Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Discworld Critique, part II

This is the second part of my reviews of the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. The first part can be found here. Please note that the length of the seperate reviews does give no clue as to the quality of the books (as judged by me), but that this is the job of the stars next to the titles (varying between one and five).

In part one of this work I took the opportunity to rant a bit about the abominable cover illustration of the Discworld books by Josh Kirby. This time I will pick a different target for my wrath, to wit, the German translations of the books, which are all done by the same hapless guy. As a rule I don’t read translations unless I have to, but I had the chance to leaf through some of the Discworld translations at bookstores and it was not a pretty sight. I have written before on the deplorable results of German translations of humorous material (movies in that case). Pratchett’s translator exhibits all the usual faults and bad habits: Changing the titles, for example, in a desperate bid to make it more funny. (He achieves just the converse.) But in addition to that he introduces a lot (and I mean a lot) of mistranslations which force me to conclude that this person simply does not understand a lot of the books. In some cases he even managed to translate a sentence to mean exactly the opposite from what it means in the original. If you have read a couple of Discworld novels you will know what I mean when I say that here is a true B.S. Johnson at work here. I always imagine the man as a drooling hunchback character who goes “hurrrrrrrhhhhhh” joyfully while he works.

To give you an example, the book Wyrd Sisters contains quite a bit of references to Mcbeth. Granted. But this translator obviously thought it didn’t jump out at the reader enough, so he translated the title as McBest. Literally like that. A completely failed pointless English (!) pun as a German title, which makes the book look like a commercial for McDonald’s. Never before in my life have I so strongly felt the need to use an expression that is currently all the rage with younger people. So wtf? WTF? W–T–F?

Now that I have gotten that out of my system let’s begin!

Reaper Man

The main plot of this novel sounds weird enough. It seems there is a group of beings called the Auditors of Reality, who one day decide that Death (the guy with the scythe) has development too much of a personality and exile him. Which means he he is turned into a mortal being (though he retains some of his properties, like being made of nothing but bones, and nobody noticing this), and sent to a rural area of the Discworld.

Most of the book is about Death trying to adapt to the life of a peasant while working for a widow. This includes mastering the arts of drinking alcohol, white lies, old-fashioned inhibited morals, rustic self-deprecation and stinginess. I think it was meant to be a lesson about the human condition, and accordingly the whole book was written in a rather sentimental, even sad way. Deliberately so. I have to admit this put me off a bit, and I haven’t reread the book for quite some time.

Despite the fact that it is one of the shortest Discworld novels, the plot described above was able to only fill half of the book, so a secondary plot was thrown in. It is the classical A-plot/B-plot structure that occurs so often in TV series like Star Trek TNG in similar situations. Usually one of the plots is serious while the other one is comic relief. It is just like that here.

The comic relief plot is about how, as Death is absent, nothing and nobody can really die on the Discworld any more. Therefore when the wizard Windle Poons (who appeared in Moving Pictures, old as stone, deaf and in a cast-iron wheelchair) dies, he is turned into a zombie. Together with a band of other undead misfits, they battle the strangest enemy the Discworld has ever seen. It is a predatory lifeform (we have to assume) which spawns as snow globes and later morph into shopping carts which try to cart people to their hive, which is a living shopping mall. They are stopped before we find out what would happen to people in there.

The strangest thing about this strange B-plot is that it appeared from absolutely nowhere and had nothing at all to do with the main plot. While the main plot sang the blues, this one was pure slapstick.

Witches Abroad ( = ?)

Just as with Mort, I only read this book a single time and cannot really remember it too well, so once again I will not warrant a judgement about it. In fact, whereas I read Mort a long time ago, so it’s not surprising that I have forgotten most of it, it cannot have been more than a single year since I had Witches Abroad in my hands, and yet it managed to vanish from my recollection to such an extent that not even plot summaries from the internet managed to refresh my memory enough to write this review. While that is no proof of anything, I still suspect that it bodes ill for the quality of the book.

All I want to say is that the book is, as the title suggests, a Lancre witches novel featuring the usual cast of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, and that its plot is a mix of several classical fairy tales with Pratchettian twists to them. As I only read this book after most of the following ones I can tell you that it is not essential for the witches’ character development.

Small Gods

This novel is very much different from the other middle period Pratchetts. It is in fact a rather serious book. The little comedy it has is there just because it was expected of a Discworld novel, but it might just as well have been written straight. It tells the tale of Brutha, novice in the monastery-nation of Omnia who, despite appearances, is the last person left who really believes in the great god Om (who is actually what on the Discworld is termed a small god). As might be expected the book is filled with philosophical ideas and musings which (unlike some of the other books) never sounds like Pratchett himself preaching to the audience. It has some things to say which are deeply critical of religion but ends on a conciliatory note, which prompted readers to alternately describe it as a “whacking god good and proper” book or as a very Christian novel. I think it’s just a Pratchett book and basically stands where he does.

