Well, it seems I’m in a sort of projecty mood at the moment. I suppose that’s traditional, this time of year. Not content with my Silmarillion-reading project (which I haven’t forgotten about, I’m just busy at the moment), I’ve taken it upon myself to embark on another, slightly longer-term project: re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
[This isn’t an original idea. I first had the notion of doing this three years ago, back when Adam at www.thewertzone.blogspot.com was doing it (he got stuck at Soul Music). I was reminded of my earlier intention, and sparked into actually picking up a book, by seeing Nathan over at www.fantasyreviewbarn.blogspot.co.uk take up exactly the same project (at time of writing he’s made it to Pyramids). I know I don’t really need to attribute such radical ideas as ‘reading a famous series of books in order’, but I feel I should, since I always feel awkward about failing to be original. [[Tangent: a paranoia I often take a little too far, to the point of predictability]]. Anyway, I encourage you to look at their reviews too, since so far as I can make out they’re both pretty sane guys when it comes to literary tastes, and a second opinion is always good.]
Discworld. Obligatory nostalgia moment: The Colour of Magic was one of the first books I ever read. There was The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, and a handful of children’s books that don’t entirely count (because I don’t remember them well, I don’t remember when I read them, and they’re all really short, and besides, they’re not proper adult books)… and come to think of it I guess there was a whole load of Enid Blyton at some point, but then one day, as I think I’ve described before, I went with my father down to the local bookshop (when such things existed – and this one barely existed, it probably had fewer books than my house), and looked for fantasy novels, and came home with three: Never Deal With a Dragon (what was that doing there?), Pawn of Prophecy (Eddings quickly became my main author), and The Colour of Magic. I promptly inhaled all the other Discworld books then published. I don’t know when that was exactly, but on Goodreads I’ve estimated it as around 1992. Which means that I was about seven, and it was about twenty years ago.
I’m not sure I’ve read it since.
For a long time now – not twenty years, but a long time – I’ve been telling everyone to, frankly, avoid this book. Early Pratchett, I said, isn’t exactly bad, but it’s nothing like later Pratchett, and nowhere near as good. After all, this is barely a book. It’s some short stories. And they’re not original, they’re just parodies. Anyone can write a short story parodying the Pern novels, that’s not big, and that’s not clever.
Oh boy. I wasn’t wrong about it being different from later Pratchett. I may or may not have been wrong about it not being as good as later Pratchett, we shall see. But I sure as hell was wrong about it not being worth reading.
Because coming back to it now, no longer a seven-year-old: it still isn’t big, but, actually, it seriously is clever.
To start with, we need to be honest about what this book is, and what it isn’t. It isn’t really a novel. What it makes me think of most of all in terms of structure are those old SF novels of the fifties and sixties, the ‘fix-up’ novels, where a clunk of novellas have been slightly rewritten to fit together into a single book. There are four different stories here, with the same main characters and in chronological order, but with little overarching plot – two of the stories have their own prologues, and there are even moments where it feels like Pratchett is recapping the earlier stories in the later ones, like authors do at the beginning of a new novel in a series, in case you’ve forgotten what happened before. It feels like these are four different novellas published in magazines some time apart from one another, although I don’t think that’s actually what happened.
And this isn’t a Discworld book, except in the most obvious sense of it being, you know, quite clearly a Discworld book I mean the whole thing begins the the canonical description of the Discworld so obviously it is a Discworld book. But apart from that, and sharing a lot of characters and setting and a fair amount of the sense of humour with the later books, it isn’t. To explain that, I’ll just point out something that surprised me: this book came out in 1983. That’s surprising not because it’s an aeon ago in terms of the fantasy genre (context: this book was published only six years after The Silmarillion. Rincewind is only six years younger than Melkor, at least in publication date), but because it’s a whole three years before The Light Fantastic. From that point on, Discworld novels flowed at two books a year for a decade. Put simply, The Colour of Magic wasn’t the first of a series of novels sharing the same setting; it was a standalone novel, that later became the basis for a series of novels sharing the same setting. That’s an important difference, I think. In many ways, The Colour of Magic feels more similar to Pratchett’s previous book, Strata, than to the novels that would follow. So there are a lot of things here that don’t add up with later novels – most strikingly the portrayal of Death (at least until the end) is totally out of keeping with later Discworld novels – but there is also a pervasive difference in tone, style, and the feel of the setting.
And this isn’t a wholly original story, either. The entire thing is a parody of the Sword and Sorcery genre, with a lot of more specific parodies along the way (the first section, in Ankh-Morpork, reportedly parodies Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, the second section parodies the work of HP Lovecraft (though still mostly S&S), and the third section parodies McCaffrey’s Pern. [Tangential confession: I always try to just say Pern rather than mentioning the author, purely because I still haven’t learnt how to spell her name without looking it up. Don’t know why, just doesn’t stick with me]. The little parodies are easy to swallow, but the big parodies do feel like a weight on the narrative, unnecessarily limiting the scope and creativity of the work.
