Ten Authors Who Would Once Have Been In My Top Ten

As I explained earlier today a few days ago, I just can’t, honestly, make a list of my ten favourite authors. I can make it to three, maybe four, and that’s it. All the other contenders are either people I loved long ago but don’t love anymore, or people I might love in the future but haven’t read enough of yet.

But that got me thinking. If I can’t list my current top ten… how about a historical top ten? In a way, that seems more interesting, since that gives a story about myself, an actual arc. The authors can become more meaningful through a biographical context.

Or maybe I just like talking about myself.

Either way, that’s what I’m doing. Ten authors who would, in roughly chronological order, once have been among my favourite authors at a given time in my life. Except that this is me, and I’m terrible with respecting rules, so actually this is sixteen authors who were once among my favourites. I can’t promise that they would necessarily all have ever been my ‘#1’ author, but they would all have been up there. Here we go…

(oh, and this is just fiction, and just prose. No poetry, plays, non-fiction, or writing for TV or film)

GB

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien was the first author I read, and the one who set the foundation for everything else in my literary life, and indeed, at least symbolically, the rest of my life too, for good and ill. ‘Favourite’ doesn’t really do it justice. My first book – the first adult book I read for myself – was The Lord of the Rings, and I went on to re-read it at least once a year into my middle teens. I loved The Hobbit too, and later on The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales. I have two collections of his poetry. A book I found in Switzerland about his elven languages started me on my hobby of language-creation. (illustration: John Howe’s ‘The Fall of Gondolin’)

  1. Enid Blyton

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I didn’t only ever read Fantasy. And just because I started with Tolkien, that doesn’t mean I skipped childhood entirely. I read, or listened to, or was read, a whole bunch of kid’s books too. Lots of Roald Dahl. And I loved both the E. Nesbitt novels I read. But the one that stands out for me from my earliest years was Enid Blyton. I never read the Famous Five books (although I once had a book/game version of one of them – like a super-CYOA book, with dice and cards and stuff); I resisted attempts to ween me onto the Secret Seven. No, I was, as in all ways, a child who preferred the more recondite alternatives. So I adored her eight ‘Adventure’ novels, about two girls and two boys stranded, having to fend for themselves, in a series of exciting and intimidating locations, generally defeating the sinister plots of some evil adult criminals. My favourite of all was The Valley of Adventure, which seemed like a paradise (despite the whole ‘orHorsephans stranded in war zone hunted by psychotic thieves’ angle). (illustration: no idea)

  1. C. S. Lewis

Narnia. It never seemed as important and deep as Tolkien, but it was still captivating. My favourite was The Horse and His Boy, which is set almost entirely in Exotic Foreign Parts, and doesn’t mess about with any of this ‘real people from England’ business!  (illustration: Stephen Lavis’ cover for ‘The Horse and His Boy’)

  1. David Eddings

eddings_magicians_gambit_2009The backbone of my early Fantasy reading, in larger part because of his productivity. I read all five Belgariad novels (so often my parents added extra plastic binding to protect them), and then all five Mallorean novels, and then the Elenium trilogy (which took me about three days), and then the Tamuli, which took longer only because it was the first series I was actually reading while the books were still coming out one by one, an exhilerating thing. I got the last two in that strange hardback-size-but-paper-backs-and-prone-to-fall-apart format they had back then. Finally, I got his Belgareth and Polgara as hardbacks. (illustration: Geoff Taylor’s painting for the cover of ‘Magician’s Gambit’)

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  1. Arthur Ransome

When I was young, I wasn’t just a geek – I was also a nerd. I spent more time reading the Ravenloft fansites or intently studying the complete unified timeline of Abeir-Toril than I did actually reading the books. But in the days before the internet, nerdery was difficult. Perhaps one of the earliest demonstrations of mine was the case of Arthur Ransome. I liked Ransome’s books – they were like a more grown-up Blyton – and I read three or four of them. But for some reason I decided I was going to collect him. He’s the only author I’ve ever collected, though I probably will collect others in my life. But Ransome was the first – and every week I’d check the second-hand bookshops (there were multiple ones nearby in those queer old pre-internet days) (NB the internet did exist, it just didn’t feature much… at this point, its main use was for downloading updates to Encarta. I can still remember the sound-effects for opening pages in Encarta, you know. And Encarta World Atlas! Dear gods, that astonished us. Truly astonished) for any new copies to buy. (illustration: no idea)hop_fs6_surf

  1. Oscar Wilde

Inherited from my sister. As you may have noticed, my early favourites weren’t exactly famous for their prose style, with the arguable exception of Tolkien. Or, indeed, for their humour. Wilde was suave, polished, and savagely witty. His plays tore apart adult society, while The Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis and the fairy tales had an acheing melancholy about them that appealed to my budding emo side. [I wasn’t emo, because it didn’t exist then, and because I wasn’t into pop culture. But I did listen to Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead on an endless loop in a darkened room and write terrible, melancholy gothic poetry heavily influenced by Wilde] If you ever find me prone to self-pitying martyrdom, blame (amongst other bad influences) Oscar Wilde. (illustration: Jessie King’s “White as the surf it was and like a flower it tossed on the waves”, from her illustrations for ‘House of Pomegranates’)

  1. David Gemmell

BKTG04137I got Legend from the school library in the last few years of primary school. Well, from the bookshelf of my classroom, anyway. I think the teacher may be to blame – he was a fantasy fan. I used to lend him books to read. Anyway, I qas quickly hooked by Gemmell, whose proto-grimdark violent brutality and thinly-veiled sexuality was exciting for a pre-teen boy. I read at least eight of his Drenai novels (there are diminishing returns!), as well as his post-apocalyptic semi-magical Jerusalem Man Western trilogy, and his The Knights of Dark Reknown. I might not love him the same way now, but I am surprised by how often he seems to be passed over in discussions of the genre – apparently, though, he was much less popular in America than here. (illustration: Mark Harrison’s cover for ‘Wolf in Shadow’)

 

  1. Isaac AsimovIsaac_Asimov_on_Throne

Asimov may seem like an adult writer – glasses, sideburns, sociological ramifications of technological advances, etc – but he’s actually an ideal writer for kids. Asimov is an ideas man, and kids are all about ideas. Execution, that’s something that adults care about, once they’ve seen all the ideas, but kids want something enthralling, stimulating, challenging. And Asimov was those things. Asimov talks a lot about the nature of humanity, about justice and fairness and good governance, about power in all its forms. And he also talks about aliens and robots and spaceships and hive minds and robots disguised as hive minds disguised as sexy alien women, and civilisations who collapse because they’ve never before seen the night. And Asimov doesn’t speak down to you. Many of his stories have a strong ‘puzzle’ element, the reader invited to work things out for themselves. Asimov expected his audience to have the souls of children and the minds of adults, and that’s a powerful premise for a child. (illustration: Rowena Morrill’s portrait of the great man himself)

  1. Terry Pratchett

the-colour-of-magic-1Well, I guess I’ve written a fair amount before about Pratchett. He was one of my first writers, but I guess he wasn’t really central until near the end of primary school, by which time he was probably my number 1 favourite. From Feet of Clay on, I got all his Discworld books (minus those marketed for younger readers, because I was a snob) in hardback as they came out – all the way up to Making Money. The increasing time between installments, combined with their diminishing quality, made me question him later on, until my re-read project rekindled my love for this great author.reaperman-1

Another biographical point: Terry Pratchett made me give up writing. Not for ever, of course. But at some point I “realised” that I couldn’t write the books I wanted to write because Terry Pratchett had already written them. Now you might find this arrogant – assuming that I could have written these books! – and it is, but it’s also symptomatic of Pratchett. I remember Queen Victoria’s comparison of her two great Prime Ministers (I paraphrase): “After talking with Mr Gladstone, I became convinced that he was the most intelligent man in England. But when I talked with Mr Disraeli, I soon became convinced that I was the most intelligent woman in England.” Pratchett at his best is a literary Disraeli (no offence to the real literary Disraeli, who was of course Disraeli himself…) – he makes his readers feel so smart that they could sure have written these books themselves. After all, it all seems so easy! (illustrations: Josh Kirby’s iconic cover for ‘The Colour of Magic’ , and Joe McClaren’s cover for ‘Reaper Man’)

 

