In theory, Johnny and the Dead is the second novel of a trilogy; it isn’t really. It’s the first novel of a duology. Only You Can Save Mankind may have the same characters as the two subsequent novels, but they feel quite different from it, and have a lot more between them in theme and continuity than either has with the first novel.
Perhap it’s better if you can remember that – as it was, I spent much of the first half of the book with a feeling of vague unease, as though everyone around you suddenly started acting slightly differently. In many ways, this sequel feels like an imposter.
Pratchett appears to have noticed and addressed the problem I raised in my review of the first novel – that the characters are rather older than they claim to be. Unfortunately, this poses something of a shock when the two books are read in succession: all the characters appear to have regressed. For Johnny himself, this change is less dramatic, as he is always a fairly timeless boy, but for for his friends it is severe: they have all suddenly become more stupid, as well as more childish. It’s a particular shame for the character of Wobbler, who it feels has been savaged by authorial pen: from a sensible, confident boy who can break any CD encryption in his spare time, he’s reverted to a cringing, incompetant little egocentric annoyance who only randomly is able to do anything with computers, and who gets jam in the keyboard. He’s nothing but comic relief.
It should also be said that the first novel is in no way a help with the second – the events of the first novel, which one would imagine would be fairly dramatic for a child that age, have been completely forgotten about. As a child who empathised with the first book, I found this almost a betrayal of the characters and concepts; as an adult, I’m more inclined to see it as cynical marketing policy.
How does the book do on its own terms? Not badly, I admit – but not so well as OYCSM. It’s not only the characters who have regressed: this book feels written for a younger audience. There’s considerably less subtlety about it: gone is the delicate duality of real and unreal, dream and waking and delusion, literal and metaphorical that pervades the first book; in its place, a bare fantasy, a fable. Gone is the attention to the question of acceptance – where in the first book Johnny questions his sanity and takes time to re-evaluate his moral position, here he accepts the unbelievable without qualm, and has no doubts about his appropriate reaction to it. The plot is far more straightforward. Although there is still commentary on the contemporary world – indeed, more of it – it is now in a more didactic, childish modality, with far less of the irony and joyous cynicism of the first. The Moral, or Message, is clearer and presented in a less ambiguous manner. This is not only a book that is aimed at younger children, but a book that has less to offer adults – in OYCSM, I found things I missed as a child, but here there was nothing new or unexpected.
The book is not a failure; if anything, it feels more ‘professional’ than the first: Pratchett has thought about his market and gone out and met their demands. Yet this professionality brings with it a certain soullessness: for instance, although the book is rammed full of jocular exchanges, puns, two-sided comments and the like, I never found it actually FUNNY. Humerous – yes, definitely. Unremittingly humerous. But not actually funny. It felt too much as though the jokes were following a script, where before they flowed from his soul (it is in many ways the same change of feeling between the better and the later Discworld books).
I remember the third book with some affection: even as a child, I considered this book the most childish, and hence least attractive, of the three. Consequently, I will go on to finish the trilogy; and it must not be thought that this book is unredeemable. In particular, the ending was very well worked – far more polished and effective than that of the first book, although perhaps lacking also a bit of that book’s spirit.
Adrenaline: 1/5. I didn’t really feel dragged along at all – there was never any actual danger in the book, or even any real clarity about the nature of the ‘peril’ and the desired resolution, and consequently no tension. It should be noted that there is more fear and darkness in the ‘real’, ‘contemporary’, non-fantastic elements of Only You Can Save Mankind than there is in the whole of this book.
Emotion: 2/5. The characters were more alien to me due to their more regressed ages. The damage done to Wobbler, perhaps my favourite in the original, hurts, and Bigmac is likewise emasculated – although Yo-less does get more screentime, his character doesn’t really develop, and he remains the most superficial (albeit superficially likeable and funny) of the four. There were, however, a few emotive punches, or at least slaps, through the book.
Thought: 2/5. As so often with Pratchett, there is definitely a Moral Message. It probably works with children, but to me there was absolutely nothing new or interesting in that Message. Unlike OYCSM, the form of the novel itself is not enough inspire interest.
Beauty: 3/5. Lacks the aesthetic concepts of the original novel – but what cannot be denied is that Pratchett is on top form as a stylist. Some of the exchanges between the boys are truly beautifully composed – flippancy, cynicism, and layers of irony compressed into a poetic art. The ending is… nice. The book loses marks for the relative lack of any sublime touches, and a degree of ugliness I perceive in its plodding professionalism. If anything, the writing, and in particular the dialogue, is actually TOO stylish: without some powerful content to accompany it, it becomes a little cloying, like rich cream deserts, or Roccoco decoration.
Craft: 4/5. Here the book excels its predecessor. Pratchett’s prose is even better, and although the novel is simpler it is also more precisely carved; he never looks to have lost control. It’s a simple book in themes and structure, but few people could have written the same book better.
Endearingness: 2/5. I didn’t really like anything about it. That said, it’s still Pratchett, and bad Pratchett is more appealing than a lot of good writing. This isn’t bad Pratchett – in fact, it’s rather good Pratchett, in terms of fineness – it just feels like uninspired Pratchett, or made-to-order Pratchett. Yes, it’s more under control than OYCSM – but personally, I find I prefer the wilder book.
Originality: 2/5. Much the same to say as for the first novel – only this time, the original idea is rather more familiar and predictable – and less challenging.
Overall: 4/7: Not Bad Really. Although I can see how, to a child, this book could appeal, and although I can’t deny I enjoyed reading it, I do feel that this was in most respects a sharp step down from the strange but attractive Only You Can Save Mankind, particular for an adult re-read. That said, I still have faith that the final book in the trilogy can redeem it. This book should best be seen as a clever, humorous, well-written, very short, book for the entertainment and mild education of children – but also as something of a misfire, without the punch that Pratchett can hit you with on his good days.