[part of an ongoing Discworld re-read project]
Last time out, I said I was going to take a break from Pratchett for a while.
Unfortunately, some sort of reading accident occurred, and accidentally I accidentally read the first few pages of Pyramids by accident.
Wait, did I say ‘unfortunately’? I’m not sure that’s quite the right word. In fact, that’s really quite the wrong word entirely.
Why? Well, the first six Discworld books were mostly entertaining. Sometimes they were very good in their own right, like Mort; othertimes, they were filled with promise not quite carried off, like Wyrd Sisters. But Pyramids is different. Pyramids is a masterpiece.
Let’s start with the structure. In fact, let’s not, let’s start with the size. The early Discworld books began in the 230/250-page range, and ticked up toward 260/270-pages; Pyramids leaps forward to around 350 pages. One problem with the earlier books was a frequent feeling of rushing, of not being able to pay enough attention to things as they passed, of things being left unpolished, unfilled, because time did not allow; 350 pages still isn’t a big book, and Pyramids does still now and then feel a little hasty or a little rough, but it’s enough of an expansion that the story really feels as though it has a good deal more room to breathe, and the ending has more time to put all the crampons in place, so to speak.
One thing the greater length allows is a really effective introduction. Most of Pratchett’s characters so far have been given cursory introductions sketched in bold colours and little shading, because the demands of the plot have not permitted otherwise. In Pyramids, Teppic gets a lengthy introduction, an entire book (the novel is given some more rigid internal structure by being split into four ‘books’), showing his training as an Assassin in Ankh-Morpork, skillfully combining the ‘present’ of his exciting final examination (lots of people fail the Assassin’s exam, but you’ll never meet any of them…) with flashbacks to moments in his education and to leaving his homeland, as well as flashsides to his father back in Djelibeybi. This section of the book is key. It establishes the critical duality of Teppic – a prince and god-to-be from an ancient, bankrupt country ruled by ritual and tradition, and at the same time a suave, urbane Assassin from the richest and most modern city on the Disc. All the Discworld novels to this point have made a big point of juxtaposing Ankh-Morpork with other areas, but never to better effect than here, with that juxtaposition now transcending the old London/Country theme at the same time as it worms its way into the heart of the protagonist, not just the scenery.
In addition to the greater length, and the decision to pin up the story with three ‘end-of-book’ breaks (particularly welcome given Pratchett’s traditional absence of chapter breaks, which aids the pacing but can contribute to an unstructured, aimless feel sometimes), Pyramids is also notable for its structural breadth. The cast of characters may be smaller than in Wyrd Sisters, but the action is less concentrated, frequently passing between any of three or four different locations, whether for extended sequences or for brief jokes. This isn’t new, it’s something Pratchett has always done (particularly in Sourcery), but this time he feels completely in control of it. I never found a cut unwelcome or misplaced – he neither dwells too long nor (as in Sourcery) dilutes the tension with asides.
And then in the end we get the best finale so far – not only exhilerating, but beautifully wrapping up every loose end, and leaving tantalising threads to dangle as the lights go down. This time, Pratchett gets it right. And what a closing scene!
But it’s not the structure that makes Pyramids a masterpiece, although that’s part of what allows it. It’s not even the characterisation – not Teppic, the most interesting protagonist yet, nor the heroine (the most interesting heroine yet, though she may not seem so at first), nor the simple but deft and vivid sketching of a host of background characters. These make the book so readable – but it’s the confidence with which Pratchett tackles the novel’s themes that turns it from enjoyable light entertainment into something genuinely worthy.