  1. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman

dl-charactersSometime late in primary school, someone gave me a box of D&D novels. By early in secondary school, I was making some sense of them. Dragonlance was my ‘home’ setting, as it were, and Dragonlance, in its sprawling, slapdash-continuity way, was built around a series of seven novels by Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman. I don’t imagine they were great novels, but boy were they great stories, perhaps the apotheosis of the epic fantasy story, and they displayed their world to the full. Later, I found their (mostly) unrelated (or is it?) Deathgate Cycle, a fine and memorable fantasy in its own right. (illustration: Larry Elmore’s cover for the Collector’s Edition of the Dragonlance Chronicles)

 

  1. Anne McCaffrey

The ubiquity of its foundational rape fantasies and the disturbing attitudes toward gay men aside, there’s something comfortable and asiandragonsdawnrelaxing about the Pern novels. Yes, true, threads of an inimical space fungus fall from the sky and occasionally digests people whole within seconds in an excruciating rain of death, or sometimes merely leave people horribly mutilated and traumatised for life, but apart from that it’s a very safe sort of place, very cosy. People laugh a lot, have unexciting teenage romances (which sometimes even do not necessarily involve fetishised non-consent, except in relatively minor ways… well, using ‘relatively minor’ in a relatively and perhaps unpleasantly charitable DRGNDRMSVN1982way, at least), and have deep and meaningful relationships with their pets (who then essentially compel them into proxy rape via mind control). Lots of loners and marginalised people show the crowds their worth, sometimes by raping them, but it’s all OK because everyone likes each other in the end (except for the people who have to be murdered for the good of the many). It’s a great fantasy world for kids. Sure, it always felt like something written primarily for an audience of teenage girls – the dragons are essentially big glittery mind-rapey ponies – but for a generally insecure boy I was surprisingly unconcerned about that, perhaps because nobody else I knew actually knew what the books were about. Anyway, dragons and romance aside, I loved the way McCaffrey made music central to her culture, and actually wrote about it in a way that only seemed half nonsensical. Masterharper of Pern is the closest thing I know to a biography of a classical composer that also has dragons (and political skullduggery) in it (i.e. the perfect book). (illustrations: Steve Weston’s wonderful dragons for ‘Dragonsdawn’ and ‘Dragondrums’)

  1. Raymond E. Feist

000224148X.02.LZZZZZZZI was introduced by a friend in early secondary school; for some reason, I began with the Serpentwar books, which are indeed the best and most interesting (with the exception of the co-written Empire trilogy). I guess this felt like a more grownup, down-to-earth, graphically violent realistic version of Eddings or of D&D. It was perhaps more believable, less silly, than a lot of those books, and yet fundamentally it was all structured as a jolly good yarn, easy to read and enjoy. I read forward and back from Serpentwar, and sideways into Empire, although I never read on beyond the dreadful computer game adaptations. (illustration: Geoff Taylor again, his cover for ‘Rise of a Merchant Prince’)

 

  1. Elaine Cunningham

0786915617.01.LZZZZZZZA slightly odd one here, because at the time I probably would never have named Cunningham as a favourite author. And yet she’s one of the authors I’ve read the most by. Her Arilyn/Danilo semi-romantic fantasy adventure series was my favourite part of the Forgotten Realms setting, and I followed her over as well to her d365024128a095b511837010.Ldrow novels (an unsuccesful attempt to combine the flavours of her Harper novels with Salvatore’s drow novels), and the beginning of her Halrua series (I should finish that some day!). The books were very light, but they had violence and romance and a kickass tomboy elf princess, so I read them avidly. Despite my apparent grouchiness and my low level of patience with terrible YA romance plots, I actually have a secret soft spot for a good romance, and Arilyn/Danilo clearly worked for me as a kid – serious and deadly girl, flippant and somewhat girly boy, interracial romance with a hint of the forbidden and various Terrible Obstacles Imposed By A Cruel Fate, etc etc. (illustrations: John Foster’s cover for ‘The Magehound’; Kelly Freas’ cover for ‘The Radiant Dragon’. I’ve never actually read ‘The Radiant Dragon’ , but there’s no way I’m passing up a chance to put some Spelljammer on this page. Spelljammer: the fantasy setting for people who are having a puzzling drug trip. Look, a glowing translucent rainbow dragon! In space! And a mediaeval man with a cape full of pixie dust on the bridge of a sailing ship. And the dragon might be about to eat a planet and also I think its head is on fire. Spelljammer, people!)

  1. Robert Jordan

0312850093Yeah, I’ll admit: I seriously liked Jordan at one point (midway through my teens, I guess). And I think I was quite justified. Sure, the first book wasn’t great. In fact it was obviously bad, and obviously a rip-off. And the second was confusingly similar to the first, and the third was promising but went nowhere. But somewhere between the third and the fifth, I got really hooked.

Part of it, of course, was the shear scale. I’d never read anything this big, this sprawling. Stupid as it may be, I liked the polyamorous (and intercultural) relationship, which I’d never seen before in literature – all these damn love triangles all over the place, it was great to see some people just sit down and say ‘you know what, let’s just make this work’. On a similar note, it was originally both titillating and somewhat liberating to see the hints at lesbian sex, which previously I think I’d only read about as a defining trait of decadent villainnesses (of course, the increasingly ubiquitous casual lesbian dalliances and the author’s growing obsession with theoretically-non-lesbian all-female spanking orgies did before too long turn this mildly sexy freshness into stale, repetitive, rather awkward-feeling fanservice and authorial fantasising… but that was later). And I liked the way Jordan wove in elements of hidden SF into the background of his world – it wasn’t new to me, but it was new enough to be intriguing. And perhaps most of all I liked his willingness to take his villains seriously – the Forsaken seemed at times much more interesting than his protagonists. And yes, they may be shallow, but I appreciated the nods to history and mythology, particularly the heavy Arthurian echoes in the background.

But the really striking thing, which I don’t think he gets enough credit for, was Jordan’s use of FRSOHCN1994Amystery. The more you read, the less you seemed to know. I had to keep turning the pages to uncover the secrets. Who killed [spoiler redacted]? Who is Black Ajah and how can you tell? Who is [redacted] hiding as? Is [redacted] secretly Forsaken and what are the subtle clues? There are all these little mysteries to solve, and perhaps Jordan was never all that great at solving them but he was good at setting them up, in a way I hadn’t really encountered in any other work. And that let the length of the series work for it: it gave us time to work ourselves up into fever pitch waiting for the next book when all would(n’t) be revealed. The Wheel of Time was my first sortie into real book fandom, not the nerdy setting fandom I’d looked at before, and it was a vast and captivating world of forums and tributes and parodies and endless speculation. (illustrations: Darrell K. Sweet’s covers for ‘The Eye of the World’ and ‘The Fires of Heaven’)

  1. Gabriel García Márquez

I said above that Pratchett stopped me writing, or at least discouraged me. Gabriel García Márquez had another go at it – convinced me for a good while that I had to write something totally new and radical and ‘literary’ – but more than that he was the author who killed my love of reading. Which… well, that doesn’t sound too great, does it? But it’s a compliment.

9780060114183_p0_v1_s260x420I should be fair. What’s really killed my love of reading – or at least, killed my obsessive infatuation with reading – has been the internet. And discovering films and TV, and maybe, just maybe occasionally, vestiges of a real life perhaps, didn’t help either. But GGM was a big hammer blow.

The thing is, One Hundred Years of Solitude – I was about 16 at the time I think – just destroyed me. It was beautiful, so beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent, and mysterious, and totally new to me, and it made me cry. The ending devastated me… but then for some reason I found myself walking around with my back held straight for a week (I tend to slouch normally, and did so even more as a teenager). It was sublime, and made the world seem different for a while, in an inexpressable way. It made me look at all other books and go “what’s the point?”. I couldn’t write like that, and nor could the other authors I knew of, who suddenly I realised – with perhaps too much enthusiasm, were nothing but pale shadows next to García Márquez.