The parodic nature of the novel is a particularly interesting thing, philosophically speaking, because in this case what is being parodied is… to put it politely, extinct. Sword and Sorcery is moribund, it’s been adventuring through the elysian fields of departed genres since more or less the time that The Colour of Magic came out. People sometimes say it’s coming back, that writers like Abercrombie and Lynch are infused with an S&S sensibility – I don’t know, I haven’t read them – but it sounds like that’s only true in the sense that ‘not completely avoiding all traces of’ is a comparative resurrection after a long period of complete absence.
On the one hand, that’s bad for the book. A lot of the time I felt I wasn’t getting the joke – either I wasn’t getting the reference, or I understood the reference but just didn’t care because it wasn’t meaningful to me. [For instance, I know enough about Conan the Barbarian from second-hand sources to understand invocations of it, but that’s a very different sort of understanding from the sort I’d have if I’d grown up reading the stuff myself]. A parody loses a lot of its purpose when the thing being parodied is more obscure than the parody.
On the other hand, this may well be what saved the book for me. Because there’s enough here not to need the crutch of parody (just as we can still enjoy Alice in Wonderland despite not spotting the dozen pop culture references a page that it’s made out of), and to be honest I think it works better without it. In fact, the death of Sword and Sorcery has turned this book into almost a two-for-one deal: on the one hand, we get to read a fun, exciting, and to the modern audience quite original genre; and on the other hand, we get to make fun of it at the same time. This isn’t just an intro to Pratchett, it’s also an intro to Sword and Sorcery, and I came away from it really quite eager to find some original Fritz Leiber to read…
So it doesn’t suffer too badly from being a parody; but it does suffer a little, from the sense of mild claustrophobia that a ‘bit’ brings – the author doesn’t feel free, he’s having to do these things because that’s what the thing he’s parodying demands.
It has other flaws too. Some of the humour is too broad (to be honest the entire ‘Japanese tourist’ premise is a bit… limp). The world he’s creating is clearly not quite worked out; the style is sometimes a little inconsistent. It feels quite experimental. Because it’s four stories stitched into one, the overall narrative arc is badly impaired. [Hang on, don’t tell me the ‘here are four published stories reprinted as a book’ format is itself a parody of the repackaging of the original S&S serials? Damnit, maybe it is…]. Thanks both to the brevity/disjointedness of the plot and to the unlikeableness of every single character, there isn’t a lot of emotional engagement. And most surprisingly, for a Discworld book… it’s not funny. It’s clearly written as comedy, but it isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny. It’s rarely even giggle-funny.
But what it is is great-broad-grin-across-my-face-almost-every-page enjoyable.
There is something here that has been lost in later Pratchett – that was largely lost in Discworld even by the time of its golden age. It’s fun – but more than that, it’s a certain kind of mad, furiously unpredictable creative genius. This book sizzles. It romps. It’s bursting with energy. It’s filled to the seams with, look, here, a stunning plot twist, or, there, some inspired worldbuilding, or isn’t that a clever joke, or that, isn’t that just clever, I don’t know what it’s there for but I’m impressed by it anyway.
Because the worldbuilding is great. This may not be the mature Discworld, but all the foundation stones are put down here – and yes, the roots may be in parody, but they blossom into something that feels real (in a demented way) and wild and entirely original even when I know it isn’t. Even the outright thefts feel original (a good writer borrows, a great writer steals); and let’s not overlook the sheer erruption of worldbuilding that there is here – not content with just describing the world around the characters, we’re treated to repeated whistlestop guides to the fantastic and incredible (despite never being within a thousand miles of it, there’s more about the Great Nef here than in the rest of the series put together). And the plot! OK, it’s mad, it’s scattered, it doesn’t make much sense on the page, but it’s just so audacious. Leaving aside the actual deus ex machina moments, there’s a less literal deus ex machina in the middle of this that is… possibly the most audacious way to resolve a plot point that I’ve ever seen. Which shifts from ‘is he seriously trying to pull that off?’ to outright awesomeness when you realise that the plot twist is composed of a series of implicit, and godawful, puns.
You have to be on your toes to get that joke, but then you have to be on your toes all the time in this book, not just because of the riotous pace, but because Pratchett is exploding with his own smartness all the time. It would be easy for him to come across as pretentious, but he doesn’t. He is astonishingly erudite, but expresses it in a way so married to zaniness and the pun (and in such a machine-gun way) that it doesn’t feel he’s showing off his knowledge, he’s just… having fun. Despite it’s ‘let’s laugh at sword and sorcery books’ premise, it actually feels like a really personal book – not in the sense of being intimate and meaningful and honest, but just in the sense that it feels like it was written for the joy of writing it. I like books like that. The joy comes across in the ink. And there are a great many very serious, very respected, very literary authors who patronisingly expound their own brilliance in lengthy and erudite novels, who end up showing only a tenth of the knowledge and wit that Pratchett showers on us in this brief fantasy parody.
