Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my ongoing project to re-read all the Discworld novels in publication order.

(sorry, my copy of Interesting Times has gone missing, so I’ll get back to that one when I find it. I know I saw it around here somewhere…)

I keep thinking the Witches novels aren’t my favourite part of Discworld. I tell people this. I think I’m being truthful when I say it. I just don’t like them very much, and I never have. To be honest, reading about Granny Weatherwax is just a little bit too much like spending extra time with the various female members of my family (living and dead), and with respect and affection toward them, I’ve spent enough time with them thank you very much, I don’t need them in my reading time too.

So I don’t like the Witches novels. So why is it I keep finding that they’re really good?

Maskerade is one of the least, if you’ll excuse the word, pretentious of all the Discworld books. Sure, there’s a little bit here and there about the truth of masks and whatnot, but basically it’s just an exciting murder mystery. But it’s a very good one.

There are problems. Most obviously, it’s not really clear what the Witches are doing in it at all – Agnes (a minor character from Lords and Ladies) being in Ankh-Morpork and getting caught up in things is fine, but this is a crime in an Ankh-Morpork and that makes it a job for Vimes, Carrot and most importantly Angua. Instead, the Watch characters are mostly missing and those that do turn up have limited screentime and importance, while their place is taken by Granny and Nanny. This, unfortunately, requires not one but two huge and obvious contrivances – one just to get the plot going at all, and another to…. well, I’m not really sure what the point of it was, I think it was just Pratchett spending three quarters of a novel just to set up a couple of scenes he thought might be vaguely cool but that don’t really go anywhere. At the time, this was rather inelegant, and in hindsight it’s more than a bit frustrating (first that he wasted that time and energy on it, and then that, having gone as far as he did, he didn’t make the most of what he’d set up while he had it). I also felt the end was underwhelming, to be frank – just when it seems it’s going to be a great explosion, it just fizzles out a bit.

…right, that’s the problems out of the way. What are the virtues?

Well, it’s funny. Seriously funny. I think the funniest Discworld since… is this the funniest Discworld? Maybe not, it’s hard to make a claim like that – they all have funny moments, and a lot comes down to mood when reading it. But aside from consistently being funny, it also has probably the single funniest scene in the sequence (so far, at least) – the dessert scene. [OK OK, so I’m childish…]

Leaving aside the humour, it’s also a real page-turner of a story. Murders, operas, a chandelier, swordfighting, secret passages, hidden identities, double bluffs, parcour chase scenes, more murders… it’s a ripping yarn, even if I did feel the ending was a little blunted.

Character work? Solid. Agnes isn’t among Pratchett’s absolute greatest creations, but she’s a really interesting and distinctive character who more than fills up her end of the story, no pun intended – and incidentally, do we need to wheel back in the old “you know Pratchett’s actually a great feminist author” thing again? I don’t know whether he’s really in line with all of the orthodoxy, so maybe ‘feminist’ is too specific a word, but “author genuinely interested in the life experience of women” probably fits. Most authors, probably most female authors even, wouldn’t see the brief “urban fantasy murder mystery, plus swordfighting and chase scenes” and think “of course, this story is clearly really about what it’s like to be an overweight teenage girl!” It’s doubly remarkable, thinking about it, given that his male characters so often fall into slight variations of the same mould, that his female characters are so wildly varied, particularly in this recent run of books. Eskerina Smith, Esme Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg, Magrat Garlick, Sybil Ramkin, Erzulie Gogol, Angua von Uberwald, Susan Sto Helit and now Agnes Nitt… that’s nine women, all of them to them extent or other arguably the good guys, all of them highly intelligent, all of them feeling like real, lived-in people, and yet you’d never confuse any one of them for any of the others. But because I think Pratchett is primarily a liberal, rather than a feminist, it never feels as though he’s doing this to make a point – he has interesting female protagonists because… well, why wouldn’t he?

OK, so other than Agnes and the established duo of Granny and Nanny, none of the other characters in Maskerade really make a claim to be remembered beyond the confines of this novel (perhaps why the one of them who could have turned up later never did), but they’re colourful and tangible enough for the purposes they serve in the plot and in the humour.