I never quite recaptured that feeling with any of his other books. Of Love and Other Demons was nice but felt familiar; Chronicle of a Death Foretold was great, but too small. His Collected Stories varied from brilliant to mediocre. And then I tailed off reading him, saving him up for later. But at that point in time, I would certainly have called him one of my favourites. (illustration: not a clue)

  1. Robin Hobb

GGM helped do me a service. He pushed me to grow up, in reading terms. I was 16, 17, and I was still reading more or less the same stuff as when I was 10. Well, I stopped reading it, because it seemed rubbish by comparison – not stopped as in overnight, but I just lost my enthusiasm. Authors ended series and I never bothered to find others to replace them. I felt I wanted to read more of these wonderful, grown-up, real books… but I couldn’t love them, couldn’t be excited by them. And fantasy was just a genre (I didn’t realise at the time that One Hundred Years of Solitude was also Fantasy).2956929d310d14af49572bda75eda315

I’m overstating it; I’m making it more dramatic, more narrative. But there it is. At some point, I borrowed, on holiday, a copy of Assassin’s Apprentice. Now in truth, I started reading that probably before I’d ‘given up on’ Fantasy. So it’s more that as my interest in Fantasy declined, my interest in Hobb remained, and grew as her style grew and deepened. It sparked a brief passion (and a longer-lasting interest) for A Song of Ice and Fire along the way, but it was Hobb who has lasted as my favourite, and who has gradually helped me come back to appreciating the genre. (illustrations: above, Jackie Morris’ painting for the cover of ‘Blood of Dragons’; below, John Howe again with his painting for the cover of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’)

Assassins-Apprentice-port

And you know what I conclude from writing all the above? Fantasy novels used to have really great covers. Sometimes. In the UK, at least. These days, it seems like everything’s “male underwear model glowers at the camera while holding a weapon and having a big cloak”, or even the more direct “AXE!” or “SWORD!” or the like. But paintings like some of the above, even if they often didn’t seem to have anything to do with the events of the book itself, were enchanting. Captivating, even. They promised something – somewhere – wonderful inside the pages of the book. They may have been odd, strange, weird sometimes… but wasn’t that the point? That this wasn’t just the latest Tom Clancey only with swords instead of guns, that this wasn’t a write-up of this or that computer game? That it was going to show you somewhere totally different, totally new? The books may not always have lived up to that, but the covers promised it. I wonder whether I would ever have been as passionate about fantasy – or reading in general – if I’d only had the covers we seem to get today.

 

Anyway, that’s me. What about you?

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The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett.

Well, it seems I’m in a sort of projecty mood at the moment. I suppose that’s traditional, this time of year. Not content with my Silmarillion-reading project (which I haven’t forgotten about, I’m just busy at the moment), I’ve taken it upon myself to embark on another, slightly longer-term project: re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

[This isn’t an original idea. I first had the notion of doing this three years ago, back when Adam at www.thewertzone.blogspot.com was doing it (he got stuck at Soul Music). I was reminded of my earlier intention, and sparked into actually picking up a book, by seeing Nathan over at www.fantasyreviewbarn.blogspot.co.uk take up exactly the same project (at time of writing he’s made it to Pyramids). I know I don’t really need to attribute such radical ideas as ‘reading a famous series of books in order’, but I feel I should, since I always feel awkward about failing to be original. [[Tangent: a paranoia I often take a little too far, to the point of predictability]]. Anyway, I encourage you to look at their reviews too, since so far as I can make out they’re both pretty sane guys when it comes to literary tastes, and a second opinion is always good.]

Discworld. Obligatory nostalgia moment: The Colour of Magic was one of the first books I ever read. There was The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, and a handful of children’s books that don’t entirely count (because I don’t remember them well, I don’t remember when I read them, and they’re all really short, and besides, they’re not proper adult books)… and come to think of it I guess there was a whole load of Enid Blyton at some point, but then one day, as I think I’ve described before, I went with my father down to the local bookshop (when such things existed – and this one barely existed, it probably had fewer books than my house), and looked for fantasy novels, and came home with three: Never Deal With a Dragon (what was that doing there?), Pawn of Prophecy (Eddings quickly became my main author), and The Colour of Magic. I promptly inhaled all the other Discworld books then published. I don’t know when that was exactly, but on Goodreads I’ve estimated it as around 1992. Which means that I was about seven, and it was about twenty years ago.

I’m not sure I’ve read it since.

For a long time now – not twenty years, but a long time – I’ve been telling everyone to, frankly, avoid this book. Early Pratchett, I said, isn’t exactly bad, but it’s nothing like later Pratchett, and nowhere near as good. After all, this is barely a book. It’s some short stories. And they’re not original, they’re just parodies. Anyone can write a short story parodying the Pern novels, that’s not big, and that’s not clever.

the-colour-of-magic-1

Oh boy. I wasn’t wrong about it being different from later Pratchett. I may or may not have been wrong about it not being as good as later Pratchett, we shall see. But I sure as hell was wrong about it not being worth reading.

Because coming back to it now, no longer a seven-year-old: it still isn’t big, but, actually, it seriously is clever.

To start with, we need to be honest about what this book is, and what it isn’t. It isn’t really a novel. What it makes me think of most of all in terms of structure are those old SF novels of the fifties and sixties, the ‘fix-up’ novels, where a clunk of novellas have been slightly rewritten to fit together into a single book. There are four different stories here, with the same main characters and in chronological order, but with little overarching plot – two of the stories have their own prologues, and there are even moments where it feels like Pratchett is recapping the earlier stories in the later ones, like authors do at the beginning of a new novel in a series, in case you’ve forgotten what happened before. It feels like these are four different novellas published in magazines some time apart from one another, although I don’t think that’s actually what happened.

And this isn’t a Discworld book, except in the most obvious sense of it being, you know, quite clearly a Discworld book I mean the whole thing begins the the canonical description of the Discworld so obviously it is a Discworld book. But apart from that, and sharing a lot of characters and setting and a fair amount of the sense of humour with the later books, it isn’t. To explain that, I’ll just point out something that surprised me: this book came out in 1983. That’s surprising not because it’s an aeon ago in terms of the fantasy genre (context: this book was published only six years after The Silmarillion. Rincewind is only six years younger than Melkor, at least in publication date), but because it’s a whole three years before The Light Fantastic. From that point on, Discworld novels flowed at two books a year for a decade. Put simply, The Colour of Magic wasn’t the first of a series of novels sharing the same setting; it was a standalone novel, that later became the basis for a series of novels sharing the same setting. That’s an important difference, I think. In many ways, The Colour of Magic feels more similar to Pratchett’s previous book, Strata, than to the novels that would follow. So there are a lot of things here that don’t add up with later novels – most strikingly the portrayal of Death (at least until the end) is totally out of keeping with later Discworld novels – but there is also a pervasive difference in tone, style, and the feel of the setting.

And this isn’t a wholly original story, either. The entire thing is a parody of the Sword and Sorcery genre, with a lot of more specific parodies along the way (the first section, in Ankh-Morpork, reportedly parodies Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, the second section parodies the work of HP Lovecraft (though still mostly S&S), and the third section parodies McCaffrey’s Pern. [Tangential confession: I always try to just say Pern rather than mentioning the author, purely because I still haven’t learnt how to spell her name without looking it up. Don’t know why, just doesn’t stick with me]. The little parodies are easy to swallow, but the big parodies do feel like a weight on the narrative, unnecessarily limiting the scope and creativity of the work.

The parodic nature of the novel is a particularly interesting thing, philosophically speaking, because in this case what is being parodied is… to put it politely, extinct. Sword and Sorcery is moribund, it’s been adventuring through the elysian fields of departed genres since more or less the time that The Colour of Magic came out. People sometimes say it’s coming back, that writers like Abercrombie and Lynch are infused with an S&S sensibility – I don’t know, I haven’t read them – but it sounds like that’s only true in the sense that ‘not completely avoiding all traces of’ is a comparative resurrection after a long period of complete absence.

On the one hand, that’s bad for the book. A lot of the time I felt I wasn’t getting the joke – either I wasn’t getting the reference, or I understood the reference but just didn’t care because it wasn’t meaningful to me. [For instance, I know enough about Conan the Barbarian from second-hand sources to understand invocations of it, but that’s a very different sort of understanding from the sort I’d have if I’d grown up reading the stuff myself]. A parody loses a lot of its purpose when the thing being parodied is more obscure than the parody.

On the other hand, this may well be what saved the book for me. Because there’s enough here not to need the crutch of parody (just as we can still enjoy Alice in Wonderland despite not spotting the dozen pop culture references a page that it’s made out of), and to be honest I think it works better without it. In fact, the death of Sword and Sorcery has turned this book into almost a two-for-one deal: on the one hand, we get to read a fun, exciting, and to the modern audience quite original genre; and on the other hand, we get to make fun of it at the same time. This isn’t just an intro to Pratchett, it’s also an intro to Sword and Sorcery, and I came away from it really quite eager to find some original Fritz Leiber to read…

So it doesn’t suffer too badly from being a parody; but it does suffer a little, from the sense of mild claustrophobia that a ‘bit’ brings – the author doesn’t feel free, he’s having to do these things because that’s what the thing he’s parodying demands.

