The Last Continent, by Terry Pratchett

Read as part of my lengthy Complete Discworld Reread

The problem with The Last Continent is that it’s a fantastically funny, if rather light, novella about the Faculty of Unseen University.

This is a problem because it is actually a novel about Rincewind.

Pratchett often does this thing where his books are split between different plotlines that have little or nothing to do with one another. But part of the genius of Pratchett is the way he’s able to weave his plotlines together to make them feel as though they do belong together.

He does not do this here.

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The Discworld Re-Read: Halfway Through (sort of)

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reading Discworld again. All of it. In (mostly) order.

 

At this point, I’m now halfway through, in that I’ve (re-)read 20 books of a total of 40. Now, technically I haven’t read the first 20: I’ve read the first 19, and then #21, because nothing is ever simple with me. (I read and reviewed Hogfather before I had the idea of this complete re-read project, and I’m not sure about re-reading it again. I’ve decided that I do want to re-read it as part of this project, and I was toying with reading it for Christmas, but that didn’t happen. So now I don’t know whether I’ll be reading it next, or whether I’ll maybe leave it for next Christmas instead). And maybe I should shamelessly copy Nathan’s halfway roundup halfway through is a good time for a bit of reflection.

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Jingo, by Terry Pratchett

Perhaps you might be interested in the rest of my ongoing Complete Discworld Reread project?

But… but… but that was much better than I remember it being!

N.B. I have skipped Hogfather, partly because I reviewed it already before starting this re-read project, and partly because I might just read it again at Christmas anyway, which isn’t long now. So I’m moving past it, and may return to it at Christmas if I feel like it.

So, Jingo. Probably my most hated Discworld book. I wasn’t looking forward to this. And yet… it’s weirdly good.

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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.

A Complete Discworld Re-Read Project

I’ve recently decided to…   OK, so I actually started this almost a year ago. It took about six months to realise I should probably put them all on one page for the sake of convenience. Aaand another little while to actually do it. Don’t hold your breath, there’s plenty of opportunity for something to go wrong yet between now and when I hit the ‘publish’ button… … but, assuming that this does actually get published, here we go.

It’s pretty self-explanatory, I’m re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. In order (mostly). All of them. I got this idea a few years ago when Adam (see! not just me that fails to put up helpful index pages! On the other hand, unlike me, his blog is easily searchable by author name…) came up with it (hopefully, unlike him, I’ll actually finish…), and then finally got spurred into action when I saw that Nathan was doing it too (both more quickly than me and in a far more organised fashion). [And for a while there I was also spurred along by G’s project, which he started long after the three of us, and finished long before us…]

So, here you can find reviews for:

The Colour of Magic
The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites
Mort
Sourcery
Wyrd Sisters
Pyramids
Guards! Guards!
(read out of order because I couldn’t find my copy)
Eric
Moving Pictures

Reaper Man
Witches Abroad
Small Gods
Lords and Ladies
Men at Arms
Soul Music
Interesting Times
(finally found and read after Feet of Clay…)
Maskerade
Feet of Clay
Hogfather (temporarily skipped; however, I did write this review of it a few years before I started this re-read)
Jingo

The Last Continent
Carpe Jugulum
The Fifth Elephant
The Truth
Thief of Time
The Last Hero
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated
Rodents (Read for the first time)
Night Watch
The Wee Free Men 
(Read for the first time)
Monstrous Regiment
A Hat Full of Sky
(Read for the first time)
Going Postal
Thud!
Wintersmith
(Read for the first time)
Making Money
Unseen Academicals (not technically part of the re-read, but I have reviewed this before, way back in ’09)
I Shall Wear Midnight
(Read for the first time)
Snuff (again, I reviewed this when it came out)
Raising Steam
(Read for the first time)
The Shepherd’s Crown (Not Yet Read*)

 

*until recently this entry said “not yet published”, a sobering reminder of how long ago I started this project…

 

This may take a while… In the meantime, those interested in Pratchett may want to check out my other Pratchett reviews. So far, that means reviews of all three Johnny Maxwell novels, and of The Carpet People. Shortly after Pterry’s death, I also put up my eulogy/analysis, ten reasons why people are so upset about his death. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, you can find all of my book reviews on this page here.