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest character of the novel is the setting (oh dear gods I hoped I’d never write that sentence… I spent years at school refusing to say it despite the blandishments of teachers and textbooks, and now I fall into it by accident… darn it). It’s not just the Opera House, although that’s pretty memorable in its own right: it’s opera. [I’m not an opera fan myself, but I am a classical music fan, and can appreciate the mindsight]. It’s the whole melodramatic, romantic, half-starved, fundamentally and defiantly insane world of art, and Pratchett delivers an appropriately double-edged paean, mercilessly ridiculing its foibles and powerfully questioning its priorities, while still managing to convey the beauty and majesty and transcendence – both genuine and painstakingly artificial – that allows people to buy into the madness in the first place, and ultimately leaving his own stance ambiguous. It’s what we should expect from Pratchett, I suppose, given the balancing act his career has been spent performing: cynicism and romanticism each sharpening the other’s sword.

Oh, and while the thematic and ideological stuff doesn’t get top billing, there’s enough of it there that the book doesn’t ever feel tawdry or crass: it may not beat you about the head with ‘the point’, but it does feel that there’s a point there, something beyond superficial entertainment. It’s interesting enough, and moving enough, not to distract from its virtues as a comedy thriller.

So all in all, I’m left thoroughly impressed with Maskerade. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a Pratchett masterpiece – perhaps precisely because laughter and excitement seem to be the primary objectives, rather than anything deep and important – but it’s one of the very best examples of his ‘usual’ work.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Despite all the jokes, and plenty of room for character-building, it’s actually a pretty taut mystery-thriller with some exciting scenes. My heart wasn’t pounding, but I was definitely gripped.

Emotion: 3/5. The levity does make it harder for the book to engage emotionally, and the characters are all a little distant too. Plus, when Granny’s around there’s no chance things will go wrong in the end. That said, I did care about them.

Thought: 4/5. The mystery element is good enough, even on a re-read, to get the grey cells going, and then you can throw in the ruminations on life and the clever jokes on top of that. Not top marks because perhaps it is a little too superficial for that, a little too predictable.

Beauty: 4/5. Doesn’t somehow hit the highest notes, either in prose or in overall form, but is still really pretty on both levels.

Craft: 5/5. There are some contrivances, and the ending isn’t perfect… is that enough to dock a point? I’ve decided it isn’t. It’s not perfectly constructed, but it is craftsmanship of the highest calibre. If nothing else, the ease and speed with which Pratchett is able to flip from comedy of the broadest kind to tense dramatic scenes is something to behold.

Endearingness: 4/5. Really good fun, and really funny. Not given a 5 just because… well, I do find Witches novels hard to love. The characters inspire fascination, respect, recognition, and occasionally pity… but I don’t love spending time with them.

Originality: 3/5. As with most Witches novels, this one leans heavily and explicitly on familiar tropes and structures, and there’s nothing really surprising here (even the clever twists are clever twists of the sort you’d expect to find).

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Not in the top tier of Discworld novels, but leading the following pack.

 

Programming note: must find Interesting Times, hopefully that’ll be the next Pratchett book I read. If not, it’ll be on to Feet of Clay. However, I was thinking about this project of mine the other day and realised that this would be an excellent time to finally read the five (so far) Discworld short stories – I only remember reading one, and I think I may have read another a long long time ago. Fortunately, the only story I own in book story is the only one that doesn’t seem to be online. So I think I’ll be reading “Troll Bridge” and “Theatre of Cruelty” next. I won’t write a full review for either, but I may put up some comments here if it seems merited.

Dragon Haven, by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb is one of my favourite authors. I tend to write overly long reviews. Dragon Haven is neither a bad book nor a boring one.

So why am I finding it almost impossible to write anything about it at all?

Well, to be honest, part of it’s me. There have been too many books recently, too many book reviews, and too much stuff going on in real life, so maybe I’m a little burned out, words-wise. But most of it is the book. And in particular, it’s that problem again that I mentioned in Dragon Keeper: Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven are the same book. Not that one repeats the other, no – but fundamentally, they’re two parts of one thing. The only difference is that in one, the plot is at a different point.

And because they’re two parts of one book, everything I could say about Dragon Haven I have already said about Dragon Keeper. In fact, I’m now finding it hard to keep clear in my mind what actually happened in Dragon Haven, and what happened in Dragon Keeper instead. On the whole, I would say that the way the story culminated in Dragon Haven (there are a further two books in the series, but this story is ended, and the next two represent a sequel to these two) improved my opinion of the story, but did not fundamentally alter my impressions of the story’s qualities.