It has other flaws too. Some of the humour is too broad (to be honest the entire ‘Japanese tourist’ premise is a bit… limp). The world he’s creating is clearly not quite worked out; the style is sometimes a little inconsistent. It feels quite experimental. Because it’s four stories stitched into one, the overall narrative arc is badly impaired. [Hang on, don’t tell me the ‘here are four published stories reprinted as a book’ format is itself a parody of the repackaging of the original S&S serials? Damnit, maybe it is…]. Thanks both to the brevity/disjointedness of the plot and to the unlikeableness of every single character, there isn’t a lot of emotional engagement. And most surprisingly, for a Discworld book… it’s not funny. It’s clearly written as comedy, but it isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny. It’s rarely even giggle-funny.

the-colour-of-magic

But what it is is great-broad-grin-across-my-face-almost-every-page enjoyable.

There is something here that has been lost in later Pratchett – that was largely lost in Discworld even by the time of its golden age. It’s fun – but more than that, it’s a certain kind of mad, furiously unpredictable creative genius. This book sizzles. It romps. It’s bursting with energy. It’s filled to the seams with, look, here, a stunning plot twist, or, there, some inspired worldbuilding, or isn’t that a clever joke, or that, isn’t that just clever, I don’t know what it’s there for but I’m impressed by it anyway.

Because the worldbuilding is great. This may not be the mature Discworld, but all the foundation stones are put down here – and yes, the roots may be in parody, but they blossom into something that feels real (in a demented way) and wild and entirely original even when I know it isn’t. Even the outright thefts feel original (a good writer borrows, a great writer steals); and let’s not overlook the sheer erruption of worldbuilding that there is here – not content with just describing the world around the characters, we’re treated to repeated whistlestop guides to the fantastic and incredible (despite never being within a thousand miles of it, there’s more about the Great Nef here than in the rest of the series put together). And the plot! OK, it’s mad, it’s scattered, it doesn’t make much sense on the page, but it’s just so audacious. Leaving aside the actual deus ex machina moments, there’s a less literal deus ex machina in the middle of this that is… possibly the most audacious way to resolve a plot point that I’ve ever seen. Which shifts from ‘is he seriously trying to pull that off?’ to outright awesomeness when you realise that the plot twist is composed of a series of implicit, and godawful, puns.

You have to be on your toes to get that joke, but then you have to be on your toes all the time in this book, not just because of the riotous pace, but because Pratchett is exploding with his own smartness all the time. It would be easy for him to come across as pretentious, but he doesn’t. He is astonishingly erudite, but expresses it in a way so married to zaniness and the pun (and in such a machine-gun way) that it doesn’t feel he’s showing off his knowledge, he’s just… having fun. Despite it’s ‘let’s laugh at sword and sorcery books’ premise, it actually feels like a really personal book – not in the sense of being intimate and meaningful and honest, but just in the sense that it feels like it was written for the joy of writing it. I like books like that. The joy comes across in the ink. And there are a great many very serious, very respected, very literary authors who patronisingly expound their own brilliance in lengthy and erudite novels, who end up showing only a tenth of the knowledge and wit that Pratchett showers on us in this brief fantasy parody.

I’m sure I’ve probably only gotten a quarter of the jokes. Some of the ones I did get, I needed help – I knew I recognised that Hikayat-i-Naqshia reference and got the gist of the joke, but I had to look it up to get the details. A lot of people probably didn’t notice that there WAS a joke there – but it’s the sort of book where you don’t have to understand every reference, or even spot which things are references. Instead, it all works at face value… and when you catch a sly allusion, you grin. It’s not all showing off, either, as Pratchett uses his wit to poke a lot of fun at various parts of the real world as well as at the genre, and even now and then to make some serious points. There isn’t the sustained satire or depth of political/philosophical perspective as in some of the later books, but this is nonetheless clearly the work of a man fully intellectually engaged with the world and society around him.

In the end, I’m not only forced to re-evaluate my old opinion of the book, I’m actually left a little regretful that we haven’t seen more of this Pratchett – and more of this world. Pratchett’s writing has become more and more staid, more and more didactic and formulaic, more and more quotidian – and so has Discworld as a setting. As the Disc has moved into the Century of the Anchovy (or whatever it is…), it has become more modern, more orderly, more predictable, more conventional, less magical… and more boring. Perhaps there was a happy medium sometime in the golden age of the Discworld series, where the unpredictability and creativity found a balance with the realism and the depth. But even if there was, I’d still like to get a few more glimpses of this earlier, wilder Disc. Later Ankh-Morpork is just an attempt to ram together a lot of different time periods of imaginary London (with a few nods to other places), which is interesting in its own way… but I’d like to see more of this Ankh-Morpork, this chaotic and brutal pit of humanity. And I badly wish that Pratchett had seen fit to take us back to Krull, his magical empire at the edge of the world. Most generally of all, the big difference is that there is a lot more magic in The Colour of Magic – literally. This is a world that, as the next book puts it, has an embarrassingly strong magical field. In The Colour of Magic, nothing escapes the influence of magic – as witness the glorious descriptions of the slow light that piles up like snow against mountains and drips like honey dew at dawn. In the later books, magic is indeed an embarrassment, relegated to jokes and a few demonpunk technologies. I enjoy seeing Pratchett write about a genuinely fantasy world. I’m not going to say this is the greatest Discworld book, but it’s absolutely worthy of reading.

That’s the point, I suppose. No, this isn’t a great introduction to Discworld. But don’t read it like that. Read it as a book with a riotous pace and explosive creativity and rampant wit. And there’s another way you should forget about the other books: the ending. Try to remember that the other books hadn’t been written when he got to that ending. There was no guarantee of sequels then; indeed, after the failures of his last two books, the end of The Colour of Magic might well have been the end of Pratchett’s writing career. And it’s a fantastic ending – predictable in one sense, but bold and original in another. No cliffhanger, it’s a perfect ending to a standalone novel about a world we would never be coming back to.

I’m very, very glad that the other Discworld books were written… but The Colour of Magic would have been a better book if it hadn’t had sequels.

So there we are. I’m not going to go too overboard here: let’s be honest, The Colour of Magic is the literary equivalent of those sweets that pop and fizzle in your mouth. It’s not the rich, indulgent ice cream of a book like Hogfather, the sweet but challenging affogato of Men at Arms, the nutritious and intriguing salad of Small Gods, or the bloody steak of Night Watch… there’s virtually no depth to it all, and it’s not going to linger for long in your memory. But come to this looking for a fun and clever book – and not for a Discworld book like those others – and you might just find what you’re looking for here.

(And, by the way – this is a book that deserves its original cover. Those Kirby covers always looked weird on Discworld books to me… but on The Colour of Magic, the style fits perfectly. Although i do quite like this one too: )

the-colour-of-magic-2

Adrenaline: 4/5. Surprisingly effective. Despite not really caring much about the characters, I found the non-stop pace and well-written scenes pretty exciting.

Emotion: 2/5. I cared only very minimally.

Thought: 4/5. No sustained consideration of anything. But constant cleverness, both in ideas and in erudition, as well as clever plotting.

Beauty: 3/5. Some great descriptions, but overall not a lot of attention paid to beauty.

Craft: 3/5. Mixed. Some great lines, some great plotting… some holes, some badly-judged moments, some laziness. Hugely talented, but not entirely polished.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked it. Held back by the parodic structure and the lack of emotional engagement, but overally really enjoyable.

Originality: 3/5. Strangely mixed – at times overwhelmingly creative, but at others sadly derivative, over-reliant on parody and on cliché. Frustrating, because he’s clearly got the creativity to do without those crutches.

Overall: 5/7. Good. I’m surprised, I wasn’t expecting to like this so much. And I can see why people might not like it – it is slight, and it isn’t entirely Discworld as we know it. But I’m a sucker for a fast-paced and imaginative book, and this is certainly that. If I like the first book this much, I’m extremely optimistic – to the point of concern – about the later books in the series…

For comparison, Adam gave this three out of five, and so did Nathan. Which I guess actually lines up with my scale, since on Goodreads I truncate the bottom portion of it (i.e. my 5/7 becomes a 3/5). That said, both of them seem to have been a lot more subdued about it. Oh well.

EDIT SOME TIME LATER: I’m collecting my Discworld Re-Read reviews on this page over here.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

I expected to hate this book even before I began reading it. In my opinion, Pratchett’s best was in the early nineties, and I don’t think there’s been a really good Discworld book (outside the YA series, which I haven’t yet read) since Night Watch in 2002. In particular, I thoroughly disliked the last Watch book, 2005’s Thud!, and the thought of another entirely Vimes-centric novel, with heavy re-use of the Summoning Dark idea, did not fill me with delight.

And yet I bought it in hardback the moment it came out. Alack my indefatigable optimism.

