Monday, 6 June 2011

Discworld Critique, part I

Today I have endeavored to take on the task of writing reviews of the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Having been one of Britain’s foremost top-selling authors for decades Pratchett has written more than 30 novels of his famous series of books which for want of a better word must be described as satiric fantasy literature. I am proud owner of 23 of them and have read many others rented from libraries, so I think I am qualified in judging them. In the few cases where I don’t know a book well enough to warrant an opinion I clearly say so.

In addition to a description I rate the books by giving them a number of stars between one and five. Please note that this is a relative judgment: Five stars denote the best Pratchett ever achieved, and one star is the worst blunder he ever did. Therefore seminal works of literature like Nabokov’s Pale Fire would have to have at least six stars, while some of today’s dime-a-dozen erotic vampire novels would be somewhere around minus two stars.

As mentioned there are a lot of Discworld novels, so I will split the work into three parts, of which this is the first. The books are ordered by date of publishing. I will skip the Discworld novels for younger readers (the Tiffany Aching novels) because I have not read them. Well then, let’s begin!

The Colour of Magic

This is the first Discworld novel, and it is a very rough draft of that universe.

To begin with, later Discworld would became a handy vehicle for Pratchett to present a lot of intricate philosophical and ethical contemplations. In books that were lighter there would still be a lot of satire of contemporary and historical culture. At worst there would be spoofs. There would be interesting and detailed characters to be hammered out across several novels. There would be an internally consistent world with consistent culture and technology, which enabled people after some years to even try to draw up maps of the Discworld (which unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth was not laid out like that from the start).

The Colour of Magic has nothing of that. First of all it is divided into four seperate short stories, which makes the book resemble four consecutive episodes of a TV series. This made it impossible to develop characters much but Pratchett didn’t even try. In fact all the characters are one-dimensional cardboard caricatures. The book is basically a clone of any unambitioned “swords and sorcery” novel around. It has wizards, it has Conanesque heroes with swords, it has exotic and dangerous princesses and yes, it has dragons.

Sure, the main characters were meant as comical figures: Rincewind, the failed wizard, who cannot do the most simple magic and Twoflower, who suddenly arrives at the scene as the Disworld’s first tourist, complete with clashing Hawaiian shirts, camera, and unbelievably naïve manner. But the secondary characters are more or less straight stock fantasy characters. Most of the regions, countries and concepts are so outlandish and unwieldy they never reappeared in later books, because they were only fit for a swift adventure of the heroes and would not bear out any more serious plot.

There is a curious fact The Colour of Magic shares with one of the earlier ones of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, From Russia, with Love: The central character seems to die on the last page, in Pratchett’s case by dropping over the edge of the Discworld into empty space.

One last note: Until his death a few years ago, all Discworld cover illustrations were done by a man named Josh Kirby. I have to admit I loathe his illustrations. He did everything wrong you could do wrong. He drew beautiful people ugly, he drew dwarves without beards. He drew Rincewind as a very old man, when he actually was rather young. He was clueless about how to draw hands: In his cover designs all people have taloned claws that look like nasty cases of arthritis. Like here: (Cover for Equal Rites) But with The Colour of Magic he did a blunder worse than usual: At one time the character Twoflower was described in the text as having four eyes. This was a quip about him wearing eyeglasses. Kirby took it literally. See for yourself, if you don’t believe me.

The Light Fantastic

After the first Discworld novel despite its shortcomings seemed to have success Pratchett decided to write another one, so the first task was to bring his heroes back to life, which was accomplished in a kind of deus ex machina way by application of magic.

The Light Fantastic is a bit similar to the previous novel, but it is a definite improvement in that it has a contiguous narrative, and a real villain. (A wizard called Trymon, who is described as fair-haired in one instance and as dark-haired in another, which made me shake my head a bit; I thought authors visualize their characters in a consistent way.) Also, unlike the barbarian hero Hrun in the previous novel, who was very stupid but otherwise true to the stereotype, in this book satire begins to slowly emerge with the creation of the barbarian hero Cohen, who differs from the usual in being old (80 or thereabouts and still living by the sword successfully despite having a bad back and no teeth).

The plot is ambitious in that it concerns the impending destruction of the whole of the Discworld, but the book is not as epic as this may sound. In the end Rincewind is seemingly cured from his absolute magical ineptness, but later novels prove that idea wrong. The somewhat annoying character Twoflower would drop from the series after this except for a brief reappearance in a very different context in Interesting Times.