I suppose I can add, since I’m not sure I emphasised it enough last time, that one problem with these books, and a strong indication that they were originally intended as a much smaller story, is that the ‘plot’ is really just a sequence of things that happen – not really a problem in a novella, say, but a difficulty in a two-lengthy-novels epic. I’m also growing increasingly annoyed with Hobb’s tendency to create dramatic (sometimes potentially lethal) conflicts, and then have them ‘resolved’ by some dramatic distraction occuring in the nick of time.

Other than that, I don’t have much to say, I’m afraid. Dragon Haven is an appropriate and generally satisfying conclusion to Dragon Keeper; but for my views on the strengths and weaknesses of the novel, you may as well just read what I wrote last time…

For the sake of completion, I’ll make clear that I think this was a 5/7 (i.e. Good) read, possibly a little better than the first half but generally one with it in its characteristics, to the extent that I don’t feel the need to formally evaluate its qualities.

 

And for that review of the first half, see here.

 

EDIT:

 

EDIT EDIT: what? where the hell did my last edit go? Huh?

Well, I won’t write it all out again. It was just to say that one interesting thing I did notice here was the way in which the domestic abuse themes were mirrored in the inter-species relations, and I was curious to find out what that implied, in the broader context of Hobb’s themes and ideologies leading up to these books.

Winner Takes All, by Simon R Green

Winner Takes All is the loose sequel to Hawk and Fisher, and pretty much everything I said about the last one applies here as well.

Unfortunately, it’s not as good.

The big problem is the plot – or lack of it. The first book was a pretty clear murder mystery, with a tightly limited scope – and that excused or avoided a lot of the problems in the way Green is writing these books. The more clear-cut mystery element allowed Hawk and Fisher to ask people a lot of questions, in a way that the more open story of Winner Takes All just doesn’t – as a result, Hawk in particular this time comes across like the protagonist of a bad RPG, going up to each person in turn and going through all the dialogue options: “tell me about X?”, “what do you think about Y?”, rinse and repeat. Similarly, the lack of compelling plot motion works well in a murder mystery set almost entirely in a single building – people sitting around, waiting, being nervous, not knowing what’s going on, is sort of integral to that scenario. Giving his characters more freedom, letting them roam the streets more, actually makes them seem more passive, draws attention to how much of the ‘plot’ is just stuff happening. Giving more screentime to the invented world just makes it look thinner and more boring: sticking a few seemingly (but not necessarily) anachronistic notes in the background is interesting and entertaining, but recreating film noir in the middle ages is just kind of obvious.

So the writing’s not that great, the plot isn’t very interesting, the setting does a few things in an interesting way (one thing I’ve liked in both these books, for instance, is that Green’s given just a little more attention to how magic is integrated as a substitute for technology) but is mostly unexciting…

…but I still cruised through it, enjoying the journey. I wasn’t really sure why I enjoyed the first one, and I’m even less sure why I enjoyed the second, given that it was noticeably worse.

I think a big part is that Green isn’t a really bad writer. Not being a really bad writer is a surprisingly rare trait in writers, it seems. Green may be clumsy now and then, but he’s proficient enough not to get in the way, so we get to enjoy the vaguely-interesting, somewhat-amusing story. It’s almost like a demonstration of how easy it is to have a good story, how little is actually needed when you don’t mess it up. It’s of sort of to fiction as fresh bread and butter is to cuisine. You may need something special to write a brilliant book… but I think maybe stories are enjoyable just by default, and sometimes it’s a matter of not messing up in telling them. Green doesn’t mess up very much – so although the characters aren’t very fleshed out, they’re just fleshed out enough to engage with, and although the plot isn’t very original or coherent, it’s just original enough to be interesting and coherent enough to be satisfying, and although the jokes aren’t very funny and the emotive bits aren’t that emotive, they’re just funny and emotive enough to work.

That said, my enjoyment is no doubt partly due to having picked the right way to read it: while commuting. This isn’t ‘event’ reading, and building it up as that would undoubtedly lead to disappointment. As an easy, comfortable read to kill time and relax, however, something unchallenging enough not to stress frayed nerves yet sharp enough not to push the tired reader over into sleep or painful boredom, it’s perfectly judged.

There’s not really much point saying more about it, since I don’t think there’s much more to say.

Adrenaline: 2/5. There are exciting moments, and by and large it’s pacy enough to keep the reader engaged, but it is a little flabby (despite its brevity) and perhaps too light to really grip.

Emotion: 2/5. The characters aren’t complete ciphers, I suppose – but Green relies more on making things shocking than on making us care about the characters affected by those shocks.

