Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett

[part of an ongoing re-read of the Discworld series]

I don’t have great memories of Sourcery as a child, and reading a few reviews of it before I read it myself didn’t enhance my expectation. In fact, I wasn’t exactly dreading it, but it was a sufficiently unappealing prospect that it sat on my table for quite some time before I forced myself to read it.

As it happens, though, it’s really jolly goo… well, ok, jolly not bad, at least!

Sourcery black

It may be in order to recap the series so far, as I’ve perceived it: The Colour of Magic was a delightful but light piece of fun; The Light Fantastic was a rather weak attempt to repeat the success; Equal Rites rewrote The Light Fantastic in a more realist vein; and Mort is a more original story, continuing the more realist approach, with much in common with Equal Rites.

Well, to me, Sourcery seems like Pratchett wanted to go back to The Light Fantastic and apply some of what he’d learnt in the meantime. It’s able to capture some of the anarchic joy of The Colour of Magic, while still having some of the greater depth and emotional resonance of Equal Rites and Mort.

Unfortunately, this is also the book’s biggest flaw. Nobody thinks of this as their favourite Discworld book, because it’s so completely forgettable – it’s basically just the same story as The Light Fantastic, only a good deal better. It feels entirely familiar in plot, in character, and in style.

There are also other flaws. The biggest is the book’s structure – twenty pages from the end feels like about a third of the way through the plot. The ending is, it’s true, rather better handled than in the earlier books, but it’s still rushed (and over-familiar). An over-large (and largely uninteresting, and familiar) cast of characters is introduced, almost all of whom are irrelevant to the plot. In particular, Conina is necessary in the early stages of the plot, but swiftly becomes unnecessary, yet Pratchett feels the need to find stuff for her to do (and people to do it with) even though this is really just a distraction the real story of the book.

On the plus side, Pratchett is really getting good at his cutting technique, which is such a feature of many of his books (action cuts abruptly from one plotline to another, or from one plotline to a non sequitur). It’s largely wasted in this book, since only one plotline really matters, but it bodes well for the future.

The big plus of this book, though, is that it’s fun. It’s not quite as out-of-control as The Colour of Magic, but it’s bursting with wit, erudition, literary references, and genuine humour. It’s not hilarious – maybe not even as funny as Mort, with much of the humour aiming at sly and witty chuckle, rather than laugh-out-loud – but it’s still a joy to read.

By the standards of Pratchett, though, this book is a failure. It’s not his best, and to be honest it’s probably a step down from Mort. Thanks to its over-heavy debt to its predecessors, it’s not particularly memorable, and the main reason why anyone would read it would be because they wanted to read the complete set of all the Discworld books.

On the other hand: it’s probably unfair to judge a book by what we now know, in hindsight, the author was capable of. If I’d picked this book up not knowing anything about who wrote it, I’d have been stunned and delighted and desparately gone out to find other books by this author. If I were going on a trip at short notice and had to quickly grab the first book that came to hand, it wouldn’t be a tragedy if it was this one… I’d just rather it was one of his other books.

[Tangent: it really interested me just how Chestertonian this one was. Pratchett’s books have always been strongly Chestertonian in style, and indeed in soul, but this one seemed to be following some long-lost “how to write a children’s book” manual Chesterton might once have written, in plot as well as in style. All that ‘knowing who you really are’ business, facing down the unstoppable godlike force armed only with righteousness and salt-of-the-earth common sense… frankly, it was all too much!]


Adrenaline: 2/5. Unfortunately, this wasn’t gripping. Between the forgettable characters and the familiar plot, I never felt too much suspense.

Emotion: 2/5. A few moments of pathos. A few.

Thought: 3/5. Not exactly a brain-teaser, but the games Pratchett plays with us – spot this quotation, guess how this gun on the mantlepiece is going to come into play – make it more than mindless entertainment.

Beauty: 3/5. *shrug*

Craft: 4/5. Almost everything is in place here, in terms of the author’s skill, for a great book. He just chose the wrong story. And got a little sidetracked on a subplot. The prose is good, he’s finding a more consistent narrative voice, the juggling of plot elements mostly works well (even if it’s pointless in this case), it’s funny… it does still have a whiff of trying-too-hard about it, but there’s no doubting the man’s talent.

Endearingness: 3/5. If it had been just a sparkle more novel, more striking, I would really have liked this book.

Originality: 3/5. Repetitive by comparison with his earlier books, but still full of imagination.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. Not as good as Mort, probably not as good as Equal Rites (actually, probably more technically sound than Equal Rites, just not quite as likeable)… but it’s not a book to be ashamed of, honestly. I shouldn’t have worried so much about it.

Now I’m just worried that the next one won’t live up to my higher expectations…


P.p.S. Sorry this was such a short review. It’s hard to say original things when reviewing a bunch of books written consecutively by the same author in the same setting that to a large extent also all have the same plot…

P.P.s. I’ve been slightly distracted from the other projects I mentioned before by accidentally creating a new fictional family of Indo-European languages. Again, damnit. Why does that always happen to me!?

4 thoughts on “Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett

  1. Hans says:

    Sourcery is the only book of the Discworld series of which I can’t even remember the plot. Does this say more about me or more about the book?

  2. Alison Weathers says:

    I have to say this is a perfect review of Sourcery, you capture all the good and bad points very precisely. Also I agree with you about Sourcery being the weakest Discworld book so thank you for putting it so well! – Ali

  3. Alison: thank you! It’s always wonderful to hear that someone has liked something I’ve written. One reason I go through periods of being bad at updating this blog is that unfortunately it can often feel like mumbling into darkness. Any feedback is always a welcome thing.

    Hans: a bit of both. For the most part, it says something about the book, which, while enjoyable, is thoroughly forgettable. On the other hand: come on, man, the plot’s in the title! This is the one where the Sourceror tries to take over the world with super-magic! [Rincewind has to try to stop him]

  4. […] Colour of Magic The Light Fantastic Equal Rites Mort Sourcery Wyrd Sisters Pyramids Guards! Guards! (to follow as soon as I actually find my copy of the damn […]

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