As I started reading Snuff, I was horrified, and not in a good way. I rapidly downgraded my estimation of modern Pratchett from ‘tired, repetitive, unmagical, mostly pointless’ to ‘can no longer write’. Pratchett’s prose has always been the soul of his novels, and within pages it became evident that the soul had been ripped out. Exchanges had become ponderous, stilted, out of character – and dull. It’s not something you want to see from a favourite author, particularly not when the spectre of mental decay looms so unspeakably large in the shadows.

But actually, I really enjoyed this book.

The writing is never at the summit of what Pratchett has been capable of, but the first twenty, thirty, fifty pages are not representative of the quality of prose in the bulk of the book. I don’t know why they’re so bad – let’s say for the sake of charity that they represent the rust being shaken off as the machine gets going after long disuse. Because there is something brought to life here that I haven’t seen in Pratchett’s books for quite some time. I’m not sure what, but it’s there.

For the most part, Snuff doesn’t undo the flaws of recent Discworld books, but instead sidesteps them. It is still tired at heart, and repetitious – much of the levity feels forced and familiar, the central ‘theme’ of the novel (Vimes’ struggle with his own dark side) has been around since at least Men at Arms and possibly Guards! Guards!, and dominated both Night Watch (where it was welcome but overdone) and Thud! (where it felt like a reheated re-serving of Night Watch without the style and panache), while the once-wonderful world of Ankh-Morpork feels increasingly static and quotidian – unmagical. But all that matters rather less this time around, because we have something we haven’t had for quite a while – a jolly good story.

This is the great virtue of Snuff : it’s a book worth writing, not just because (as I feel has been the case with some Pratchett) it expounds a moral point or furthers his worldbuilding plans for the Discworld, but because it’s a jolly good story.

Snuff is a mystery-thriller. Vimes arrives at his wife’s (now his) country mansion for a relaxing holiday, only to find that Something Is Wrong. He’s not sure what, and he’s not sure what he can do about it, but there’s clearly Something Wrong, and he’s determined to Get To the Bottom Of It – as much as his wife will let him, of course, and in between dealing with his son’s newfound obsession with animal poo. The story that plays out is a slow-at-first but constantly accelerating tale of detection as Vimes must get to the bottom of the mystery, unravel the conspiracy that maintains it, and finally Put Things Right, culminating in a thrilling action scene.

In this, at least, the old Pratchett is back. The old Pratchett constructed tightly-plotted, tense, exciting, clever novels, and in this Snuff stands in sharp contrast to recent Discworld entries, which have felt at times as though the plot has been an afterthought to give the characters something to do.

This is also old-school Pratchett in its erudition. Like the great Discworld novels before it, this one will send the hardcore fans scurrying to compile the references, but this time it all feels less accidental, more purposeful. In many ways, this is a book of homage, with Pratchett’s debts to earlier authors proudly paraded – Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and PG Wodehouse are particularly prominent, among others – as well as several quiet nods to his own previous work (most noticeably, the Zoons get a passing reference, 36-odd books after their previous appearance).

Another plus point for the novel is that the world –and the cast – seems far fresher, more lively, more vital, than in some recent books. This is largely possible through the familiar mechanism of putting Vimes in a new location: this time, the strangest and most fantastical location imaginable, the English countryside. Blending the grimy world of Ankh-Morpork with a hint of the unfamiliar, and isolating Vimes to solve the crime (almost) on his own, Snuff’s approach is strongly reminiscent of that of Night Watch, no bad thing at all (if only Pratchett would swallow his own sense of a progressing timeline and give us more prequels in the A-M of twenty or fifty years ago!). The far-less-succesful subplot set in the city re-iterates what a good idea it is to avoid setting anything in Ankh-Morpork again.

And yet – there are also things quite wrong with this book. Again we see an obsessive need to moralise and preach – Pratchett has always been politically and ethically vocal, but in the earlier works it was more subtle, more about how individuals should comport themselves and less about declaiming programmes of political policy. Here, Pratchett re-adresses issues of English class and multiculturalism raised in Unseen Academicals – more subtly and to better effect largely because there’s enough plot here to get in the way of the more shouty elements of the subtext. Which is a good thing, since fifty pages in I was really doubting whether I wanted to read a fantasy book about the plight of the Roma and the Irish Travellers. Don’t get me wrong, I almost always agree with Pratchett’s political views, I just don’t think his books should focus on them. It’s not what he does best. The political agenda is also made uncomfortable by the occasional reminders that Pratchett – for all that his heart is in the right place – has a positively archaic attitude at times when it comes to patronising minorities. His cameo impersonations of Vietnamese are cringe-inducingly racist, and the fat and jolly black woman called ‘Precious’ isn’t much better. Pratchett, of course, is not a racist – quite the contrary – but he’s clearly from a generation in which even non-racist people could acceptably make their eyes go slitty and put on a silly Chinese accent in public, in a way that is quite alien to modern sensitivities.

A bigger problem is that the characterisation is lavished solely on one character: Sir Samuel Vimes. Unfortunately, we already know Sam Vimes inside and out, so it feels like a lot of wasted effort. Meanwhile every background character is a silhouette – at best devoid of depth, and frequently painfully controlled by the dictates of the plot. [I find the continual idiot-meets-Vimes-and-in-moments-they-discover-hidden-potential characterisation frustrating to say the least]. I don’t understand the obsession with Vimes. Yes, he’s a good character – but we’ve seen everything he has to show. He’s limitless in abilities, adamant in will, and unimpeachable in virtue (which makes the continual ‘inner darkness’ theme feel weak – we know he won’t succumb, because he’s Vimes, and Vimes never loses… on which note, I’d like to see, if we must see more of Vimes, more of the decade-as-a-drunk Vimes, and how he got there), and we know him already. The Watch is full of interesting characters. Of course, having an annoying weakness for unconventional romance, I’ve wanted to see more Carrot + Angua since Men at Arms, but it’s not as though there aren’t other options as well (and more can easily be introduced if necessary).

Actually, that’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me before. A big reason Discworld is becoming stale, I think, is that the same characters are being re-used, rather than new characters introduced. At a quick count, in the first 18 novels, there are around-about 14 main characters (as in, that are the central character of the book, one per book (except I counted one each for the two storylines in Reaper Man) who were either introduced for the first time or that moved from supporting to lead status. In the remaining 16 novels, there have been, at a rough count, 4? I suppose you could say 5, if you count both the leads in Unseen Academicals. There’s nothing that demands, per se, that new leading characters be produced (most of my favourite Discworld novels do not introduce new leads) – but I think it’s a good illustration of the tendency away from the novel and exciting toward the repetitious and familiar. We’ve been reading about Vimes since 1989. I love Vimes, and I can see why it’s hard for both author and readers to let go – but he has nothing new to offer. [The only exception is his son – ten years from now, when his son is old enough to be a character in his own right, I think Vimes would become interesting again].  A simple fact: Vimes has been in all of the last seven non-YA novels. 11 of the last 16. Since 1994, we have never had more than two books in a row without Vimes in them. Enough with the Vimes!

It’s also not funny. There were a most a handful of ‘ha!’ moments, and the only brief chuckle was from a footnote that seemed to be a direct authorial insert. He doesn’t remember how to use footnotes, either. He puts them in because it’s expected of him, but they seem superfluous, lacking that manic distract-you-from-the-story quality. At least one of them was an ordinary paragraph just put into a footnote for no reason, with the next paragraph after the asterisk following on grammatically and semantically from the footnote, not the preceding main text. There’s nothing wrong with not being funny, of course, but it feels like one of Pratchett’s greatest weapons has been blunted. If there hadn’t been a great story attached, I’d wonder what the point of the book was, since it isn’t funny and it isn’t that insightful either, though lots of words are devoted to appearing insightful and funny.

The plot, meanwhile, while good, is not entirely satisfying in the end, all being wrapped up far too nicely and off-handedly. The balance of the book is also somewhat thrown off by the fact that the climax occurs fifty pages early than it should do.

These quibbles, I hope, demonstrate that I continue to have serious concerns about the direction of Pratchett’s work. However, even a nostalgic reader like myself must concede that there is an admirable vitality about the work that may not bring it to the level of his greatest books, but at least raises it above the level of his recent novels (again, I haven’t read the Aching books). It also shows concrete directions that Pratchett can take to re-enliven the series: make sure there is a good story, and take us (and the characters) out of our comfort zone.