Thought: 3/5. The slightly rambling plot, mystery elements, and an intriguing if ultimately shallow setting all keep the intellect interested.

Beauty: 3/5. *shrug*

Craft: 2/5. The prose is OK, but some of the dialogue is far too obvious – natural enough in isolation, but too railroaded by the form and plot as a whole. The plot construction is a bit of a mess, I think.

Endearingness: 2/5. Found it rather less likeable than its predecessor – less vivid characters, fewer interesting ideas, less sense of purpose. On the other hand, it’s readable enough, it’s amusing in places, and the two protagonists are likeable in an easy, comfortable way.

Originality: 3/5. Part of the upside to a messy plot is that it’s rather less derivative as a whole. On the other hand, it’s still composed entirely of reused tropes, albeit sometimes in new combinations.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features. I feel a little cruel, calling this a bad book, largely because it does mostly what it sets out to do. But what it sets out to do isn’t very much. And looking at the broader picture of what I want these ratings to mean, I think this rating is fair: it’s a book that you probably won’t like, and probably shouldn’t like, unless you happen to particularly like this sort of book. Hawk and Fisher I might show to a non-fan as a non-embarrassing thing that they might find interesting, even if they didn’t really like it – Winner Takes All is probably only for its core market, and anyone else will be very unimpressed. But that’s not too much to be ashamed of, I don’t think. Not every book is meant to have universal appeal, or even to garner widespread appreciation. And I for one am glad there are books like Winner Takes All out there… especially when I’m commuting.

Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb

(Interested readers may like to note that I’ve also got (mostly spoiler-free) reviews up of the nine preceding Realm of Elderlings novels, indexed here.)

Dragon Keeper is the first novel in the Rain Wild Chronicles series. However, as it follows the events of The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man, it is essentially the tenth novel of the combined Realm of Elderlings cycle. In particular, it follows quite directly on from the Liveship trilogy, though recurring characters are limited to cameo roles.

After twelve novels in a cycle, a certain amount of selection has inevitably occurred. It is unlikely many people will read this without being a dedicated Hobb fan to begin with – although in fact (and perhaps the later installments of this quartet will change this) this seems a pretty good belated starting place, in terms of plot if not perhaps in terms of style. The events of the previous trilogies have, as it were, created a blank canvass – one that is now actually rather closer to traditional fantasy than when the cycle began.

The key, however, is not the plot, but the approach. Hobb’s way of writing has changed over the course of the twelve novels, becoming more and more reflective, more and more observational, more and more determined to use the trappings of the fantasy genre to enable an examination of interpersonal universals. This, in the end, is both the virtue and the vice of this novel.

4703450

Farseer was a trilogy all about growing up, a trilogy about sons and their fathers; Tawny Man was all about having grown up, a trilogy about fathers and their sons. Liveships, on the other hand, with its large cast, had an appropriately broad focus – but perhaps it can be roughly said to be a story about the subjugation of women. It was about families, and family-like structures, and social rules that marginalised women (and some men), and it was about how women (and men who failed to live up to the expectations had of men) could accomodate, accept, rebel against, negotiate with and circumvent those rules. The first weakness of Dragon Keeper unfortunately is that we seem to come back to old ground, and not, as in the Tawny Man, by approaching the same field from a new direction. Instead, Dragon Keeper is content to address the same questions as Liveships, albeit perhaps now with a different emphasis – domestic abuse, particularly of an emotional kind, comes to the fore (not that it was absent in Liveships, of course!), and the emphasis is less on institutions themselves and more on those marginalised by those institutions.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with addressing these topics in a fantasy novel – Liveships did it very well. Nor is there necessarily anything inherently wrong with returning to those themes a second time. The weakness of Dragon Keeper is that its psychology, following the same lines as Liveships, appears both more verbose and less insightful. The complex web of psychological cause and effect that drove tragedy in Liveships is reduced to a matter of some people just being narcissists and not very nice to be around. It’s frankly not all that appealing. On the one hand, the author and her characters appear to attribute such wonderfulness and ‘magical’ power to the abusive parties, wonderfulness even in their ability to abuse, that they seem almost to be superhuman: it’s hard to imagine how anybody ordinary and petty could be abusive, in this book; abusiveness is almost something worthy of worship, it seems. On a second hand, and relatedly, it’s surprisingly difficult to sympathise with some of these marginalised characters. So much of what happens to them is their own fault, is brought on directly by being ridiculously foolish or narcissistic themselves, that it’s hard to really side with them entirely when we see the consequences. And that’s fair enough I suppose, in theory – except that we also don’t really get to see why they’re foolish and/or narcissistic. We’re left with neither a plain account of victimisation nor a more contentious account of how some victims bring their victimhood upon themselves. Liveships handled this much better, in how it showed how one tragedy, one slight, one insult, one disaster, led on to the next, victims often either entrenching themselves in victimhood or becoming abusers in their own right; Dragon Keeper leaves us puzzling over a snapshot of ultimately unmotivated unhappiness.

