Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my on-going complete Discworld re-read project

…I don’t know what to say about this one.

It’s a frustrating novel, this. For two thirds of the book, it is in many ways among Pratchett’s best. It’s funny, it’s very pacey, it’s weird, it’s interesting, it’s intellectual. Surprisingly intellectual – I couldn’t help noticing that some passages come very close in content to another book I’m reading at the moment, John Wisdom’s once-seminal (now largely forgotten) classic of Oxonian analytical philosophy, Other Minds (though this says as much about Wisdom as it does about Pratchett, I think).

185px-Thief-of-time

Then it all collapses. Pratchett doesn’t seem to have planned ahead to incorporate any sort of coherent ending. He gives it a go, to be sure, but this basically amounts to 100 pages of “run over here!”, “now run over there!”, “do something deus ex machinaey!”, “run around in a circle a bit more!”, “repeat that bit from earlier in the novel only now it’s later in the novel so it must be more important”, “have something completely irrelevent happen”, “let’s just run around really fast a bit more,” and “ok I don’t know where this is going let’s just have something cute happen, that’ll keep’em happy.” It’s simultaneously dull and exhausting, and I’d say it was slightly confusing but I won’t because that implies that under the confusion it did actually all make perfect sense, and I’m not sure that it did.

Oh, and the finale’s obviously very big and serious and important… so why not punctuate it with some really stupid jokes about how women are all obsessed with chocolate and can’t stop eating it, and then let’s have a female character scream and twist her ankle at an important moment. Oh, and themes, we’ll need some of those, only why not reverse a bunch of them right at the end so that it’s not clear what the point of any of it was? Yes, that sounds like a plan.

And then you notice the problems that were actually there all along. Like the plots. There are three plots – two only tangentially related, and one that’s claimed to be related but seems like an excuse for some very dull, repetitive humour. One of these plots only happens at the end, out of the blue, and another of the plots basically disappears for the entire development section of the novel.

Which leaves us with one plot, with two characters. This plot itself isn’t all that great, since at its core it just goes back to copying the plot of The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites (with nods to the plot of Sourcery): travel rapidly from the Ramptops to Ankh-Morpork to prevent the world being eaten by the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but nobody is going to know how exactly until everything works out for the best in the end somehow thanks to magic, only this time the Things have been renamed. [Or, more confusing, the enemies this time around are heavily implied to be a species of Things, even though they’re completely unlike Things in every way except in the role they have in the plot]. And did I mention that the way that everything works out for the best in the end is basically a matter of people saying “I just know we should go over there and do such-and-such even though I don’t know why” and they do and it’s all OK; it’s kind of like the Rincewind plot in The Last Continent in that way, and that’s not a compliment.

That plot could be OK if it had the right characters. Instead, it has Lobsang and Lu Tze. Lu Tze recurs from Small Gods, but with more spotlight on him he shows himself to just be Granny Weatherwax in drag and with the accent from a martial arts film. He’s also even more pompous, narcissistic and… well, a bullying arsehole, frankly. Imagine the worst of Granny and Vimes put together into a vaguely racist caricature. This actually wouldn’t be a problem, since he does provide some comic relief and he can move the plot along – the problem is that the author seems to agree with the character (and everyone who has ever heard of the character – one of the least appealing habits Pratchett has is the way he has Lesser People fawning over how wonderful his heroes are, and that makes up a major percentage of this book) that the character is the greatest thing on the planet, so we get a hell of a lot of a guy who would have worked wonderfully if kept more in the background. He even gets his own incessantly-repeated catchphrases, as though this were a comedy from the 70’s. [In the process, Pratchett revisits a throwaway gag from a much earlier novel and fleshes it out. I can see why he did this, and I understand his Thematic Point, but to be honest it worked better as a one-off joke than with an entire novel devoted to it… then again, that could be said of a lot of his later work, couldn’t it?]. And Lobsang? I can’t criticise Lobsang as a character, because he isn’t one. He’s a walking plot device. He’s got probably the least personality of any of Pratchett’s main characters so far.