There is one important little scene, where the librarian of the wizard university is magically turned into an orangutan (in this book Pratchett spelled it orang outang with a “g” at the end, which also annoyed me a bit, but later he learned better). Anyway, the ape librarian would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable and ingenious characters of the whole series, but his creation is only mentioned in passing in this book.

Once again cover illustrator Josh Kirby blundered badly in a way that is incredibly ironic. There appears in the story a swordswoman named Herrena, about whose appearance Pratchett has the following to say (and I can’t help but quote the whole passage):

Now, there is a tendency at a point like this to look over one’s shoulder at the cover artist and start going on at length about leather, thighboots and naked blades.

Words like ‘full’, ‘round’ and even ‘pert’ creep into the narrative, until the writer has to go and have a cold shower and a lie down.

Which is all rather silly, because any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn’t about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialized buyer.

Oh well, all right. The point that must be made is that although Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan would look quite stunning after a good bath, a heavy-duty manicure, and the pick of the leather racks in Woo Hun Ling’s Oriental Exotica and Martial Aids on Heroes Street, she was currently quite sensibly dressed in light chain mail, soft boots, and a short sword.

And this is what Kirby did with her:

Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan

(Again, all that can be wrong about this cover is wrong. Herrena as mentioned, Twoflower with four actual eyes, Rincewind with arthritic hands and way too old and looking evil, dwarf without beard and the same goes for Cohen the Barbarian who is explicitely described as having a beard down to his waist.)

Equal Rites

Equal Rites marked the first departure from the well-tried main character Rincewind. The reason must have been that Rincewind did not allow much (if any) character development. I believe this book is not held in very high esteem with most Discworld fans, but I have to admit that I have a certain fondness for it. Pratchett still had not quite found his characteristic style and Discworld itself was still a bit of a raw draft. The book deals with the adventures of young Eskarina “Esk” Smith, who strives to become the first female wizard (not witch) of the Discworld. It also introduces the country of Lancre and one of Pratchett’s most important characters, the witch Granny Weatherwax. Later she would evolve into a truly remarkable and complex character, being among the main protagonists of at least five Discworld novels, but here she almost unrecognizable as her later self. For all there is she might as well have been some other person entirely.

The book is written in a gentle and somewhat cute yet serious tone, which may be why a sentimental guy like me took a liking to it. In fact some years ago I painted a picture of Esk. Here it is.

Mort ( = ?)

I have to admit I only read this book once and that was a long time ago, and do not remember it too clearly. Therefore it would not be justified to rate it here. I can only say that as far as I recall it was not bad, though still being an early work, of course.

It is the story of how Death himself decides to take on an apprentice, Mortimer (called “Mort” in short), who promptly does the unthinkable and rescues a princess who had been supposed to die when he is sent to fetch her soul. This splits the Discworld into two zones in which different realities prevail, one where she died and one where she survived. Magical complications ensue. In the end Mort gets a girlfriend and later will marry, but it is not said princess.


Another Rincewind yarn which from all the series most resembles the first two novels, making it a bit of a step backward in the development of the series. Basically of the “journey through fantasy realms including swords and dragons” variant, including characters that turned out to be not as funny as the author had hoped. The villain is a so-called “sourcerer” who, for being a second-generation wizard (despite being still a child) is almost almighty. The magic wars occuring in this novel destroyed so much of the Discworld that I wonder if the entire novel should be considered non-canon for the sake of continuity. Certainly the concept of “sourcerers” was never again brought up by Pratchett. This is also the last novel to show the university of wizards before introducing the famous (and very funny) faculty members of the following novels. This book can easily be skipped when catching up with the series.

Wyrd Sisters

The first true Lancre/witches novel and in some ways the first true mature Discworld novel as well. While Pratchett certainly is not above spoofing (sometimes annoyingly so), here he takes it from the best: Shakespeare. The plot of the novel has (admittedly) quite a bit of Mcbeth in it. It is not a deep philosophical book as some of the others, but it is certainly one of the best comedies the man ever wrote. It features a brilliantly written villain who is constantly agonized by his ambitious wife, the witches, the thick-headed people of Lancre and his own paranoid delusions. In the end the country gets a new king (I won’t tell you, who) and, probably, a queen as well. This book is a very recommended read, and you might need it, because it introduces characters and plot elements that continue in the other witch novels.