Now, part of this is a problem to do with publishing. Dragon Keeper was not written as a novel, but as the first part of a novel, which then became the first part of the first novel in a duology, and was then split out into a novel in its own right. It ends not even with a cliffhanger, but with a cessation – a cessation, indeed, just as the plot is beginning to get going. As a result, it’s even harder to judge in its own right than the first installment of a series usually is; perhaps both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters will have much about them explained in the second half of this story, and these concerns will flood away. It’s hard to judge a set-up when we haven’t yet heard the punchline. And that’s a broader problem with the splitting in two of the novel: even more than normal in the first part of a series, what we have here is purely the set-up, purely the introduction of the characters and their situation.

Taken in its own right, however, this is the second big weakness of the book. Deprived of the excitement of a climax, all we have is unsatisfying and extremely prolonged anticipation; deprived of the sense of a conclusion, all we have is a congeries of threads, lying aside one another with, as yet, no clear picture of how they are to join, what the finished tapestry is meant to look like. This is of course a problem always experienced in the middle of a book: but this time we’re invited to put the story down halfway through, and wait until we buy the second installment, and that added time allows the reader’s impression of the half-finished work to sour. It’s a problem also often seen in long, epic fantasy series – both The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire have provoked considerable frustration over the way they have placed their readers in the unsatisfying middle portion of a story for years, even decades, on end. Dragon Keeper has an advantage on these series, in that the pressure for a resolution is lesser, thanks to the smaller scale and scope of Hobb’s story, but it also has disadvantages: it has even less of a satisfying arc structure as a standalone novel, and it also has less actual incident than anything outside of Crossroads of Twilight. The entire plot could have been gotten through in three or four chapters, if the author had wished. Now, this isn’t Crossroads of Twilight – the wordcount is dedicated primarily to psychological analysis, rather than descriptions of scenery and repetitive conversations, and it doesn’t feel particularly bloated in the moment of reading. But there is a strangely protracted feel to it as a whole, that I didn’t feel was fully justified by how well we got to know the characters, or how complicated those characters are.

And yet I don’t want it to seem as though Hobb has gone off the rails here. I can see what she is doing, and although it’s not always what I’d like her to be doing, she is doing it well. Her writing is as good as ever, if not better, and she’s able to create vivid characters and compelling situations and realistic psychologies. In a way it’s particularly impressive just how readable I found the book, given that I’m interested in perhaps only one character in the novel, and that very little of interest actually happens: Hobb has the magical knack of bringing her readers to invest in her world (though it should be said, sadly, that her world and its revelation are probably less interesting here than ever before), her characters, her plots, even without the honey that authors usually need to dole out; I may have found the novel frustrating, occasionally even a little tiresome, but I didn’t find it dull, and I never imagined for a second putting it aside. I’ve also quickly gone out and bought the sequel.

Ultimately, what Hobb accomplishes in this novel, even more than in her earlier work, is a fusion of realistic, relatable character drama (half soap opera, half literary character portrait) with a fantasy setting, complete with quests and dragons and magic and mediaeval (or in this case early modern) ornamentation. The sugary fantasy material makes the sometimes dry psychological material go down more easily, while the portrait painting adds both prestige and depth to the fantasy. For those who can tolerate the slow, old-fashioned pace (and Hobb’s earlier books, with the exception perhaps of Golden Fool, were action-packed by comparison), it remains a potent mixture – although I do think that this time she may just have strayed a little far in the direction of dry.

Adrenaline: 3/5. The pace is slow: very slow. But it is a deliberate pace, and although little happens there is ample supply of premonition and foreboding to pull the reader through.

Emotion: 3/5. While the characters may generally not be all that sympathetic, they are vivid, rounded, and enmeshed in emotive situations. Not much happens, but the status quo as described is sufficiently painful to evoke some emotion by itself.