Pratchett isn’t preaching here – or at least, he does a good job of not looking as though he’s preaching – but he’s willing to run straight into an array of deep and provocative themes. Most obviously, this could be called a book about religion – but while the general impression might be of a book that attacks religion, it does it in the context of a world where that religion is true. It carefully divides religion-as-faith from religion-as-ritual, assesses the relationships between the two, but does not come down in a heavy-handed way on one side or the other – both faith and ritual are shown as flawed, but neither is dismissed entirely. Pratchett isn’t afraid of contradiction. He embraces it. A key passage in the book shows the high priest believing absolutely in half a dozen different reasons for the motion of the sun, all of which are contradictory – and that’s, in a way, what the whole book tries to do. It tries to hold multiple points of view simultaneously – and that gives it a lot of its power. It doesn’t demand that we side with this view or that, but shows us things in both lights at the same time. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a sense of right and wrong here – there always is in Pratchett, and in this book (unlike, say, in Wyrd Sisters) there’s rarely any doubt that the hero is doing exactly the right thing at all times. But it doesn’t pretend that the right thing is always obvious, or that we can be ever entirely sure of our convictions, even as we follow them – or that ‘the wrong thing’ and ‘the right thing’ are always opposites. Perhaps this is most obvious in the portrayal of the main ‘villain’ – not only is he shown as a paragon of virtue (almost entirely selfless and without malice), and as maybe not even wholly misguided (the general impression is less one of overthrowing evil than one of learning to grow up and set aside the things of childhood, in which the villain plays the role of loving parent), but his character arc is the most affecting, and the entire story is built upon him, to the extent of being given both the opening (at least, after the traditional impersonal ‘welcome to Discworld’ passage) and closing scenes. It’s a rare book that manages to have an emotional and ‘important’-feeling plot while not having any character to wholly dislike!
Pyramids is often compared to Small Gods, both being standalone novels of priests and deserts, ritual and faith, and cameo appearances by philosophers – but I think that Pyramids may be the more interesting and subtle of the two. It’s a shame that Pyramids is so often lost in the shadow of its bigger, glossier, more obvious little sister.
Of course, I ought probably to find something to complain about. It’s true, I suppose, that Teppic is still a little too archetypal, a little too little personal and distinctive – his personal character is still a little lost in the big clothes of Designated Hero. And I think I’d have preferred a book that felt less lonely – a book in which more characters were fully fleshed out right from the beginning, with a few fewer one-dimensional supporting roles. One thread of the ending, while neat, feels a little too legerdemained. It’s all funny, but perhaps it’s not as funny as Pratchett can be. The fact it’s a standalone makes it harder to get invested in it. I never understood why he’s ‘Teppicymon’ rather than ‘Pteppicymon’, given that he introduces himself as a child as ‘Pteppic’. And… oh, I’m sure there are other things you could quibble over too. It’s not the greatest book ever written.
But it’s a great book nonetheless.
Adrenaline: 4/5. Exciting from beginning to end, though it does lull a bit in the middle.
Emotion: 3/5. Some kickass moments make up for being slightly thin, emotionally speaking.
Thought: 4/5. Doesn’t go full-on into philosophical rumination, and the plot, while not exactly predictable, isn’t a head-scratcher either. On the other hand, there’s as much depth and breadth and ingenuity of thought here as you could really hope for from a book of this size, given that it is primarily a comedy adventure fantasy novel.
Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s prose is at its best here, provocative, original, and elegant. The same can be said of his irony-and-paradox-heavy handling of themes, and some sleek plot twists. Loses the top grade only because of a little inconsistency – too many plain bits in among the sparkles.
Craft: 5/5. There are, of course, little minor flaws here and there, but I can’t think of any major ones. This is an author in full control, with an ebullient mastery.
Endearingness: 4/5. Again, a tiny spot of thinness to the characters and in particular a slightly too straightforward story, plus maybe a little less humour than in his funniest efforts, stopped this from being a book I adore. It is, however, a book I really, really like. It was one of my favourites as a child.
Originality: 3/5. Many features are ultimately parodic, derived from other works or from common anecdotes (eg the Assassin’s exam is a fantastical version of the British driving license exam). There is quite an ordinary heroic tale underlying the plot, albeit with a few diversions thrown in along the way. On the other hand… in execution, there’s nothing like Pratchett at his best.
Overall: 6/7. Very Good. OK, in the final analysis it probably doesn’t deserve to be called a ‘brilliant’ novel – I’m reserving that term for the very best of the best – in large part because for all its virtues it is still at heart just a lightly entertaining romp. But it’s certainly very good. It’s the best Discworld book I’ve reviewed so far (which for those who haven’t been following means the first seven Discworld novels, plus Hogfather, Unseen Academicals and Snuff).