It is exceptional in that it is set 100 years before the other Discworld books, making its content being sometimes mentioned as historic events in later novels. One thing that annoyed me about the book though was that in a bid to portrait Hellenistic culture as well-nigh perfect in contrast to the repressive monastery-like Omnia Pratchett had a slave of said Greece-like country lament that he only got three meals a day, only one free day per week and only two weeks’ holidays per year. Talking about blunt instrument rhetorics, huh?

Despite the fact that this book’s title would have been a perfect candidate for a literal translation, the translator chose to call it Einfach göttlich, which is Simply Divine. Sounds sleazy, but I will reserve my anger. There’s worse to come on that score.

Below is my very own rendition of Brutha, made some years ago. In the drawing he looks older than he was in the novel, but it was the best I could do. I’m sorry.


Lords and Ladies

This is the third witches novel (or the fourth, if you count Equal Rites) and the first one that has a darker tone. This fits Granny Weatherwax very well, who is a dark, dangerous character (though not an evil one). She became (I think) one of Pratchett’s top two characters in terms of development and frequency of usage, the other one being Sam Vimes. In fact they have some superficial similarities, but Granny is much darker, and that’s despite the fact that Vimes is cynical and disillusioned. Granny Weatherwax is a person who is immensely powerful, and cannot bear not to be in control in any situation. But unbeknownst to the other characters she is constantly battling against her dark impulses, which she manages by exercising a good deal of righteousness, strong principles, and avoiding any trace of religious belief, because she expects it would turn her into a violent crusader, who would unleash wars sweeping across the lands. The other witches are interesting, but much lighter characters, who I personally usually enjoy more.

The book is about elves managing to enter the Discworld through some dimensional portal and let me tell you, in Pratchett’s world elves are evil. It seems Pratchett wanted to take Tolkien’s famous elves (not “elfs”!) and turn them into something else entirely. While I prefer Tolkien’s elves, I can certainly attest that Pratchett was successful in this. His elves are evil, graceful, beautiful, histrionic sociopaths who magically enchant people and then kill them for the fun of it. Pratchett several times compared them to cats, and as he owns about 10 cats, I expect he knew what he was talking about.

It seems the German translator was seriously at his wit’s end with this book’s title, because he did not translate it at all, so it became Lords und Ladies.

Men at Arms

This is the second novel featuring the Ankh-Morpork city watch (formerly night watch), and it faithfully follows where Guards! Guards! lead. This includes new recrutes to the watch, some of which are interesting characters who recurred in later books. Another unique recurring character who originates here is Leonard of Quirm, who is like Leonardo da Vinci, only more so.

As this is a watch novel, it features a crime story, which gets lost a bit in the midst of decent comedy and character development though. In fact, I was never sure I quite knew what the plain of the villain was. In details, I mean. It involved a unique weapon invented by said Leonard of Quirm, which would be a very perfect McGuffin, except it is used a lot to kill people. Or rather, it uses people to kill people. It is a bit mystical.

So to sum things up, Men at Arms provides nothing substantially new since Guards! Guards!, but it has good characters, good comedy and is fun to read. Quite typical for Pratchett’s middle period.

The German translation of the title was a gem of true bad taste and stupidity. Once again the translator thought a book title without a gag in it was just unthinkable, so he came up with Helle Barden. It is a play on the word “Hellebarden” (halberds), which at least has something to do with city guards. But by splitting the word it became what in English would be Bright Bards. Bards as in people who play lyres and sing. I think I am right in saying that usually puns are expected to make at least a bit of sense. Needless to say there are no bards at all in this movie.

Soul Music

Another typical example of middle period Pratchett. Basically insert “Rock’n’Roll” for “Hollywood” in Moving Pictures and you get this book. Lots of spoofs as well, as might be expected. Nice and easy read, but not very much more than that. Has a gratuitious subplot about Death vanishing (again) which makes the author introduce Death’s granddaughter (by way of his adopted daughter Ysabel and former apprentice Mort, see above.), who will turn out eventually as a rather interesting recurring character (though certainly not one of the best).

I rate this book with three stars because like most middle period novels it’s not bad, though nothing special either. These books are all more or less average.