Thought: 3/5. Psychological analysis and a fairly unusual plot keep the brain engaged, although both dimensions seem a little too simplistic in execution.

Beauty: 3/5. As is usually the case with Hobb, her prose is unremarkable, and the flashes of beautiful imagery are balanced by her willingness to describe the horrific and the ugly.

Craft: 4/5. Although, as you can probably tell, I’m a little underwhelmed by this book, I do think that it’s as well written a book as Hobb has produced. The prose and the plotting and the characterisation all seem more deliberate and controlled (though we can deduce that word-count is still something the author has difficulties mastering…)

Endearingness: 2/5. Hard to imagine giving this score to a Hobb novel, since normally she’s one of my favourite writers. And it’s not that there’s anything actively repulsive about the book. But, whether its the choice of characters, or the half-finished nature, or the (valuable and respectable but not overly fun) themes, or the relative lack of action, but… I just didn’t love it. Perhaps that will change in hindsight, once I see how this fits into the whole – there have been quite a few half-books by Hobb I haven’t loved, and quite a few characters who have seemed unsympathetic at first, and I’m more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But right now, I didn’t instinctively like this book very much.

Originality: 3/5. Hobb’s reputation is so great, and her world so well-established, that she’s outgrown the need for the more formulaic plots of her early novels; and so, if one were to write down the characters of this novel and the plot they limn, it would be a fairly distinctive shape. On the other hand, her world has become more conventional, and there seems less interest, at least in this novel, in exploring its unusual elements. So average, on average.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Dragon Keeper is probably a step down in quality from Hobb’s best work, and I certainly think it will be less accessible to average epic fantasy fans. But for what it is, it’s actually quite good – and certainly good enough not to discourage me from continuing on to the next volume.

 

 

P.s. On going into a shop to physically buy the next installment because I didn’t want to wait for a postal delivery, I discovered that Hobb’s earlier books, such as the Farseer novels, now have yet another edition, and it’s got yet another stunning cover. How come there are so many terrible fantasy novel covers, when Hobb’s able to get cover after cover, in totally different styles, all wonderful? Here are the UK editions of Assassin’s Apprentice I know about:

assassins-apprentice1

John Howe’s beautiful romanticist painting and almost tactile framing, complete with a potent scent of his famous Tolkien paintings.

assassins-apprentice-2A totally different but equally beautiful, simplistic, symbolic approach from Jackie Morris. The thumbnail doesn’t do justice to the glossy silver-gilt beauty of it in real life – it’s a style that reminds me strongly both of mediaeval painting (the Wilton Diptych, for instance) and of late-19th/early-20th ‘childlike’ fantasy illustrations.

 

 

Assassins-Apprentice-3  I don’t know who made this one, and to be honest I wouldn’t put it at quite the level of the first two, but it’s still really attractive. It’s striking, simple, pretty, and conveys something of the style of the novel, while still being perhaps more fashionable in style than the above works.

AA-4

 

 

 

 

And then because those weren’t enough, I also noticed this one – it’s a hardback edition, with a totally different, almost modernist style.

 

 

On the other hand, her American covers are just ghastly, so maybe there is some justice after all.

Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my ongoing project to reread all the Discworld novels in order.

One problem with re-reading so many Pratchett books in a short space of time is that they lose the ability to surprise. When you’ve recently read a dozen Discworld novels, you know exactly how good Pratchett is: the only surprises are the disappointments.

Except for here. And I’ll admit it’s mostly my fault: I didn’t remember Soul Music fondly, or at least having read some negative reviews I came to remember it unfondly – the negative elements I remembered, while the positive I forgot. And I’m glad of that. Because the result was that this was a really enjoyable surprise.

Now, true, the concept of the novel is weird – but perhaps a little less weird when Reaper Man and Moving Pictures had come out only a few years before. Pratchett’s slow drift toward more sensible plotlines have made these more outré early outings seem out of place. And it’s undeniably true that there are a bunch of bad jokes here, including a couple of scenes written only to produce bad jokes – and there were probably more bad jokes than I caught, given that I know little about modern popular music.