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So how could I have thought the book was so good, if the characters are so flawed? Well, the thing is, for running around in the middle of a book, these are pretty good characters – a little irritating, but mostly pretty good. Right balance of ability and inability, of humour and seriousness. The difficulty is when we get to the end and expect these characters to be able to bear the strain of the novel’s emotional arc… and they can’t. The end struggles to a large extent because I don’t care about these people, or even really understand who they are [Granny works because she’s that imperious old woman in the village, only more so; Vimes works because he’s the dogged guy we know who won’t give up, only more so; Lu Tze doesn’t work in part because I don’t know any caricatured enlightened Buddhist ninja monks from a bad comedy martial arts film, and Lu Tze is one of those but even more so]

It’s helped out at the end by the return of Susan. It’s not helped out by what Pratchett has done to her: first by turning her from a strong-willed, no-nonsense woman into an arch-conservative petty fascist harridan (her school career being mostly an excuse to bitch about New Labour education policies and how it were all much better when he were a lad and they had proper discipline and respect and none of this being nice to people or encouraging them shit – which come to think of it is really odd coming from a man who grew up under the education system he’s lamenting the loss of, and who as a result was a failure at school who did all of his learning by himself in a library instead…) and then, just when we’re coming to terms with that (well OK, people grow up, sometimes not attractively, and we can see her point of view in the circumstances and maybe that sort of thing sometimes is for the best?) she’s warped again into a weak-willed, hypocritical and-because-she’s-a-woman-she’s-obviously-obsessed-with-chocolate-and-a-glutton butt of stupid jokes. Yet even this version of Susan is still ten times more interesting and appealing than I-can-barely-remember-his-name Lobsang…

So, this is a great example of why endings matter. I would be writing a completely different review if he’d pulled off the ending, because these things you can gloss over if it all seems to work. When it doesn’t…

But I have to be fair. I may be annoyed with it now that I’m writing the review, but at the time I really enjoyed most of this novel, and even the ending was only… disappointing. Maybe a bit frustrating. Not, at any rate, infuriating. My reaction was only “really? is that it?” rather than book-hurling rage.

And before we get to the finale, there is so much to like here. There are some great funny lines, but there are also some really great meaningful, beautiful, or moving lines. There’s a fantastic cameo from a favourite character from another part of the world. There’s some really interesting thinking about, not the meaning of life, which is such a boring question, but the nature of human life, which is something less commonly inquired about but a far more beguiling topic. And where I think the novel does actually excel the rest of the cycle is when it dips into serious horror territory: it’s not frightening, but some parts are genuinely horrifying – unnerving, off-putting. Chilling.

It’s also, incidentally, extremely cinematic. Pratchett has always had a lot of visual content, but in the earlier books this was undermined by some sketchiness, and a great deal of content coming in the form of a sardonic narration. Here, more of it is on camera, and it’s easier to imagine the blocking and the pacing and the cutting. I thought about The Truth that much of it would look great on film, but that’s even more the case here. Lots of dutch angles needed in the horror sections, though! And close-ups! And may I suggest black-and-white after you-know-what happens? But colour for the chocolate shop, of course.

Ooh, the bit in the art gallery. Someone needs to film this, they really do. Bits of it, at least. And I say that as someone who knows how bad most of the film adaptations of Pratchett have been. May I suggest a collaboration between Wes Anderson and zombie Carol Reed?

Of course, the easiest way to adapt it would just be to cut the first two thirds of the book, because although they’re the least problematic bits they’re also, come to think of it, more or less just filler…

So anyway, please don’t think I’m ranted about this book because it’s awful. I’m not. It’s not. I’m ranting about it because it could have been great, but isn’t.

It’s a very Pratchettian book, really. Most of what makes him a great author is here. Wonderful sardonic, romantic prose, insights into the human experience, great ideas along the way, plenty of laughs. But there’s also a lot of what sometimes gets in the way of his greatness. Erratic plotting, a habit of lazily going broad when he’s not sure what else to do, weak endings, confused themes.

