The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett

The Carpet People is a short book. Very short. If I wrote a long review, I’d be in danger of writing more than the author did. So I won’t.

The Carpet People is unusual, in that it was written twice – once by a teenager, and then again by a massively successful author. The result is something neither would have written alone – but that’s not where the problems come from.

The problem is: the book is altogether too slight. Events are essentially a series of vignettes, mostly very stylised, sometimes quite cliché. When any thought is put into the plot, very little sense can be extracted from it – and the same is true of the worldbuilding, where it seems inadequate proofreading has compounded the sloppiness of inadequate development. The conclusion is a deus ex machina, and also is strongly reliant on implausible tropes, and as a result is unsatisfying and over-familiar. Regarding the style, the teenager and the self-collaborator have colluded to produce exuberant but often quite self-conscious writing – it reads like a teenager who is trying to be Terry Pratchett. Much of the humour will be familiar from his other works, and here it is less developed, less sophisticated. The fantastic elements are… limited. The central conceit, of a civilisation in a carpet, is beguiling but lacks substance, and is not particularly well developed, although there are some smile-inducing moments here and there. In that regard, it stands up poorly next to (my memories of) the Bromeliad Trilogy; the second conceit, of a sort of Rome-analogue and its interactions with kingdoms and tribesmen, is weak and patchy; the third conceit, Pratchett’s traditional ‘trousers of time’ metaphysics, is merely invoked glamourously, not presented coherently, and is closer to a series of speeches from a self-help manual than an effective element of setting or plot. The book is too short to include an exposition, development, and conclusion: instead, we have an exposition of reasonable length, including an Adventure unrelated to the plot, followed by a couple of ‘incidents’ to fill in time, and a finale that requires no preparation, exacts no heavy toll, takes up the requisite number of chapters, but is almost entirely uneventful and feels written by numbers. There is zero character development, zero explanation of backstory, and more or less zero reason why any of it was worth writing about. In short, the entire thing feels childish – immature, unsophisticated… and frankly lazy, as though it were a piece of juvenilia rushed out with a little editing to make a quick buck off the author’s sudden fame.

That said: I’m being harsh because I’m disappointed. I liked the book as a child. I still think it’s not a bad book for children to read. Because it’s so lightweight and flimsy, I wouldn’t want any child of mine to have a diet solely of this kind of book – but as a side-order, it’s not bad. Yes, it uses very broad, gestural brushstrokes, but children are good at extrapolating from hints to imagine unseen wonders, and if you tell them something, they’re more likely to believe it without having to be shown. And it’s not badly written, in a technical sense. I read it through and felt kind of bored and underwhelmed and wanted to pick at various inconsistencies, or points not really thought through, but at no point was it so bad I was tempted to put it down. Unlike some writing, its problem was there wasn’t enough of it, not that there was too much – although perhaps the knowing tone might be a bit grating for adults, particularly if they’ve already read a lot of Pratchett, since this isn’t his best.

So: tired, lazy, immature, not thought through. May still seem wonderful to inexperienced readers. An introduction to Pratchett for children, perhaps, or a lighter course between Discworld novels or after the Bromeliad – but unlike much Pratchett, this one, I think, doesn’t have much to offer to adults.

Adrenaline: 2. Could be more boring. But incidents are too short, too flippant, and to childish to invoke real concern or curiosity.

Emotion: 2. Characters likeable, but too lightly sketched and too undeveloped (and unthreatened) to care about much.

Thought: 2. Hints at things.

Beauty: 2. He can write nice passages, and it’s a nice idea, but it’s too formulaic in plot and the prose can seem tiresome at points.

Craft: 3. I guess, for what it is, it’s not too badly done. As I say, the prose is a bit overdone sometimes, but it’s not that bad, really. The lightness is a result of its nature. My only real concern here would be balance – the buildup seems to call for a more substantial ending. As it is, the ending takes quite a while, but not a lot happens in it.

Endearingness: 3. As a child, I’d have put this 4 or even 5, but as an adult I’m more critical and jaded.

