Monday, March 31, 2008

Christopher Priest

The Prestige
by Christopher Priest
Recommended Age: 14+

I admit I read this book after the movie based on it was released. I didn't see the movie, though. [EDIT: I still haven't seen it.] Judging by the book, I may want to reconsider that. I have always liked creepy movies, the kind that play with your mind. And this book is nothing if not macabre.

The present-day action of the book mainly serves as a frame for the memoirs of two stage magicians who carried on a bitter rivalry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Each of them specialized in an illusion in which he seemed to vanish from one part of the theatre and instantly appear in another. Apart from this superficial similarity, the two illusions were as vastly different as the character and motivations of the two conjurors.

Spurred by lofty ideals, personal revenge, professional jealousy, and finally a kind of paranoid compulsion, the two men attacked each other every time they met, deepening an enmity that began with their first meeting and leading, finally, to the interconnected tragedies that destroyed them both. And beyond that, each man carried a gruesome secret - the secret that made his illusion work - a secret that continues to haunt their descendants to the present day.

You may guess each illusionist's secret as you read this book. In fact, I believe you are meant to figure it out for yourself, well before each enormity is spelled out in plain letters. Enormities they are indeed, these "prestiges," these secrets the two men guarded with their lives.

To explain what a "prestige" was, one of the illusionists wrote in his memoirs about a stooped, decrepit Chinese magician who used to conjure an enormous bowl of fish out of thin air, with no apparent way of concealing it before its appearance. The trick was really very simple: the magician carried the fishbowl under his long, flowing robes, clutched between his knees. Carrying that heavy object between his legs the whole time meant walking awkwardly. The "prestige" - the secret the magician kept his whole life, on and off stage, to safeguard this illusion - was his stooped, decrepit appearance. Actually, the Chinese conjuror was a strong, vigorous man. But he hobbled around like a cripple, even offstage, to keep people from guessing how he managed the goldfish trick.

That anecdote is chilling enough in showing the lengths to which stage illusionists might go to protect the secret of their trademark trick. But it doesn't come close to the "prestige" Alfred Borden concealed, or Rupert Angier's "prestige." The great tragedy is that, under any other circumstances, these two men should have been intimate friends. But when each man inadvertently threatened the other's ghastly secret, they turned on each other, bringing on a series of events that will make your blood run cold. Even when you know how they did what they did - which will blow your mind - the horrors continue to mount as Angier and Borden pay for their sins, and as the awfulness of the price they paid continues to mount all the way to the last word of the book.

My advice: Read this book during daylight hours only. The thoughts and images it conjures may not make pleasant companions during a long, wakeful night.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Terry Pratchett, Part 5

The Discworld Series (cont'd.)
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 14+


The 21st Discworld novel centers, once again, on Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. This time the adventure begins with a lost continent (actually, a small island) emerging in the middle of the sea between Ankh-Morpork and the dark continent of Klatch. Both countries make claims on the territory and a Klatchian prince is sent to Ankh-Morpork to hash it out with Lord Vetinari, the Patrician. But wouldn't you know it, there's an attempt on the prince's life, and at first it looks like someone from Klatch hired the would-be assassins in order to start a war, and then it looks as though someone from Ankh-Morpork was only trying to make it look that way... and Vimes is determined to get to the bottom of things.

It doesn't help, though, that the city is gung-ho for war against Klatch, which means hate crimes against Klatchian immigrants and a palace coup that puts a more military-minded person in charge of the city (a total idiot named Lord Rust, who I think is the head of the Historians Guild). Vimes, Carrot, and a handful of other Watchmen follow a trail of clues (and suspects) to Klatch, while Rust leads an army to what anyone but himself can see is certain defeat, and Colon, Nobby, Vetinari, and übergenius Leonard da Quirm go by submarine (!!!) to work out their own plan--which includes pretending to be clowns, and having Nobby dress in drag.

Amid the clash of crime-fighting, military, and political world views, as well as bits that cast Carrot as a Discworld Lawrence of Arabia, there is also fun, excitement, palace intrigue, and a talking dayplanner that is somehow getting signals from a parallel universe so that (at a moving point in the climax of the story) Vimes listens to news of his own death and that of all of his officers--most crushingly, I think, Carrot.