Mort, by Terry Pratchett

[part of an on-going re-read of the Discworld novels]

The Colour of Magic was the author having fun and happening to strike gold; The Light Fantastic was an only partly succesful attempt to recapture that winning formula; Equal Rites was a mostly succesful but still flawed attempt to tell a different type of story in a similar setting; Mort is where Discworld is really born.

mort black

Mort takes a lot from Equal Rites, most importantly the central revelation that Discworld out to be a series of books about real people in a pastiche fantasy world, not just a pastiche of fantasy. In this case, the real people don’t live in Bad Ass, but on another side of the Ramtops, in the Octarine Grass Country, but that doesn’t make too much difference. The novel’s central character, Mort, occupies a similar niche to Esk in the previous novel: a strange, overly-intelligent child is born to a rural farming family, and has no place among them, but is called to power and purpose in an entirely different setting. Mort isn’t exactly Esk: he’s gangly and daydreamy and bookish, rather than concentrated and practical – in fact, he’s essentially a non-idiot-savant non-wizard version of Simon, Esk’s counterpart in the preceding novel. And his family isn’t exactly the same as Esk’s – the Octarine Grass Country is more southern, more prosaic, than the wild mountain northernness of Bad Ass. [Both setting and character are perhaps closer to Pratchett’s own background: born in a small market town outside London, complete with an annual fair, he credits his education to the time he spent in the public library reading everything he could find.*] But the contours of the situation are the same.

(If written today, surely both books would be marketed as ‘YA’).

Anyway, rather than becoming a wizard, this time the misfit hero becomes Death, or at least Death’s apprentice. Needless to say, things go wrong.

Continuing and expanding a structural trait of the two preceding novels, the main body of Mort is split into two plots (actually, by the end, three or four). The main plot follows Mort’s attempts to come to terms with the role of Death, while correcting for and covering up the results of a mistake he made (or possibly chose to make), alongside Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabel, and butler, Albert. This section clearly grew out of the ‘Death’s domain’ section of TLF, in which Death and Ysabel are introduced (in the latter case, with little explanation – was Pratchett already planning Mort, or was she a random loose end he later decided to do something with?). The counterplot is a lighter-hearted affair in which Death goes on holiday to find out what’s so great about life, ultimately ending up in Ankh-Morpork. At first glance, this seems like comic relief, although in many ways it’s the real core of the novel: it’s through this establishment of Death, not only Death as a character but what it must mean to be Death (he’s never invited to parties, for a start), that the main storyline gets its depth. Pratchett does a good job of conveying that ‘Death’s apprentice’ is more than a joke, more than having a strange employer – as he often does in his best work, he takes a whimsical concept and fleshes it out into something powerful and dark.

On another level, it may be worth mentioning that Death’s time in Ankh-Morpork is vital for another reason: to continue Discworld’s meditation on the difference between London and the rest of the UK. Well, OK, more universally on the difference between town and country, but as both Pratchett and I have grown up in the shadow of the Smoke, it’s hard for me to see it outside of that context (perpetuating, of course, the traditional British obsession with role and strangeness of London – Equal Rites in particular can be seen in light of the rich literature of bright northerners coming south to seek their fortune). In Mort, Ankh-Morpork is even symbolised by a carbuncle, much as London is known as the Great Wen. In any case, in TCOM, Ankh-Morpork was only one fantastical place among many, but both TLF and ER placed the rural/urban distinction at their hearts (in the former case, through Rincewind’s homesick citydweller; in the latter, through Esk and Granny as naïve country women encountering the city for the first time). In Mort, the contrast is less explicit, as the characters largely do not overlap, but nonetheless the powerful big-city light is being shone on the small and trivial world both of Mort’s home and of the petty politics of the Sto Plains, while the honesty and simplicity of the rural setting is being used to accentuate the decadence of the city.

