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.
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.