Three basic moral lessons seem to come up in this book. First, imperialistic jingoism is stupid and wrong. Second, the pride and avarice of men turn potentially minor problems into wars, in which the meaningless deaths of thousands does not seem to register in the minds of leaders. This too is stupid and wrong. And finally, good men, men of integrity, cannot endure being used by others to perpetrate a lie or commit a cowardly crime.

The Last Continent

The 22nd Discworld book is a bizarre story. Rincewind, you may or may not remember, was accidentally sent to the isolated continent of XXXX at the end of Interesting Times. Maybe I've said it before, but I just love Rincewind. His very name has the ring of someone who spends a lot of time running with his robes flapping behind him, usually with a rictus of horror fixed on his face. He is a terrible wizard (I mean, he isn't at all good at magic) but he has seen more of the world than anyone else (albeit at more or less of a blur) and he has survived more dangers and saved the world more times than a fistful of mighty heroes, all by an incredible streak of dumb luck and the gift of running really really fast.

Well, as The Last Continent opens, the orangutan Librarian at Unseen University, Ankh-Morpork, Discworld, is gravely ill. Whatever bug he has causes him to change shapes whenever he sneezes, so he spends only half the time in his usual simian shape and the other half as a succession of other animals, pieces of furniture, and inanimate objects. The inner circle of wizards at UU are deeply concerned and can only think of one spell that can save him. Only, it requires knowing the Librarian's name.

The Librarian used to be a human being, you know, it was a magical accident in the course of his duties in the library that resulted in him becoming an orangutan, and his fondness of being an ape led him to take steps to ensure that no one could turn him back (including ripping the page with his picture on it out of all known copies of the Yearbook up to the date when he was changed into an ape).

The faculty at UU is currently in the midst of a relatively long period of stability, such as occasionally surfaces in its history, which is otherwise reknowned for having a high rate of turnover due to so many wizards achieving their career ambitions over the dead bodies of the wizards above them. To put it bluntly, no one on the faculty during the Mustrum Ridcully archchancellory can remember who the Librarian was before he was an orangutan, because those who were there at the time have all long since been assassinated by their uppity underlings. But they can think of one living wizard who was around at the time, and who was an intimate of the Librarian both before and after his transformation, and if they can get HIM to tell THEM the Librarian's pre-simian name they might be able to work up a magical cure. And the wizard with that special knowledge is, you guessed it, Rincewind.

All this is by way of being an incredibly long explanation for what is merely the starting point of the story.

Ridcully, along with his bickering cohort of the Dean, the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer in Recent Runes, the Senior Wrangler, the harmlessly insane Bursar, and young Ponder Stibbons (Reader of Invisible Writings), realize that bringing Rincewind back by magic would probably kill him. (They have some experience of this, too. See Interesting Times.) He would be no use to them that way. But while they are looking for another way to get hold of him, they discover a magical window (literally a window, with a sash and everything) onto a tropical island, where they are joined by the very prim cockney housekeeper Mrs. Whitlow, who stupidly closes the window behind her.

This leaves them marooned on an island that turns out to be 10,000 years in the past, where a rather silly "god of evolution" is trying out his ambitious ideas. They sail an organically grown, pumpkin ship to the continent of XXXX and make various unsolicited contributions to the creation of that country's wildlife (such as, the duck-billed platypus). And evidently they do something that causes the history of the Last Continent to go strangely awry, and to be particularly dry.

Meanwhile, back in the present (I love saying things like that), Rincewind is running for dear life from one misunderstanding after another, guided by a shapechanging kangaroo named Scrappy. >From one hellish and hilarious misadventure after another, he finds himself in the city of Bugarup, where he befriends a female impersonator who has the career liability of actually being female, and meets the archchancellor of ANOTHER wizard university whose name happens to be, well, Rincewind.

But Scrappy has been guiding him for a purpose: to set right whatever the wizards in the past caused to go wrong, and to save XXXX from a deadly drought just in the nick of time. Will he do it? My lips are sealed.

Carpe Jugulum

The 23rd Discworld tale is cute, as Discworld tales go. The Lancre coven of witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Queen Magrat and Agnes/Perdita Nitt, a fat girl with a split personality) are confronted by a ruthless cadre of modern vampires - vampires who have shaken off the superstitions that made them vulnerable to sunlight, garlic, holy water, sacred images, etc., etc. - vampires who are no longer stupid enough to be easily killed.