So, in conclusion: it’s a step up from recent fare, and I’m glad I bought the book at once, and read it instantly. I’ll almost certainly do the same for his next book (unless, perhaps, it’s Raising Taxes). If I seem critical, it is to some extent because I hold Pratchett to a higher standard than I would an author with whose earlier and better work I was not familiar. This book is fun, exciting, enjoyable, and a step in the right direction. It is not, however, devoid of flaws, which remind us why a change in direction is needed.

Adrenaline: 5/5. Not perfect (the end is anticlimactic and the beginning is poor), but I read it within 24 hours, and would have read it in one sitting had obligations not intervened. It’s a slow and steady build-up to an explosive climax, which is the best scene I’ve read in Pratchett since… a long time ago.

Emotion: 2/5. I found it hard to care: about Vimes because I know him so well already and knew he was in no danger (the idea of bringing his son along was a great touch though, and certainly should be explored further if Pterry really must return to the character), and about anyone else, because… there was nobody else to care about.

Thought: 3/5. Meh. Nothing very deep or complicated. But the mystery element kept the synapses active.

Beauty: 3/5. Meh.

Craft: 4/5. Good plotting and construction, and mostly OK prose with some good bits. Let down by some bad bits (particularly the beginning), the lack of punch in the ending, and the fact that it seemed a little cardboardy around the edges.

Endearingness: 3/5. I enjoyed it, it was fun, I would read it again. The lack of novelty and the lack of emotion mean it wouldn’t leap to the top of the pile.

Originality: 2/5. To be fair, it doesn’t set out to be original – it’s almost an homage, both to Discworld itself and to mystery novels.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Not as good as I’d dared to hope, but a lot better than I’d feared. Promising.

 

Reaction: Johnny and the Dead

In theory, Johnny and the Dead is the second novel of a trilogy; it isn’t really. It’s the first novel of a duology. Only You Can Save Mankind may have the same characters as the two subsequent novels, but they feel quite different from it, and have a lot more between them in theme and continuity than either has with the first novel.

Perhap it’s better if you can remember that – as it was, I spent much of the first half of the book with a feeling of vague unease, as though everyone around you suddenly started acting slightly differently. In many ways, this sequel feels like an imposter.

Pratchett appears to have noticed and addressed the problem I raised in my review of the first novel – that the characters are rather older than they claim to be. Unfortunately, this poses something of a shock when the two books are read in succession: all the characters appear to have regressed. For Johnny himself, this change is less dramatic, as he is always a fairly timeless boy, but for for his friends it is severe: they have all suddenly become more stupid, as well as more childish. It’s a particular shame for the character of Wobbler, who it feels has been savaged by authorial pen: from a sensible, confident boy who can break any CD encryption in his spare time, he’s reverted to a cringing, incompetant little egocentric annoyance who only randomly is able to do anything with computers, and who gets jam in the keyboard. He’s nothing but comic relief.

It should also be said that the first novel is in no way a help with the second – the events of the first novel, which one would imagine would be fairly dramatic for a child that age, have been completely forgotten about. As a child who empathised with the first book, I found this almost a betrayal of the characters and concepts; as an adult, I’m more inclined to see it as cynical marketing policy.

How does the book do on its own terms? Not badly, I admit – but not so well as OYCSM. It’s not only the characters who have regressed: this book feels written for a younger audience. There’s considerably less subtlety about it: gone is the delicate duality of real and unreal, dream and waking and delusion, literal and metaphorical that pervades the first book; in its place, a bare fantasy, a fable. Gone is the attention to the question of acceptance – where in the first book Johnny questions his sanity and takes time to re-evaluate his moral position, here he accepts the unbelievable without qualm, and has no doubts about his appropriate reaction to it. The plot is far more straightforward. Although there is still commentary on the contemporary world – indeed, more of it – it is now in a more didactic, childish modality, with far less of the irony and joyous cynicism of the first. The Moral, or Message, is clearer and presented in a less ambiguous manner. This is not only a book that is aimed at younger children, but a book that has less to offer adults – in OYCSM, I found things I missed as a child, but here there was nothing new or unexpected.

The book is not a failure; if anything, it feels more ‘professional’ than the first: Pratchett has thought about his market and gone out and met their demands. Yet this professionality brings with it a certain soullessness: for instance, although the book is rammed full of jocular exchanges, puns, two-sided comments and the like, I never found it actually FUNNY. Humerous – yes, definitely. Unremittingly humerous. But not actually funny. It felt too much as though the jokes were following a script, where before they flowed from his soul (it is in many ways the same change of feeling between the better and the later Discworld books).

I remember the third book with some affection: even as a child, I considered this book the most childish, and hence least attractive, of the three. Consequently, I will go on to finish the trilogy; and it must not be thought that this book is unredeemable. In particular, the ending was very well worked – far more polished and effective than that of the first book, although perhaps lacking also a bit of that book’s spirit.

 


Adrenaline: 1/5. I didn’t really feel dragged along at all – there was never any actual danger in the book, or even any real clarity about the nature of the ‘peril’ and the desired resolution, and consequently no tension. It should be noted that there is more fear and darkness in the ‘real’, ‘contemporary’, non-fantastic elements of Only You Can Save Mankind than there is in the whole of this book.

Emotion: 2/5. The characters were more alien to me due to their more regressed ages. The damage done to Wobbler, perhaps my favourite in the original, hurts, and Bigmac is likewise emasculated – although Yo-less does get more screentime, his character doesn’t really develop, and he remains the most superficial (albeit superficially likeable and funny) of the four.  There were, however, a few emotive punches, or at least slaps, through the book.

Thought: 2/5. As so often with Pratchett, there is definitely a Moral Message. It probably works with children, but to me there was absolutely nothing new or interesting in that Message. Unlike OYCSM, the form of the novel itself is not enough inspire interest.

Beauty: 3/5. Lacks the aesthetic concepts of the original novel – but what cannot be denied is that Pratchett is on top form as a stylist. Some of the exchanges between the boys are truly beautifully composed – flippancy, cynicism, and layers of irony compressed into a poetic art. The ending is… nice. The book loses marks for the relative lack of any sublime touches, and a degree of ugliness I perceive in its plodding professionalism. If anything, the writing, and in particular the dialogue, is actually TOO stylish: without some powerful content to accompany it, it becomes a little cloying, like rich cream deserts, or Roccoco decoration.

Craft: 4/5. Here the book excels its predecessor. Pratchett’s prose is even better, and although the novel is simpler it is also more precisely carved; he never looks to have lost control. It’s a simple book in themes and structure, but few people could have written the same book better.

Endearingness: 2/5. I didn’t really like anything about it. That said, it’s still Pratchett, and bad Pratchett is more appealing than a lot of good writing. This isn’t bad Pratchett – in fact, it’s rather good Pratchett, in terms of fineness – it just feels like uninspired Pratchett, or made-to-order Pratchett. Yes, it’s more under control than OYCSM – but personally, I find I prefer the wilder book.

Originality: 2/5. Much the same to say as for the first novel – only this time, the original idea is rather more familiar and predictable – and less challenging.

Echo: 0/2

 

Overall: 4/7: Not Bad Really. Although I can see how, to a child, this book could appeal, and although I can’t deny I enjoyed reading it, I do feel that this was in most respects a sharp step down from the strange but attractive Only You Can Save Mankind, particular for an adult re-read. That said, I still have faith that the final book in the trilogy can redeem it. This book should best be seen as a clever, humorous, well-written, very short, book for the entertainment and mild education of children – but also as something of a misfire, without the punch that Pratchett can hit you with on his good days.

Reaction: Only You Can Save Mankind

When I recently read Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals and found in myself a sense of tiredness, I had to wonder how much of it was my own tiredness with the author’s style, and how much was genuinely a loss of vitality in his work. Well, for a quick read a few days ago I grabbed his Only You Can Save Mankind – and now I have no doubts at all. The vital, fizzing Pratchett of my memory was not only nostalgia speaking. He really was good.

Only You Can Save Mankind was a stand-alone short novel, later the base of a trilogy (with unrelated plots, but the same characters), currently marketed for younger readers. The youth, however, is mostly in the characters, rather than the book itself, which is almost suitable for all ages – the exception perhaps being some simplicity in plot resolution that seems more fitting in a children’s book. It’s not a well-known book, I don’t think – Discworld has become synonymous with Pratchett, and any additional readership is primarily drawn to the Bromeliad trilogy. The three Johnny Maxwell books are therefore often forgotten – but, in this case at least, that is a terrible shame.