But those jokes are actually only a small part of the novel (for a start, they don’t really show up until the second half). Soul Music isn’t the story of Imp y Celyn and his invention of rock music, it’s the story of Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter. Much of the book has a surprisingly sombre tone – more so, of course, in hindsight. The two things Pratchett is probably most in the public eye for these days are his Alzheimer’s and his advocacy of suicide/euthanasia; it was truly painful reading Lords and Ladies and seeing the man, nearly two decades ago, explicitly decrying dementia as the worst possible human fate; and similarly, recent developments have cast something of a pall over Soul Music, emphasising the degree to which the novel is perhaps primarily concerned with these questions of suicide and the value of life, as well as the human (and inhuman) responses to grief and bereavement, the struggle to move on when it means leaving loved ones, and loved things, behind. If it seems odd to see such themes in a book theoretically about fantasy rock music, it’s not the only place the two subjects go together with Pratchett: Susan’s family motto (though not revealed until Hogfather) is Non timetis messor, a reference both to rock music lyrics and to Death himself. More importantly, Sir Terry himself chose (a more accurate Latin translation of) the same motto for his own coat of arms. Clearly its an association he feels is natural, and this book goes some distance to explaining why. Music, in this book, is life, is creation, is the futile and ultimately self-destructive defiance of death, the great stygian opiate against pain and loss, and the question of to what extent we should imbibe of it ties the book together and gives it much of its power.

That by itself explains, I think, why this felt like a more personal and intimate novel than almost any of the preceding installments, perhaps more than any novel since The Colour of Magic. Yes, the rock music is indulgent, a personal enthusiasm, but Pratchett’s earned a little indulgence. Both the music and the death make the book feel authentic, and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence either that Sir Terry has essentially chosen to affiliate his family with Susan’s. Susan Sto Helit feels like one of the greatest, but in particular one of the most real, the most authentic, of Pratchett’s characters. I don’t know what Pratchett’s daughter actually is (or was) like and whether Susan is a true reflection of her, but I felt strongly when reading this that that author’s attitude toward Susan is very much the attitude of a father toward his teenage daughter (whether or not its specifically the attitude of the real Pratchett toward his real daughter): there’s a real tenderness there that I don’t think I’ve seen since Equal Rites (where I gather that Esk really was based on his daughter, though I may have misunderstood).

So on the positive side we have that authenticity, and we have the profundity of the meditations on life and death. We also have a bit more of Death (though he’s mostly marginalised), and we probably see Ridcully at his finest: hilarious, yet with his considerable hidden depths much more exposed than elsewhere, the character not simply being played for laughs. The book also has some of the finest, funniest Colon/Nobby dialogues. Indeed, in general this was a very pleasantly funny book, despite the misfires.

On the negative side, aside from some bad puns the biggest problem is the superficiality of the plot. It does mostly make sense, but there’s rarely any real sense of why we should care about it: the plot is mostly an excuse to show us Susan and have some laughs. The stakes are never hammered home, and with the theoretical main plot barely even emerging until some time in the second half of the book, the result is a light and meandering work with little emotional impact.

As a result, Soul Music is unable to obtain the grandeur of Small Gods or Lords and Ladies, or even the thrilling power of the conclusions to Men at Arms or Witches Abroad. There isn’t quite the brief brilliance of Reaper Man either, to turn these meditations on death into something so terribly moving, and so we’re left looking back to Moving Pictures for the last installment of similar quality – and even that probably works better as a narrative. Soul Music is, therefore, probably a step down in overall quality, and certainly gives fewer glimpses of genius than recent books – in other words, it’s a failure.

And yet that doesn’t make it a bad book. On the contrary. A flawed book, certainly, but not a bad one. It’s funny, moderately compelling, interesting, likeable… all-around, a jolly good bit of fun, and I’m not going to let a few bad rock-related puns get in the way of that.

 

 

Verdict:

Adrenaline: 3/5. Not thrilling, with a slow start, and the stakes feel low, but it turns the pages.

Emotion: 2/5. Doesn’t really engage emotively, but Susan is an empathetic character and the book does touch on emotional themes.

Thought: 2/5. Pratchett is never brainless, but this isn’t one of the deeper books – the themes are more didactic, the allusions more obvious.

Beauty: 4/5. Some really good lines… and some really bad ones. Some great images, and some dross.

Craft: 4/5. Not quite top-drawer, with the plots not really being sufficiently integrated, and the strain showing in some of the humour.

Endearingness: 4/5. I may have cringed a few times, but I really liked the book, largely as a result of the fantastic character of Susan, one of the most realistic (at least to my experience…) teenagers I’ve found in print.

