literalness in descriptions, would have been funny, and at first were, but very soon I found myself just sighing. In general, then, where the original novel employed a fairly subtle and intelligent wit, with flashes of obviousness, the sequel resorts to constant obviousness, comedic cliché, and an unfitting broadness of humour. There are very few jokes – very few scenes, even – where you can’t predict exactly what the punch line will be, or what will happen next, very early on.

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Along the way, much of the heart of the original – both in its characterisation and in its moral sense – have been discarded. In particular, Rincewind, originally an interesting man with hopes and desires and amoral greed and vindictiveness and random acts of kindness and a sympathy for the oppressed, becomes a caricature of himself, existing only to move the plot along by running away from things. Partly as a result of this, there is very little narrative tension.

Particularly galling to me were the jokes that relied on real-world things, like late-night prawn biryanis, which I felt damaged the suspension of disbelief even more than the overly flippant and obvious narration. I also found myself a little miffed when I noticed Pratchett steal a joke whole from Chesterton, only tell it worse. [Rincewind’s preference for tradition over democracy, on the grounds that tradition is a democracy where even the dead get a vote, which is taken from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. In the original, it was of course a very serious political and sociological point, as well as being a witty paradox. In TLF it’s a throwaway line which doesn’t really seem in keeping either with the setting or with the character, has no broader thematic resonance, and isn’t particularly funny either]. In fact that seemed emblematic of a lot of Pratchett’s problems in this novel: it felt like he was putting on someone else’s voice. Pratchett’s thematic and stylistic debt to Chesterton has never been far below the surface of the Discworld (when reading The Man Who Was Thursday my mind instantly wandered, for instance, to Hogfather’s famous punchline about the sun – indeed, the broader themes of Hogfather in particular are extremely Chestertonian), and more broadly it’s clear Pratchett is following in the footsteps of a certain fin de siècle strain of flippant and satirical British humour (Wilde, Jerome, Chesterton, Saki, Wodehouse, et al). But in TLF, it feels as though Pratchett hasn’t yet found a voice he’s comfortable inhabiting. Perhaps, in fact, he’s putting on his own voice – I suspect that he was trying to capitalise on whatever had made TCOM so succesful. Unfortunately, in doing so he loses his authenticity – it feels artificial, which in turn feels unpleasant.

It isn’t a terrible book. It’s still broadly entertaining (particularly if you like puns), has some enjoyable characters (though sadly one of them gets killed off early on), and has a genuinely interesting (and in places even a little moving) character in the form of the aging Cohan the Barbarian. The finale is well-worked and satisfying. It’s short. And for the Discworld fan, it marks a move toward a more coherent world and a more epic scope (though most of the places featured here will still never be seen again). And among the bad jokes there are still the occasional gem of authentic wit.

But by and large, the impression I got from this book was that it wasn’t any funnier or more dramatic than the original, that it was considerably less original than the original, and that despite all this the author was trying far, far harder. The original was almost effortless; this one is laboured.

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Adrenaline: 3/5. Bumps up to average on account of the manic pace and high stakes.

Emotion: 1/5. Didn’t care in the slightest. Nobody to care about, no time in which to care. Slight interest around Cohan, but too brief to register.

Thought: 3/5. The odd moment of cleverness keeps it average, but the sophistication has mostly been set aside for cheap laughs (which I mostly didn’t laugh at).

Beauty: 3/5. The odd beautiful remark is still here, but not only are there not many of them, but Pratchett’s continual coyness and self-reference drain them of any impact they may have had.

Craft: 3/5. The worst thing about the book is that it’s not very well written. At first I was going to give this a 2, but I accept that would be harsh – too many good bits. But the plotting is poor and loose, the humour is patchy, and the narrative voice is inconsistent.

Endearingness: 2/5. I didn’t like it. It’s Pratchett, so it would be hard to hate it, but I really didn’t like it much.

Originality: 2/5. Despite being less directly a parody, it’s less original, in my opinion, than the first book. No real surprises or innovations along the way, just a lot of reused ideas.

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Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. I think that’s a fair assessment: it’s not actually bad. I probably sound more negative here than I should be, because I’m disappointed – it didn’t live up to what I was hoping for (though it more or less matches my original idea of what these early books were like).  In the final assessment, it’s a fairly enjoyable book, and actually in most of the describable details isn’t much worse than The Colour of Magic; the difference is, the earlier book was carried over its rough patches by its sparkling spirit, its confidence, its easy charm – this is self-conscious and lacking that creative edge.

[You may remember that my re-read follows on the heels of that of Nathan at www.fantasyreviewbarn.blogspot.co.uk and was prefigured (if you’ll forgive the theologically grandiose connotations of the word) by that of Adam three years ago at www.thewertzone.blogspot.com. Between the three of us we cover the entire spectrum of views on this book: as you can see, I thought it was worse than the first book; Adam, however, thought it was about the same as the first book, while Nathan bafflingly thought it was even better than the first book, an entire four stars out of five – for reasons that are more or less the exact opposite of my reasons. Huh.]

EDIT: the re-read reviews (so far) are all collected on this page here.

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One thought on “The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett

  1. […] Colour of Magic The Light Fantastic Equal Rites Mort Sourcery Wyrd Sisters Pyramids Guards! Guards! (to follow as soon as I actually […]

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