Mankind is set in the here-and-now (or, strictly speaking, the here-and-then of the early nineties), and it honestly feels it – not only is the atmosphere authentic, but it deals with modern concerns (computer gaming, the Gulf War, the postmodern condition, family breakup) in a way which feels natural, not the forced modernity that certain writers adopt. It is the story of Johnny Maxwell, a ‘nerd’ or ‘dweeb’ – a social outcast by virtue of his patheticness and slight weirdness, whose parents are undergoing Trying Times. The chief background characters are his outsider cohorts: Wobbler, the fat computer geek who loves breaking game encryption; Yo-less, the uncool black boy who dreams of being a doctor and who speaks like a lawyer; and Bigmac, the war-fixated kid from the estates who is secretly brilliant at maths but who hangs around with car thieves getting drunk. Appearing later is the slightly older, and entirely un-dweeby, Kirsty, a born competitor who lives in a perfectly tidy room in a perfect mansion, surrounded by trophies in everything from chess to rifle shooting to long jump, and who keeps all her pencils sharp, but who fantasises about being Sigourney Weaver and shooting aliens. These five children, theoretically aged 12 to 13, but who actually feel several years older, are almost the only human figures in the novel.

One day, Johnny is playing a computer game, ‘Only You Can Save Mankind’, in which he plays a fighter pilot shooting down alien attackers – only this time, they stop shooting at him, and try to communicate. In games, dreams and hallucinations through the following days, Johnny is confronted with how grimly real the game is for the aliens, and eventually determines to save the alien fleet from humanity single-handed – and though the humans have a word for the aliens, the aliens themselves use a word best translated as ‘mankind’. Meanwhile, his friends deal with the dichotomy of their self-images and their real place in their world, Johnny’s parents’ marriage collapses, the boys suffer through an almost ritualistic schooling system (Johnny has a standard ‘what it was/is like to be a peasant in X’ essay that he reuses between subjects), and they are constantly bombarded with images of “Stormin’ Norman” and his computer-guided smart missiles, night after night.

This may be a novel for children – it’s very short, its protagonist is a child, it’s clearly didactic, and it’s quite simplistic in execution – but it is not only that. This book has Themes, and Issues, and other things so often missing even from adult popular fiction, let alone books for children. Mankind is a book about reality and simulation – all sorts of simulation, from the strange dreams Johnny has, to the simulated learning at school, to the simulated personalities of his friends, to the games that simulate war, to the war that itself appears more like a simulation. Everywhere, Pratchett says, the line between simulation and reality is becoming thinner – we are entering, if you’ll forgive the jargon, a postmodern world of the ‘hyperreal’. If this is postmodern, Pratchett’s response is taken directly from Nietzsche: maybe even dreams should be taken seriously; perhaps even what we do in games matters. If there is no distinction any more between the real and the unreal, all there is is what we do, and what we do not do, however real or unreal the place in which we do it. Suitably for these themes, Pratchett adopts what would in other places be considered a magic realist approach: he makes no clear claims regarding what part of Johnny’s experiences are real. Indeed, whenever one conclusion seems to be advancing, he adds a complication that makes us think again. Many of the important sequences therefore occur in a perspectivist demi-world where reality and experience are ontologically unclear, and seemingly pliable; and we see how irrelevent such details of reality are to our moral and emotion engagement with the actions of the protagonists. Many of Pratchett’s books dabble in philosophical idea and pretend to elevated themes: Mankind is one of the few where these concerns are legitimately central to the book, and do not appear tacked on.

Alongside the sophistication of theme, Pratchett gives us his inimitable prose – and in this book it’s the real thing, the original that some of his later writing seems to be a simulation or an imitation of. It has wit, it has acuity, it has feeling and fizz. It isn’t the most uncompromisingly hilarious book he’s written, but it is genuinely funny, and employs its humour throughout in a way that keeps the reader on their toes. Where sometimes Pratchett seems to seek to be biting and urbane for the sake of it, here the irony seems to serve a critical, almost Socratic, purpose. It isn’t a relaxing, fluffy humour – it’s a high-volume, on-edge humour that drives the book along.

The book is let down in two areas: the weakness of the antagonists, and the weakness of the ending. Both could be put down to the intentional simplicity of a children’s book, rather than to inability. It is only really the children around Johnny who have flesh and bones – neither the aliens nor the enemy human pilots are really explored. In particular, the final antagonist is neither as frightening nor as sympathetic as they would be in a better book – it rather feels as though somebody has been elected by lot to become Final Villainous Enemy, and been given a moustache to twirl, which is a betrayal of what little characterisation they had been given. In terms of plot, there are really three endings: the resolution of the overall dilemma; the resolution of the outstanding personal issues; and the epilogue (which is not marked as such). These improve in quality: the epilogue  is good (the unexpected final page is brilliant), while the personal climax is rushed but generally satisfactory (the worst element is the slight anticlimatic hiatus between the high point and the epilogue); the resolution of the ostensible plot of the novel, however, is frankly terrible, and is a waste of a good opportunity. I don’t wish to say what happened, but I was left wondering why it had not happened earlier – and there was not even the slightest attempt at an explanation offered.

These problems let down what could otherwise be a great – if simplistic – book, but they do not ruin it. I greatly enjoyed reading it again, and now regret that I don’t have immediate access to my copies of the sequels; I may even have enjoyed it more than when I read it as a child, or at least I enjoyed different elements of it. It’s inspired me to read (or, mostly, re-read) more of Pratchett’s earlier work – certain key Discworld novels, certainly, but also his less famous books, where he seems to write with greater freedom and vitality.


Adrenaline: 3/5. It’s fairly simple in plot, and the ending is weak; consequently, my heart wasn’t racing. However, my interest never sagged for a moment.


Emotion: 3/5. There are some affecting moments, and in general I sympathised greatly with the characters; but I’d be lying if I said I was choked up at any point. There’s always too great a distance to the characters – the simplicity makes it feel less real and immediate. The entire novel is a simulation, and does not hide that.


Thought: 3/5. As I hope I’ve explained above, the novel does address interesting philosophical issues. Unfortunately, although it does so with sophistication, it does not really do so with depth; nor with breadth.


Beauty: 4/5. Feels a bit odd giving this score, since the book is hardly a work of art – but beauty is about more than high art, and Pratchett is an appealing stylist, when he’s actually working at it and not just reciting. Some of the overall concepts are also aesthetically pleasing to me.

Craft: 3/5. Again, Pratchett’s prose can rarely be criticised, and for once he seems completely to have mastered the subplots; unfortunately, the book is let down by the plot itself, which not only ends weakly, but also seems uneven in pacing throughout the novel. If anything, a little too much time is given to the background elements, and not enough to the plot itself.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked this book. Although I can’t identify myself with any individual in Johnny’s group, it does speak to me, as a book written for, and to a degree about, me. I like the audacity of the plot and its blasé approach to reality; I like the perspectivism of it; I like the fact that it feels honest, rather than written to please.

Originality: 3/5. The central conceit is the sort of clever idea that Pratchett is so good at, and that few others would have thought of; the plot direction, however, is a little too sturdily conventional, and the characters, while convincing, are not memorably original.

Overall: 5/7: Good. Yes, I do feel a little silly giving this the same overall score as Dhalgren, which is clearly a work of much greater scope and artistry. On the other hand, I think it is important not to get fixated on ambition: Only You Can Save Mankind may only attempt a fraction of what Dhalgren does, but it does what little it does extremely well. Surely it is right to value execution as much as ambition? In some ways, it reassures me in my scoring system, that two such diametrically different (in style and form) books should be given the same score.

Reaction: Unseen Academicals

I’m not going to spend much time talking about this book. There’s many reasons for that. Partly because it didn’t really strike me as unique enough to provoke any interesting reactions. Partly because to give the book credit I would have to say an awful lot of things about Discworld as a whole, which are better saved for some future occasion when I comment either on the series overall or on some particular highlight of it. Partly, and probably mainly, it’s because you’ve all read the book already, or if you haven’t, you’ve read the others and will read this one eventually. There’s not a lot that really can be said about it that you don’t already know or suspect. The same goes for me, seasoned reader of Discworld: there’s not a lot for me to think about it that would genuinely surprise me at this point.

So, a few quick comments on it. Firstly, it’s really quite good. It’s not up there with the best of Discworld (or how I remember the best of Discworld), but it’s far from the worst, and better than I was expecting. I think it’s certainly the best main-sequence book since Night Watch, and in some respects it’s one of his most sophisticated.

It is not, however, funny. I laughed out loud once – and even that was a clever little joke I was impressed by, not a real moment of hilarity. That’s pretty funny for an ordinary book, but not for Pratchett. I think I’ve heard all his jokes now. I sighed when I read the first page, with its political footnote, because I was sure I’d read exactly the same joke in another book. Before long, he’s abandoned comedy altogether, replacing it with the odd sly reference and a continual tone of flippant Englishness, which is appealing in small doses but can become repetitive.