Originality: 5/5. Often 5/5 marks here suggest something lunatic and unreplaceable… Soul Music isn’t exactly that, and yet I’m struggling to think of parallels. It achieves originality just by doing its own thing, rather than by consciously eschewing tropes.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Undoubtedly the happiest surprise of the re-read so far (with the possible exception of The Colour of Magic), I found Soul Music a far better book than I remembered it being, with some good humour, characterisation and philosophising hiding underneath the improbable and at times crass surface plot. Not Pratchett at his best, but hardly an embarrasment either.

Hawk and Fisher, by Simon R Green

There are a lot of reasons to be snobbish about a book like Hawk and Fisher. It’s not one genre, it’s two, and should rightfully be criticised for its unadventurous clichés in both: in essence, it’s just an Agatha Christie novel set in the Forgotten Realms (only with the serial numbers filed off). As a fantasy, it suffers from the low stakes and the derivative worldbuilding, exacerbated by a certain lack of grip on the issue of anachronisms; as a murder mystery, it suffers from the inevitable problems introduced by magic, and from frankly a certain predictability. The solution isn’t immediately obvious, but becomes obvious rather too soon, and at a deeper level the structure and tropes of the action are far too familiar, even speaking as someone who does not generally read in that genre.

In fact, it’s hard to really find all that much good to say about the book, which is why this review is so short. And yet… I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it a compelling page-turner and great fun to read… I’m just not sure why. Part of the pleasure no doubt comes from getting to see the day-to-day side of a fantasy setting, a theme I’ve always found appealing – Green does a good job of showing us the universalities of life, although, as mentioned, I fear he stepped over into anachronism now and then. I think the bulk of it, however, must simply be put down to the protagonists and their interraction… which I find a disturbing thing to have to say, because there was nothing particularly special about them. Maybe it’s just refreshing to see a realistic mature relationship in a fantasy novel.

Perhaps I can pad this out by harking back to my review of Green’s Blue Moon Rising, an earlier novel set in theoretically the same world, with some of the same characters (although the connection so far (there are a bunch more novels with these characters) is limited essentially to winks to the audience). There, I explained that the book had a strange dichotomy within it, between a fairly poor and irritating parody/comedy on the one hand and deep, dark psychological and nightmarish elements on the other. Well, the good news here is that the bad comedy has largely been dropped – there are moments of amusement, but there’s far less of that sardonic flippancy. The bad news, however, is that the darker elements also only show through briefly, and the deeper, more psychological elements are essentially absent. It’s altogether a much more contained, unchallenging, unambitious novel.

But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. Not every book has to be a masterpiece. I do hope that Green shows again the talent we saw in glimpses in Blue Moon Rising, but I’m not upset that this isn’t the book where that happens. I’m not upset that it’s derivative and predictable and lacks, to be honest, any real clear noteworth virtues. Because I enjoyed reading it. Sometimes an unchallenging, unsophisticated, cosy, sub-Christie mystery with married detectives in a pseudo-D&D fantasy world and few pretensions to literature is exactly what you want. I bought this book in an omnibus edition that collects the first three Hawk and Fisher novels; I haven’t raced ahead to the second novel, but I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll finish all three, and not in too distant a future.

Adrenaline: 3/5. There’s a bit too much talking after the fact for this to be a thriller, but with an ample supply of plot twists and a lean style it was a perfectly effective page-turner.

Emotion: 2/5. Some of the characters are surprisingly likeable, given how little effort is put into defining them, and there are emotional moments, but to be honest this isn’t a novel where emotional impact is the purpose.

Thought: 3/5. Yes, a thinking reader will figure out the mystery, or at least a goodly part of it, rather too early… but only if they really are a thinking reader.

Beauty: 3/5. Nothing particularly ugly to complain about here.

Craft: 3/5. The prose is not remarkable but is perfectly solid; the characterisation is thin, but works better than expected. The plot is a bit too obvious, but it’s well-constructed with plenty of twists, including one genuinely clever bit. Yes, it’s a workmanlike novel, but the workman responsible is quietly, unostentatiously, capable.

Endearingness: 3/5. There’s not enough here for me to really love it, but it was a pleasant read I’ll probably come back to some day.

Originality: 2/5. Fundamentally derivative – but the execution is clever enough, and the combination of tropes unusual enough for the genre, that I can’t give it the lowest score.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. I think that’s pretty fair on balance. It isn’t a good book – like I say, I’m struggle to think of anything really good about it. On the other hand, I can’t honestly say that there’s anything terrible about it either. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like it; if you don’t like this sort of thing, you probably won’t.