[part of my ongoing complete re-read of Discworld]
(for those who missed the announcement, I’ve skipped Guards! Guards! on the grounds of not being able to find the damn thing, though I’m sure it must be around here somewhere…)
To be honest, there’s not a great deal to say about Eric. At only a few hundred pages, it’s easily the shortest Discworld novel so far, and not much more than half the length of Pyramids. Divide that short length up in a very episodic fashion, and there’s not a lot of substance left. Eric was originally an illustrated novel, but my copy (like almost all the copies you’ll find these days) is minus its illustrations, leaving it just abnormally short (and something of an unwanted sibling in the family, its name often omitted or bracketed in early lists of Discworld novels).
It’s short, and… there’s nothing really essential in it either. It’s the first – and it remains the most in-depth – work dealing with the demons of the Disc, but nobody realy cares about them, so that doesn’t matter too much. It’s the first time we see the Tezumen first-hand, having had at least one teaser before… but it’s also the last time, so nobody cares about them either.
That said, it’s not a bad book. In fact, for a certain purpose, it could be quite a good book. It’s more polished than previous Rincewind novels, and the character has less scope to annoy thanks to the format and extent of the book. There are the normal literary and pop-culture references, but nothing too intellectual really. It’s pretty funny throughout, with a high rate of jocularity per inch, and a fair success rate on the humour too. And it’s short, light, and fits in small spaces. In short, if you’re a Discworld fan who’s going to be stuck in an airport for a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse than this one, which should provide you with an untaxing, enjoyable read that you can get out of the way before your business conference starts (or audience with the queen, dowsing seminar, whatever reason it is you have for travel, really). And since everyone always forgets it exists, you probably won’t remember all the jokes this time.
On the other hand, it’s a book that… well, if it turned out that this book didn’t exist but was just a dream I had, it would change pretty much nothing, even within the limited sub-world of Terry Pratchett fandom. It all has the feel of a throw-away lark; the worldbuilding is disposable, and the humour is adequate but rarely top-drawer, as though Pratchett were saving his best work for some time when it might actually count.
About the only thing that Eric establishes is that Rincewind is a very limited character, or at least a character of very limited utility. Pratchett wouldn’t return to his original protagonist for another eight novels (and four years); four years (and five novels) after that, it would be his (so-far) final starring appearance (although he does crop up as a peripheral character once more, 19 years after Eric). He’s a source of easy jokes, and his natural disengagement does make him a good external observer when Pratchett wants to take us out of ‘mainstream’ Discworld settings – I remember both Interesting Times and The Last Continent being relatively good installments, and I don’t think Pratchett has managed to find a replacement for him in this role (the witches had a go in Witches Abroad, and though I liked it I think those characters would get tiring as tourists even faster than Rincewind, especially because unlike him they can’t stop trying to intefere in things, and their second attempt, Carpe Jugulum, was much less succesful; the long-term replacement I think was meant to be Vimes, but although that worked in The Fifth Elephant it was much less succesful in Monstrous Regiment and Thud). For that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Rincewind again. But the substance of a Rincewind novel has to come from around Rincewind, not from within, and that’s a big handicap for the book – true, there were flashes of real character in both The Colour of Magic and Sourcery, but in the end what makes him a good observer (the fact he’d really rather be somewhere else not doing anything) is also what makes him a poor protagonist. To make him do anything, he has to be railroaded, and that can only work so many times before it becomes annoying. I didn’t find him annoying in Eric, but I did feel I had reached the annoyance threshold. It was time for Pratchett to move on; and, to his credit, he did.
Adrenaline: 2/5. A protagonist who’d rather be at home combined with a highly episodic plot does not make for excitement. Saved from the lowest score since the episodes themselves do work reasonably well.
Emotion: 2/5. Again, hard to really get emotionally involved, although the characters are vivid and… well, not likeable, but sympathetic.
Thought: 2/5. There’s the usual Pratchett wit and erudition, but it’s not firing on… oh I can’t be bothered to finish that cliché, but you know what I mean. The plot isn’t that clever, and there’s nothing really provocative here.
Beauty: 3/5. Pratchett’s prose remains suave and likeable, and there are some good scene descriptions… but nothing extraordinary.
Craft: 4/5. It may read like something he whipped up on a napkin because he was told he had to write a book in five minutes, but it’s really well made. Both the episodes and the book as a whole are neatly plotted, the prose is good, it’s (fairly) funny, and a cast of mostly new characters is introduced and sharply drawn. Even when Pratchett doesn’t write good books, he still writes them well.
Endearingness: 3/5. Fun, entertaining, a pleasant amuse-bouche. Nothing really loveable here, though – it hasn’t stood out strongly in my memory, and I don’t think it will in future, either.
Originality: 3/5. Obviously, many elements owe to many sources, but Pratchett’s adequately inventive in how he pieces things together.
Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. This is one of the worst Discworld books so far. But a bad Discworld book is still better than a lot of other books you could be reading, and this one at least won’t take very long to read. And even if it’s lightweight and kind of pointless, at least it’s amusing.