The book’s title did not make too much sense to me: It’s about rock music and related things; in the book it is called Music With Rocks In. It’s not about the kind of music we call “soul music”. I have to assume it was meant as pun, meaning that the music in the book has a kind of soul in it (it does). But as bad as this pun was (for Pratchett’s standards), the one the German translator used was worse. He titled the book Rollende Steine, which means Rolling Stones. Oh, the fun we had!

Interesting Times

This would be another classic three star middle period book, if it didn’t have a couple of truly good ideas which make it stick out a bit. In fact there are some people out there who rate Interesting Times among the very best of all Discworld. I do not, but I still like it. It revisits Rincewind, Cohen the Barbarian (Ghengiz Cohen he is called from now on) and Twoflower, from the first two books who now turns out to live in a continent that resembles real-world China and is incredibly repressed. I smell a big fat continuity problem here, as a Twoflower from such a land could not possibly act like the Twoflower in the earlier novels, but be that as it may.

Anyway Cohen is out to conquer the entire continent with his “Silver Horde” of seven barbarian warriors each older than 75 years. Of course he succeeds. Rincewind spends the time running away from many things, which is what he always does. The book contains a rather generous helping of rather bad puns, but there’s just no accounting for taste. You might like them more than I do.


This book is more or less one big spoof of The Phantom of the Opera, and of opera houses in general. Despite the fact that it is set in Ankh-Morpork it features the Lancre witches, and for Granny Weatherwax it is pretty light-hearted.

Unlike Wyrd Sisters which plays Mcbeth straight this one puts a lot of alternate Pratchettian twists to the story. I liked it, but then again I like the Phantom (the songs and the actors, at any rate), so it need not be too significant. The book has a lot of very good, witty dialogue and interesting, enjoyable characters.

Feet of Clay

This is the third Discworld novel revolving around the City Watch and its commander, Sam Vimes. It is also the third Watch novel where the villain’s plan is to overthrow the city’s ruler, Lord Vetinari and return the city to the rule of a king. Some king. The first time they used a dragon with the intention of having it be defeated by some random strapping boy who could wave and grin and otherwise be controlled by the villains who summoned the dragon. This stooge king was so unimportant he was not even given a name, never seen close up and soon burned to ash by the dragon.

The second time it happened (in Men at Arms) they planned to simply shoot Lord Vetinari and put some undisclosed scion of the royal line onto the throne. In fact, that particular aspect of the story quickly dropped from the table along with its carrier, young Edward d’Eath, and only was alluded to again at the very end. As it came out, the man destined to be king was probably Carrot Ironfoundersson, who declined to fill the role and kept his lineage secret.

The third time around the villains tried to do away with Vetinari by arsenic poisoning in order to replace him with Corporal Nobby Nobbs, the disgrace of the Watch, on whom they bestowed a fake lineage to present him as a duke. As with the other plans, it did not even come close to working. I don’t know whether it was meant as a running gag about all villains having similar plans in the Watch novels, or whether it was just laziness on Pratchett’s part. Anyway, the Nobbs thing was only a side dish. Basically the novel is a classical whodunnit, where the mystery is how Lord Vetinari was being poisoned (of course it was not anything as simple as food or drink). As is the custom in such situations the novel is also filled to the brink with red herrings.

This book introduces a new Discworld species that came to stay, the Golems. They form a second story arc that runs parallel to the attempted murder mystery and only tangentially touches it, though the two plots seem considerably less out of joint than in Reaper Man. I think the series of watch novels would have run out of steam after this had Pratchett not tried something new with the next one, Jingo.

The title is of course a famous quotation from the Bible’s book of Daniel. Once again it would have been perfect for a more-or-less literal translation into German, but once again it was not to be. Believe it or not, it became Hohle Köpfe (Hollow Heads). Well, at least one hollow head was involved in the process, it seems.


I do not quite know how to place this book. Basically it is a Discworld Christmas story. As usual Pratchett tries to subvert as much as he can, by having Santa (called the Hogfather on the Discworld) disappear and Death himself filling in for him, because Christmas (Hogswatchnight) needs to happen. It has a lot of jokes, some of which work and some which don’t. It features Death’s granddaughter once again, as well as the wizards and even the Watch. Pratchett does his best to not portray the Hogfather like Santa Claus, the Coca Cola version of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, but as a warped remnant of a dark, pagan midwinter ritual figure involving human sacrifice. It makes a rather forced impression; the beard did not quite fit, so to speak. All in all this makes the book a somewhat heterogenous mixture of truly funny, Christmas-like cutesy and just weird moments.

This book was made into a movie that isn’t bad, except for the fact I found it strange that Death does not move his mouth when he speaks.