It’s a novel that is, in particular, quite at odds in its project from what came immediately before. The Truth, as I said in that review, reads very much like a manifesto for a new Discworld; Thief of Time reads like a straggler from the old, more spectacular, magical Discworld. It’s a tension that Pratchett seems on some level to have realised himself: this is the last outing for Susan and the ‘Death’ books. The cycle of perspectives (Witches – Watch – Susan – Rincewind, with the more personal ‘Jingo’ and ‘The Truth’ inserted into the rotation at random) that had dominated the middle portion of the series has now well and truly broken down: the Witches and Susan/Death have now both been dropped, and Rincewind’s final appearance in the next installment will be abbreviated, shared, and his last (as a POV character; he makes one more cameo later on). Only the Watch remains; and that series has already reached its natural conclusion.

As a result, this is a time of crisis for Discworld. And crisis can be an exciting, stimulating thing, as creativity sparks, trying to find its route to earth through some new locations. The results can be surprisingly great… or surprisingly bad. Or sometimes, as in the case of this book, both at once.

thief of time black

Adrenaline: 4/5. Pacey action-adventure that kept me gripped, at least up until the morass of a final act.

Emotion: 2/5. Didn’t really care about anyone, and not much happened to them anyway.

Thought: 4/5. Doesn’t go off on formal lectures much, but packs a good deal of… well not thought exactly but, more interestingly and authentically, thinking.

Beauty: 5/5. Both some really great writing and some really beautiful scenes being written about – both attractive beauty and horrifying beauty.

Craft: 4/5. Honestly, I think Pratchett’s writing at this point is at the highest level. But the end – and the weaknesses in plotting and characterisation that the end reveals – lets him down.

Endearingness: 3/5. Right now, I want to say 2/5. Because I got quite frustrated and… put-off… by the final act. On the other hand, I did really enjoy a lot of what went before, so that wouldn’t really be honest. A par score overall, I feel.

Originality: 3/5. Not very derivative of existing stories… but quite derivative of himself in many ways. Some very good ideas, but also some that have become rather too comfortable.

OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. Much, much better than I remembered it being: I think all my gripes from the first read stuck in my memory, but the good things – which are after all harder to talk about – I had forgotten. The book is actually much more mixed than I thought it was. It’s probably only a hair worse than The Truth, and if that one was just over the line into ‘very good’, this one, which would have been on target to better its predecessor for much of the book, dips down at the end into merely ‘good’. I do think it’s important to stress that while I try to make these numerical grades commensurable, the verbiage of my reviews will always tend toward grading on a curve. From any other author, I’d probably be raving about how good it was. Even from Pratchett earlier in his career, this would really stand out. I have it ranked higher than almost all the first ten Discworld novels, for example. But at this stage of his career, it feels like a disappointment, like less than he is capable of – less than he delivered two books ago with The Fifth Elephant, and indeed less than the potential shown by this book itself. It’s a book with some great ideas, and some great passages… but it is not itself a great book.

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12 thoughts on “Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

  1. First – ninja: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYSaNvwjm8o
    Then, I am unable to see the stuff that you comment on. Not that I’m saying that it isn’t there, but that I am incapable of seeing it. I had this problem in trying to teach my children to analyse texts. I can pick out the superficial stuff and details but I envy that ability to discuss texts properly. Loving books the way I do and having read thousands of them, I simply do not differentiate between Russian so-called heavy texts and many of the so-called lighter texts. Either I like them or I don’t and when I do I have to figure out why.

  2. Well, I don’t think I have any magic powers either. All this post was was, as you put it, trying “to figure out why” I liked it as much as I did, and why I didn’t like it more. I’m not sure what anybody else does when they review things. This certainly isn’t any sort of academic critique – the ‘stuff that I comment on’ is just basic ‘what people say and do in this book’ stuff, so far as I can see.

    [While the obvious comparison is indeed with Jackie Chan, I tend to think of Lu Tze more along the lines of his schoolmate, Sammo Hung. Not physically, exactly – Hung is rather overweight – but the down-to-earth, amiable, easily-overlooked persona. ]

  3. Hans says:

    Your review reminds me that it’s some time since I read ToT. E.g., I didn’t get the “fascist harridan” vibe from Susan, but perhaps that’s because it’s so long ago that I forgot a lot of the details. On the stereotyping, come on, it’s a fact of life that resistance against chocolate is futile, and the “male” auditors are as susceptible to its effects. 😉 And I like how this novel skates along on jokes and playing with stereotypes – that’s what Pratchett was good at (much better than at plots, as you duly note, and as is true about what, 80% of his novels?).