Originality: 2. There’s just not that much that’s unusual. The conceit is clever, imaginative – but hardly bizarre or unprecedented – and the plot is formulaic. Because it’s Pratchett, there are idiosyncratic moments, but they are far too few, subordinated to familiar jokes and parodies.

Overall: 4/7. Bad, but with redeeming features. It’s not really terrible in any way, it’s quite likeable, and it will probably appeal to children.

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5 thoughts on “The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett

  1. Deiniol says:

    I think there’s always a danger to revisiting childhood favourites: they’re always rather disappointing. I recently re-read Eddings’ Elenium trilogy, which I enjoyed immensely as a 13 year old, but found myself loathing as a 26 year old.

    That said, I will say that my memories of The Carpet People really weren’t that great. I read it when I was eleven (I think?), just after Only You Can Save Mankind and recall feeling somehow cheated.

  2. Hans says:

    I haven’t read any of Pratchett’s non-Discworld novels, exept for “Nation” and “Bad Omens” (where he is only a co-author). Is the Bromeliad worth reading, if you know his Discworld novels?

  3. vacuouswastrel says:

    Well, I REMEMBER it being. But I haven’t read it in a long time, so it’s hard to say. I remember the first being OK, and the second two parts being really, really good. But as I say, it was a while ago, and I was less discriminating as a reader.

    I can say that Only You Can Save Mankind might be worth reading (my review’s here somewhere). It’s clearly aimed at younger audiences, it’s certainly more simple than some of the Discworld books, but I still thought it was really good. Felt fresh. Also felt genuine – sometimes, as in Carpet People, it feels a little as though he knows what he SHOULD be saying, so says it, without really caring, but OYCSM feels sincere. It’s also really short, so it’s a quick read if you can pick it up for tuppence somewhere.

    Deiniol: I can see why you might have felt cheated: OYCSM is a far better book, and similar enough that comparisons could probably be made easily even by an eleven-year-old. I read CP before either OYCSM or the Bromeliad, so I had less direct comparison at the time.

    And yeah, that’s a danger, but after you’ve got to the point of saying ‘oh, everything from back then was just shit, what was I thinking?’, you can start to get some pleasant surprises. Some of the books you loved as a child are STILL good. Others are bad, but you still can’t help but like them. Others… well, they’re bad, but you can still see WHY you liked them. I think that as long as you go into it with the attitude of “ok, I know this probably isn’t going to be too good, what can I salvage from it?” the experience can be quite rewarding.

    I also loved the Elenium as a… I think I must have been eight or nine, actually. Good god, I must have blitzed through Eddings at a horrific pace. I know I read Belgarath the Sorceror in the last year of primary school, when I was around ten (because I remember lending it to my teacher, who was an eddings fan), and I’d already read the Sparhawk novels. Let’s see now… I read ‘The Hidden City’ in the original hardback (so 1994), but I read the Elenium in the one-volume edition (1993). So I must have been around 8 when I read the Elenium. That said, I read it repeatedly for many years, and didn’t tire of Eddings until secondary school, when I moved on to Dragonlance et al. And yeah, it was great. My opinion at the time was that it was a more mature, complex and satisfying tale than the Belgariad/Mallorean, which even then I thought were a bit childish for me. In particular, I loved the whole conceit of a papal election, and a seige, being central to the story, which was a break from the straightforward adventure tale I was expecting. And I thought it got quite dark in places – the demons, the mad woman in the tower, the sexual undertones of the evilness. On the other hand, I did think the pacing was a bit disjointed and episodic.

    But now, I hear people saying that the Elenium is even worse than the Belgariad/Mallorean, so… yeah, I’m a bit reluctant to try a re-read. I think if I do try Eddings again, I’ll probably start with “Belgarath the Sorceror”, which was my favourite. It’s rambling and plodding and meandering, of course, but that’s not always a problem for me. Then again, my copy’s a giant hardback and I don’t have it with me, so convenience may delay that rediscovery…

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