In this novel featuring the city watch and Sam Vimes once again, Pratchett tried to take on some of the more current social problems, namely racism, jingoism, warmongering and migration. It deals with a small island called Leshp that one day rises from the sea (there’s some moments of allusion to Lovecraft’s sunken, rising island-city of R’lyeh, where dead Cthulhu lies dreaming, but in fact the island is perfectly normal, even useless), and is claimed by both Ankh-Morpork and the empire of Klatch, which in the course of the book leads to war.

Klatch is clearly modeled after the middle east, in particular the Ottoman empire, being an assembly of more or less rebellious provinces which are mainly Arabic and North African in style. There’s also a great desert with denizens called the D’regs (like the Tuareg, only they attack everything in sight as a lifestyle). Interestingly however, there is nothing resembling Islam. It seems Pratchett, like so many other writers, was scared to touch that particular issue. (It was written before the caricatures controversy of Jyllands-Posten, but well after Salman Rushdie.) Or there might be a more complicated reason. Let me try to carve it out:

Political corectness is among other things the notion that one ethnic group is not allowed to blame another in any way, even if there is friction; or to put it bluntly, the problem is always us, never them. This is of course in a way racism as well and certainly just as wrong as putting all the blame on “them”. The truth as always lies somewhere between the two extremes, and this is obviously the way a shrewd author would like to portray things. It is dangerous, though. As we all know the prevalence of strict political correctness in public discourse puts powerful pressure on any author who is not just out there to cause a stir. You must mention the errors of the “other side” with care and on your own peril. So prudent writers often take care to be slightly biased in favor of the “enemy”.

Pratchett tried to manoeuvre his way through this dilemma by delicate assignment of roles to the characters. It was clear to every reader that Sam Vimes was Pratchett’s mouthpiece, so for the sake of his own reputation Vimes had to display a hefty dose of the good old PC. He was assisted in that by the generous display of stereotypical jingoistic resentiments by Ankh-Morpork secondary characters (Sergeant Colon, Lord Rust et al.). In order to balance things out, Pratchett introduced Vimes’ Klatchian counterpart, 71-hour Achmed, who has an unbiased point of view (as he told Vimes):

‘After the attempt on the Prince’s life I suspected everyone. But you only suspected your own people. You couldn’t bring yourself to think the Klatchians might have done it. Because that’d line you up with the likes of Sergeant Colon and all the rest of the Klatchian-fags-are-made-of-camel-dung brigade.’

True words, but you wouldn’t want your hero to utter them, because it would make him less of an hero. So Vimes forces himself to be naïve, and Achmed is wise. He would have stolen the reader’s sympathy away from Vimes, so he had to get negative traits to counter that: Achmed is hard and cruel and administers quick justice with his curved sword.

So far, so good. But what’s missing is the other side of the coin which has Sergeant Colon’s image on it. We certainly do have our jingoistic right-wing troublemakers and hate-mongers, but let’s not forget there are people in the immigrant communities who make bad things worse, by sometimes validating the slurs brought up against them. Homegrown terrorism, hate preaching, criminal clans, forced marriages of teenage girls, they do exist.

They do not exist in Jingo, though. Pratchett’s immigrants are honest, hard-working people, and the only one that is not is a 14-year-old hotheaded boy, who somewhat calms down at the end of the book. Of course, most immigrants are hard-working honest people, but to be fair, most of “us” are not of the Klatchian-fags-are-made-of-camel-dung brigade either. So if our dark side is portrayed it would be only fair to show the bad side of the other faction as well. A bit of it, at least.

But Pratchett likes to show off his shrewdness and he therefore has to ultimately present a solution. And if he did show the problem in all its unholy complexity, he could not, because no-one alive has solved it yet. Pratchett straightened the thing out for himself by omission and thus made it solvable. And therefore he could have nothing akin to Islam in the book. Because if he had, it would have irrepressably raised all the issues about which he preferred to keep silent. He would have had to wrestle with the question to what proportions the problems between natives and immigrants were due to religion, patriarchal culture, bad habits, fear or cultural backlash. It would have been to much for an author who aimed to emerge from the book with a superior smile and without much controversy.

While I don’t like Jingo too much for the reasons stated, I unreservedly admit that it is very well-written and therefore does not deserve less that three stars.

One final note. You may have noticed that I had some rather harsh words about the books in this article, and was a bit close-fisted with the stars as well. That is because Pratchett’s middle period books are, as far as I am concerned, not the best he has written. If you want to learn about the books I really recommend, go on to read part three.

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