  4. Marconatrix says:

    “Peidiwch â Bywdo’r Eliffant!” For some odd reason (AFAIK) this is the only Diskworld novel ever to be translated into Welsh (as “Lleidr Amser”). Unfortunately the translation seems to be rather unimaginative and literal, with little attempt to find equivalents for English language word-play etc. as apparently happens in other translations. For some reason I don’t understand, Igor’s lisp is rendered in Welsh by changing ‘r’ to ‘f’ /v/ “i lawf gfisiau, syf” etc. Odd iawn.

  5. I don’t know much about Welsh lisps – what would you say was the stereotype for a welsh lisp? [Since presumably replacing /s/ with /T/ wouldn’t have the same effect?]

    Incidentally, one thing I meant to mention but forgot, and which to be honest I was too slow to notice at the time: is the title of the book quoting Young, as the ‘procrastinator’ devices would suggest, or is it instead quoting Wilde? Because, in a way, that would sort of describe the plot… I guess you could say that Lobsang and Jeremy are effectively embodiments of the two different versions of the line?

  6. Marconatrix says:

    I’ve no reason to believe that the Welsh would lisp differently from anyone else, maybe worth asking over on ZB where there are one or two native speakers. Maybe /s/ is not common enough in W to give the required effect in the dialogues. CC /s/ > W /h/ mostly, so the surviving /s/’s are usually from simplified clusters iirc, much like Greek in that respect. But not all clusters even e.g. _sweks_ > _chwech_ /xwex/ ‘six’.

    Hmm, just looked a random piece of W text. Lines of about c50 chars generally have 1 or 2 s’s in them, but that seems to be more or less true for English too.

    Not sure about the title, I don’t have too much lit. bg. I assume the quote is “procrastination is the thief of time” or some such. Could be Wilde, who is Young? (No doubt showing my ignorance).

  7. Young was the guy famous for saying ‘procrastination is the thief of time’ (18th-century poet). Wilde, however, claimed that ‘punctuality is the thief of time’…

    On stuttering: I assume it involves not only the exact phonetic realisations of the consonants, but also how much they phonemically contrast (a language without /T/ couldn’t have an s/T lisp, it would just have some people with a slightly different way of saying /s/).

  8. jshupac says:

    I’ve gotta say, in spite of everything you wrote, I really loved Thief of Time. Maybe it’s just because it’s the first Discworld i’ve read in years, or because i’ve never read a Witches book, so I didn’t notice the Lu Tze- Granny Weatherwax resemblance you talked about, but I just thought it was such a fun book. You would think that it would have been difficult to do an original “time travel” story, given how common they are in books and movies, but I think pratchett pulls it off. I agree that the ending is a jumble and that the “rule #1” joke is just awful, but the other stuff you talked about — like the kungfu gags (which I’m a sucker for) or the role for Susan — didn’t annoy me. And I thought the scenes with Jeremy were amazing.

  9. Bernd says:

    I recently reread it as well (it was one of the Discworld books that I entirely failed to remember – not a good sign to start with). On the whole I think you summed it up pretty well, although I’d disagree with your description of Susan.

    For me the main problem was indeed the final third – a typical weak, unstructured ending, and it felt like Pratchett was trying to parody the creatures he just made up, and that was a mistake: we are not as familiar with them as we are with, say, trolls, watchmen, witches, or even little enlightened buddhist monks – so an attempt at parody is bound to fall flat.

  10. pthagnar says:

    re: the Welsh -> lisp:
    my guess is that it is an attempt to write down a labialised R, or labiodental approximant, or manchester R, or cockney R, or [ʋ] or what have you. I have heard this referred to as a lisp, and — corroborative evidence — it is a rhotic that was used by Pterry. I understand that Vetinari was played by a lisping character in one of the Discworld TV shows as a reference to this trait of Pterry, so possibly something similar is intended here.

  11. That is quite possible

  12. Orion says:

    Susan is a fascist? I read this years and years ago, but I thought she was using her magic powers to entertain the children while concealing the fun from the schoolmaster and clashing over busywork.

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