Mort2

Hmm. OK, I’ll admit: I’m finding it hard to right about this one. You’ve probably noticed. There’s a very clear reason why it’s hard to say much about this book: there’s almost nothing wrong with it. It’s not really deep enough to go on about its themes, but it’s just too damn good to explain its flaws at length.

It isn’t perfect exactly. The two plotlines, while working well together, do feel a bit disconnected. The overall plot still feels a bit rushed and not entirely coherent – although it’s considerably better in that respect than any of the previous books. [I think ER hit a higher level in the early sections, but Mort has fewer flaws]. It has considerable pathos; it has excitement (and a duel! and an elephant!); it has a lot of humour. It’s the funniest Discworld so far, with a good mix of jokes, from the broad to the sophisticated. It’s clearly a major milestone in solidifying the nature of the Disc and setting the benchmark for future novels. Some fourth-wall-breaking persists, and I didn’t entirely appreciate it, but it is better handled than before, and not a major problem.

Frankly, the only serious defect of this book is that it’s just too short.

Oh, and I should also add: it’s full of sex. I mean seriously full. In Equal Rites Pratchett quite straightforwardly set out to talk about sex (in both senses of the word) and Mort continues in the same vein. It’s a little awkward really. In many ways, this is a book it would be great to read to, or with, a child – except that you literally cannot go three pages in any direction without a nod, a wink, an innuendo, a risque diversion, or a barefaced “gurgle of passion” off in the bushes. As an adult, it just makes it more fun to read – Pratchett is one of the few authors who can walk the line between seeming prudish and seeming lecherous, and his embrace of sexuality is just one part of his embrace of life in all its glories – and most children wouldn’t notice a lot of it and would shrug past the rest (I know I did when I first read it), but boy would I have a red face trying to read this to someone under the age of majority…

Anyway. Short version. Very good book. Still a bit shallow and a little wobbly around the edges. But not only a good omen for his later books, but also a reminder that early Pratchett wasn’t just there to grow up into later Pratchett. If he’d stopped writing at this point, Mort wouldn’t be a bad magnum opus for an author to have.

But, of course, he didn’t…

mortimages

Scores!

Adrenaline: 4/5. I found this gripping! Could easily have been 5/5, except that honestly the exciting part is only a small portion of the whole.

Emotion: 3/5. Not exactly grabbed by the neck and shaken, but there’s no denying there’s pathos to it. And continues ER’s trend toward deeper characters – nobody here stands out to the same extent as Granny, but there’s a decent ensemble cast.

Thought: 3/5. Not a work of high philosophy, but also not afraid to at least look at some serious questions of life, death, and everything in between.

Beauty: 3/5. May be being harsh, because this is a book with a lot of great lines, and a lot of great images too. On the other hand, it still feels a bit raw and ungainly here and there.

Craft: 4/5. Between a well-structured climax, plot twists, and a lot of great humour, this is definitely a notably well-put-together book. Not perfect yet, but progressing.

Endearingness: 4/5. Again, no one character stands out, and I didn’t fall in love with anyone or anything. However, it was fun, funny, moving and clever, I’ve read it a bunch of times and I’m going to read it a bunch of times more.

Originality: 4/5. It’s a strange book. A lot of the individual elements seem cliché, but they’re handled in surprising and original ways. It’s not particularly predictable, and features a lot of things that would never have occurred to most authors.

Overall: 5/7. Good. The same score as Equal Rites – but ER is down at the more-than-just-not-bad end, and Mort, I think, is up at the almost-very-good-indeed part of the spectrum. It’s the best Discworld so far (and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed about giving it such a brief and incoherent review, so sorry about that…). But on to the next!

[Actually, the next is Sourcery, which to be honest I’m looking forward to mostly as a stepping stone to Wyrd Sisters. Then again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised before when revisiting books I last read a decade and a half ago]

*Fun coincidence: he was born in Beaconsfield, the same town where his stylistic predecessor GK Chesterton is burried.

P.S. Krull!