Over the years Pratchett wrote a number of novels whose shtick is that he describes a Discworld country that is very similar to some real-world region, and choses a plot that is in accordance with what he perceived as the spirit of the place. This is the first one like that and it is not hard to guess that the country in question is very much like Egypt. Some of those novels are very good (like Small Gods), some are rather bad (like The Last Continent). Pyramids is so-so.

It describes a small Egypt-like country where nothing has changed for thousands of years. Pteppic, the country’s heir to the throne is busy passing the final exams in Ankh-Morporks school of assasins (the best part of the novel, a brilliant parody of British driver’s license exams), when the news reach him his father has died, and he has to return to take up the rule. One main point of the story is the building of a pyramid that is so large its magical powers warp space and time.

The chief theme is the struggle of Pteppic against the rigid old-fashionedness of the country, and the rigid bounds imposed on himself as king, which actually leads to him fleeing the country. Later the effects of the pyramid cause the plethora of gods of the country to manifest all at the same time. The book’s antagonist is an old bald-headed priest, who the reader does not perceive as completely evil. In fact he is driven by pathological fear of any change which leads to him being entangled in a state of affairs which he himself created and maintained … for a long time. I don’t want to become more specific because it would be a spoiler, but the final revelation is rather beautiful.

Guards! Guards!

The first watch novel, which introduces the main characters and marks the beginning of the career of commander Sam Vimes (he gets promoted at the end of most watch novels). It also introduces Carrot Ironfoundersson, a hero-type human raised by dwarves who joins the then-sordid night watch because he has naïve ideas about glory and justice. Carrot reminds me a bit of Superman. He is young, good-looking, muscular, clean in mind and body, and incredibly charismatic. Prime boyscout leader or king material. Thankfully Pratchett manages, in later novels, to put a number of very subtle, devious twists on this character so, unlike Superman, he always stays interesting.

Sam Vimes on the other hand starts out in this book as a drunk copper lying in the gutter most of the time, because he despairs over the state of the city. In later books he arguably becomes Pratchett’s best and certainly his most favored character, a cynical, disillusioned, tough and capable police chief, who despises the whole world and yet always does the right thing. I go so far as to view him as Pratchett’s alter ego most of the time. He is definitely used to convey Pratchett’s own attitudes to the reader.

But all of that comes later. In Guards! Guards! Vimes does not show too much of these traits yet. The plot is about a plot (sorry!) to take over Ankh-Morpork by an incredibly lame and silly secret society with the help of a magically summoned dragon and a fake king.

It formally lays to rest the fantasy elements of Pratchett’s first novels: When the dragon is terrorizing the city, a bunch of barbarian heroes arrive, but when they realize that the city’s ruler violates the usual conventions by not even having a daughter to promise to the hero who vanquishes the dragon, they shrug and leave. In none of the later novels a barbarian hero in the usual sense will ever appear again. The age has passed for the Discworld. Likewise the wizards will cease to be an important element of the plots as wizards. They will continue to matter as unique characters but they will do less and less magic. Nothing will be resolved by magic any more.

Faust Eric

This is easily the worst novel of the Discworld series and entirely forgettable. The end of Sourcery left Rincewind trapped in the hellish Dungeon Dimensions and I suspect this novel was written mainly as a ploy to get him back to the Discworld. It does that but little more. It is the shortest Discworld novel as well. I only read this book once and intend to keep it that way.

Moving Pictures

This is the first novel of what I term Pratchett’s middle period. In that period he wrote many novels that were light-hearted comedies with little impact on character and plot development, but written in mature Discworld style (footnotes and all). They are also typically full of spoofs. This one is about how the Dicworld is seized by the film making virus and produces an equivalent of Hollywood. Unfortunately movie spoofs are the cheapest kind of spoofs there are (and you cannot feel smug to recognize them because everybody does), but to my relief he at least had the decency to stick to older movies like Gone With the Wind.

But it’s still a rather enjoyable book, not least because it introduces the magical University’s faculty, especially the hilarious Archchancellor Ridcully. As has been remarked by others, this man just begs to be played by Brian Blessed in possible movie adaptions.

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