However, it should not be said that Pratchett is unaware of his flaws. I think that, on some level, he realises his jokes are running stale, and increasingly he tries to compensate with seriousness – it happened in Night Watch, and it happens again here.

Unseen Academicals is, despite its simplicity, really quite complicated. For a start, the man is immensely erudite, and every page is crawling with homages and allusions – I’m certain I got man that most people would not get, and I suspect there are others, too. These allusion spans a gamut from one-line throwaways to entire plots, and he uses them to cunningly build up and subvert expectations. It’s not a new technique (going back, I think, to Wyrd Sisters and its shadowing of Shakespeare), but it’s worked out with greater complexity and fluidity here – rather than simply tracing one paradigm, competing myths are interwoven in a really quite impressive way. Unfortunately, this means that perhaps too much of what is foreshadowed never ends up happening – which may be intentional, but left me with a degree of a sense of irresolution.

The ‘issues’ the book deals with are twofold – one personal, one social. On a personal level, the message of the book was engaging, but not stunning – more complex and nuanced than an ordinary feel-good novel, but still not really saying anything too challenging. It was certainly better handled than some previous attempts – there was far more sophistication here than in the often ham-fisted personal-ethics preaching of Night Watch, for example.

UA attempts to surpass Night Watch in social message as well – but I feel it fails badly. The attempt to deal with the modern British lower classes feels forced, and only draws attention to how resolutely bourgeois the rest of the series has been. In any case, it fades almost instantly. The opening sections let us know that we’ll be dealing with, not to beat around the bush, chavs – they speak in the patois of chavdom (in which Pratchett fails to be convincing, even to my own sheltered ear), the women are brain-dead and read celebrity magazines, while the men are lascivious, drunken, and entirely indolent, avoiding all possible work. While it’s admirable that he’s chosen to update his series, it’s almost painful listening to the bourgeois writer attempting to imitate ‘popular’ culture, and it’s impossible not to dislike the characters. Naturally enough, Pratchett intends to challenge our preconceptions and make us end up liking them – but he cheats. By halfway through the book, they’ve dropped their ‘innits’, the heroine is showing unexpected perspicacity and a fine judgement of character, and even unknown talents and hard work, and the hero has turned out to be a rogue with a heart of gold, even if he has some rough edges. These aren’t the modern working class at all – these are lovable scallywags and rapscallions. It simply brings home how close much of the series is to a bad period adaptation – all the characters are either upper class and educated, or else charming cheeky scamps out of the cast of My Fair Lady. This works fine when he’s only talking about the former, but when, as here, he tries to talk about the common man it simply does not ring true. He is unable to make the people he is talking about sympathetic because he refuses to deal with any of their dark side. Nobody is genuinely lazy or hate-filled or stupid or dangerously short-tempered. The solitary villain seems motivated entirely out of slavering Evil, not out of anything recognisable from real social problems.

Pratchett does do better with the other half of the book: the story of the upper class. I’m very grateful for the focus on the University, which has not had so much attention since… well, maybe never, but certainly not since The Last Continent. The style of the series had moved on, and I had some reservations about the ability of the Wizards to fit into the grittier, more realistic world, but it is managed very well, and a greater sense of continuity is given to the institution (the events of Sourcery are finally acknowledged). Largely this is done by focusing the attention on only two characters, Ridcully and Stibbons, the former in particular benefiting greatly, while the minor characters fade into anonymity. Similarly, there is far more screentime than usual for Vetinari, who often is employed as a pop-up-from-behind-the-desk-to-explain dues ex machine, but who here is treated more sympathetically, and more realistically. I think a part of this is that, for once, we see Vetinari not as towering over others, but in the company of equals – Ridcully and Lady Margolotta – which makes him seem more a man and less a plot device.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of praise, and I’ve got three criticisms left over. Firstly, not only the jokes but the whole of the writing style now seems flat – has Pratchett grown stale, or have I just read to much of it? He tried to inject novelty in places (and I noticed quite a few surprisingly unusual sentences in the book, where earlier we would have expected a simple familiar idiom), but often this failed. In particular, the character of Andy Shank felt pieced together from elsewhere, not only in personality, but in every sentence that took place when he was around. It felt lazy. More generally, Pratchett is not good at innovating characters, many of whom feel like old friends when they should not be – this is not as bad as in the recent Moist books (as I find Moist repellently reconstituted), but it did stop me from empathising with some characters as much as I should have liked. Glenda, for instance, is perfectly likeable, but she also feels a bit like half a dozen other characters that have been put in a blender to find the average (Agnes and Susan probably being the two largest components, with a dose of Magrat, among others).

Surprisingly, the opposite happened with old characters. The book was full not only with in-jokes but also with cameos of past characters, which in general I felt worked poorly. Sometimes this was not surprising – Dibbler hasn’t been engaging since, well, a very long time ago – but I was shocked by Vimes, who is a pale shadow of himself, even compared to his appearances in Monstrous Regiment and The Truth. Most problematic, however, was poor Rincewind, whose role was too large for a cameo and too small for a real character, and who never felt any of convincing, interesting, or actually the same person that we knew in the past.

Finally – whether because of these complaints of independently – I never really felt engaged emotionally. Oh, the conclusion is tense, and I felt a little for some characters at the end, but there was none of the real pathos that made Night Watch. This, I think, is the biggest reason I feel Pratchett is increasingly tired – the rich emotional engagement with characters that I felt in many earlier books just isn’t there. Meanwhile, the plots feel more contrived than they have done since the early days – although it should be said that the ending of this one isn’t that bad. It is, admittedly, not good, in its execution, but it isn’t the disaster that some of his recent books have turned into (most notably Monstrous Regiment, but also Going Postal, Thud, and Making Money, in my opinion).

That said, there are some promising signs. As I say, Pratchett is compensating for some of his weaknesses with other developments, and if future novels (however many they may be, and let us all pretend that there is no end of them in sight) retain the confidence and ambition of UA, the series will go on to new heights. If the book displays many of the faults that have emerged in the series (and it is to the credit of what is surely one of the greatest series of all time that anything at all is left of it after a staggering nearly forty volumes), it also shows us that those faults need not necessarily be fatal. Pratchett can do better than this book – and the fact that I can say that with confidence at this stage is, in a way, a great compliment to the promise the book shows. Before this, I admit I was beginning to suspect he could no longer do better.

—–

This was really just for me to voice some thoughts about how the series is going… but while I’m here I may as well give some scores for the book:

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. To be honest, it’s mostly fairly slow and plodding. That said, by the time we reach the climactic sporting sequence, I was hooked. That section of tension and excitement lifts the book as a whole from a 2 to a 3.

Emotion: 2/5. Never really felt too great an investment in any of the characters; no great pathos. That said, I did at least feel I ought to be feeling something for them.

Thought: 3/5. It deals with Issues and Themes. It does so more subtly than you might expect. It doesn’t do so in much depth, or in a particularly challenging way.

Beauty: 3/5. Much of the prose is worn and cliché. There are, however, a lot of good lines in there, and one or two well-constructed scenes and clever mirrorings. The highlights, for me, were the psychiatry scene (which briefly rose to the level of ‘genuinely a little chilling’), and Vetinari’s moment of drunken honesty, at which I’m sure many fans will have cheered.

Craft: 3/5. In some ways, I’d have liked to have given it a 4 – the overall plot, the foreshadowings and allusions, were all very skilled. However, it’s let down by a certain lack of fizz on the sentence-by-sentence level.

Endearingness: 3/5. If anyone criticises it, I’ll stand up to its defence. I enjoyed reading it, and did so swiftly. That said, the lack of emotional engagement damaged its score here – if I had to curl up to a Discworld book, it wouldn’t be this one.

Originality: 3/5. I can honestly say that as I was reading through it, I didn’t expect it to turn out as it did. Well, some parts, clearly, but not all of it. In some ways this damaged its ability to appeal, but at the same time it gains marks for novelty. Yes, a lot of it is typical Discworld, but you can still see that he’s out there trying to do new things. Anyway, it seems unfair to judge a man by the standards of his other books – Discworld is still charmingly unusual in many ways, even if some of those ways remain constant between books. At the same time – nothing really ‘wow’ about it.

 

Overall: 4/7: Not bad really. Wouldn’t recommend it to somebody starting Discworld. Would recommend to somebody who had read up to Night Watch and was doubting whether there would be anything new in the later books. Unreservedly glad I read it; not earth-shaking in any way.