I’m sure I’ve probably only gotten a quarter of the jokes. Some of the ones I did get, I needed help – I knew I recognised that Hikayat-i-Naqshia reference and got the gist of the joke, but I had to look it up to get the details. A lot of people probably didn’t notice that there WAS a joke there – but it’s the sort of book where you don’t have to understand every reference, or even spot which things are references. Instead, it all works at face value… and when you catch a sly allusion, you grin. It’s not all showing off, either, as Pratchett uses his wit to poke a lot of fun at various parts of the real world as well as at the genre, and even now and then to make some serious points. There isn’t the sustained satire or depth of political/philosophical perspective as in some of the later books, but this is nonetheless clearly the work of a man fully intellectually engaged with the world and society around him.
In the end, I’m not only forced to re-evaluate my old opinion of the book, I’m actually left a little regretful that we haven’t seen more of this Pratchett – and more of this world. Pratchett’s writing has become more and more staid, more and more didactic and formulaic, more and more quotidian – and so has Discworld as a setting. As the Disc has moved into the Century of the Anchovy (or whatever it is…), it has become more modern, more orderly, more predictable, more conventional, less magical… and more boring. Perhaps there was a happy medium sometime in the golden age of the Discworld series, where the unpredictability and creativity found a balance with the realism and the depth. But even if there was, I’d still like to get a few more glimpses of this earlier, wilder Disc. Later Ankh-Morpork is just an attempt to ram together a lot of different time periods of imaginary London (with a few nods to other places), which is interesting in its own way… but I’d like to see more of this Ankh-Morpork, this chaotic and brutal pit of humanity. And I badly wish that Pratchett had seen fit to take us back to Krull, his magical empire at the edge of the world. Most generally of all, the big difference is that there is a lot more magic in The Colour of Magic – literally. This is a world that, as the next book puts it, has an embarrassingly strong magical field. In The Colour of Magic, nothing escapes the influence of magic – as witness the glorious descriptions of the slow light that piles up like snow against mountains and drips like honey dew at dawn. In the later books, magic is indeed an embarrassment, relegated to jokes and a few demonpunk technologies. I enjoy seeing Pratchett write about a genuinely fantasy world. I’m not going to say this is the greatest Discworld book, but it’s absolutely worthy of reading.
That’s the point, I suppose. No, this isn’t a great introduction to Discworld. But don’t read it like that. Read it as a book with a riotous pace and explosive creativity and rampant wit. And there’s another way you should forget about the other books: the ending. Try to remember that the other books hadn’t been written when he got to that ending. There was no guarantee of sequels then; indeed, after the failures of his last two books, the end of The Colour of Magic might well have been the end of Pratchett’s writing career. And it’s a fantastic ending – predictable in one sense, but bold and original in another. No cliffhanger, it’s a perfect ending to a standalone novel about a world we would never be coming back to.
I’m very, very glad that the other Discworld books were written… but The Colour of Magic would have been a better book if it hadn’t had sequels.
So there we are. I’m not going to go too overboard here: let’s be honest, The Colour of Magic is the literary equivalent of those sweets that pop and fizzle in your mouth. It’s not the rich, indulgent ice cream of a book like Hogfather, the sweet but challenging affogato of Men at Arms, the nutritious and intriguing salad of Small Gods, or the bloody steak of Night Watch… there’s virtually no depth to it all, and it’s not going to linger for long in your memory. But come to this looking for a fun and clever book – and not for a Discworld book like those others – and you might just find what you’re looking for here.
(And, by the way – this is a book that deserves its original cover. Those Kirby covers always looked weird on Discworld books to me… but on The Colour of Magic, the style fits perfectly. Although i do quite like this one too: )
Adrenaline: 4/5. Surprisingly effective. Despite not really caring much about the characters, I found the non-stop pace and well-written scenes pretty exciting.
Emotion: 2/5. I cared only very minimally.
Thought: 4/5. No sustained consideration of anything. But constant cleverness, both in ideas and in erudition, as well as clever plotting.
Beauty: 3/5. Some great descriptions, but overall not a lot of attention paid to beauty.
Craft: 3/5. Mixed. Some great lines, some great plotting… some holes, some badly-judged moments, some laziness. Hugely talented, but not entirely polished.
Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked it. Held back by the parodic structure and the lack of emotional engagement, but overally really enjoyable.
Originality: 3/5. Strangely mixed – at times overwhelmingly creative, but at others sadly derivative, over-reliant on parody and on cliché. Frustrating, because he’s clearly got the creativity to do without those crutches.
Overall: 5/7. Good. I’m surprised, I wasn’t expecting to like this so much. And I can see why people might not like it – it is slight, and it isn’t entirely Discworld as we know it. But I’m a sucker for a fast-paced and imaginative book, and this is certainly that. If I like the first book this much, I’m extremely optimistic – to the point of concern – about the later books in the series…
For comparison, Adam gave this three out of five, and so did Nathan. Which I guess actually lines up with my scale, since on Goodreads I truncate the bottom portion of it (i.e. my 5/7 becomes a 3/5). That said, both of them seem to have been a lot more subdued about it. Oh well.
EDIT SOME TIME LATER: I’m collecting my Discworld Re-Read reviews on this page over here.