Which means, really awful vampires, who think they are really nice because they dress in modern fashions and make polite arrangements with the townspeople to suck a little of their blood at a time (kind of on a lottery basis) so that they don't use up the human livestock, but kind of milk them over a long period of time. This is actually much worse than being terrorized by a vicious people-predator who, at least, couldn't get into your house if you didn't invite him in, and who had the decency to get killed once in a while.

Leading the invasion are the Count Magpyr and his wife, the Countess, and their two eternally teenaged children, Vlad and Lacrimosa. Vlad is a charmer who falls senselessly in love with Agnes (probably because he can't read her mind, and that intrigues him), and Lacrimosa is the sort of unholy monster who, if she was a human girl, would pull wings off of flies. The count controls a flock of magpies that act as his eyes and ears. And of course they can control people's minds, they can turn people into vampires if they want to, and they can move faster than the eye can see, which makes them pretty near unkillable.

Enter the extraordinary Granny Weatherwax, who seems to have met her match at last...or has she? And then there's Nanny Ogg, who with her vast family connections can organize a spontaneous, torch-waving mob at the spur of the moment. And sweet-natured Agnes, whose nasty alter-ego Perdita (the proverbial skinny girl in a fat girl's body) turns out to be her saving grace. And don't forget Margat, who comes out of retirement with a vengeance to protect her newborn daughter and her well-meaning but ineffectual husband, King (formerly Fool) Verence II.

Of course the other Lancre regulars pop up: Nanny's oldest son Jason, the burly blacksmith; Nanny's youngest son Shawn, the one-man army (actually, he's pretty much a one-man Executive Branch of the government, which includes everything from cleaning out the privies to stamping passports and disigning a Lancrastrian Army Knife); and the much-bitten royal falconer, whose name alone--Hodgesaargh--is worth a good laugh any day.

Also, a new creature enters the narrative: the Pixies, specifically the clan known as Nac mac Feegle, a bunch of little blue men with red hair and pointy hats who, on closer examination, are actually covered from head to toe with blue tattoos. The Pixies love drinking, fighting, and stealing cows more than anything, and though they are only six inches tall they are so strong that four of them can pick up a cow (by the hooves) and carry it away at high speed. They also speak an incomprehensible dialect, which I think is supposed to be some kind of highland Scots, but it's entertaining to TRY to understand it.

Speaking of dialects, prepare also for Igor the stitched-together, reanimated servant who talks in a Sylvester-the-Cat lisp and whose appropriately-named dog Scraps becomes the focus of the funniest joke in the book. And I shouldn't neglect to mention that there's also a phoenix in this book, but in conception very different from J. K. Rowling's Fawkes.

All this is entertaining. But I had a problem with this book. There was another character, an Omnian priest named Mightily Oats, who is shall we say, one of those troubled young pastors in a pluralistic age who has trouble believing the religion he is supposed to teach. As he goes through a crisis of belief I had the sense that Pratchett was delivering his own thinly-veiled apologetic for unbelief, which I thought was needlessly preachy and frankly hostile to the whole concept of orthodox religious belief. Oats himself goes through a kind of religious conversion in this story. On a narrative level it's satisfying, but on a theological level it's pretty shlocky. So with that reservation I recommend Carpe Jugulum.

The Fifth Elephant

The 24th tale of Discworld again features Sam Vimes, Carrot, Angua, Cheery Littlebottom, and Detritus the troll, all of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Don't worry, Colon and Nobby are back too.

This time the Patrician has sent Vimes as the unlikeliest of ambassadors, to the remote & lawless country of Uberwald, where nothing is as it seems. On the surface the human population is dominated by a cadre of werewolves and vampires, and under the surface the REAL kingdom is run by bickering clans of dwarves.

Angua's virile and vicious brother, appropriately named Wolfgang, leads a conspiracy to destabilize the delicate arrangement between humans, dwarves, and the undead that has kept Uberwald going for centuries. The tentacles of conspiracy reach as far as Ankh-Morpork, where murders have resulted from it, and the currents of intrigue swirl around an inedible, ancient loaf of gravelly dwarf bread called the Scone of Stone.

Before Vimes solves the mystery, there will be a serious love triangle between the dwarf-raised human Carrot, the werewolf Angua, and an "extremely male" just-plain wolf named, would you believe, Gavin. Also appearing are Lady Sybil (Vimes' unlikely wife, who has one in the oven now), Death, Gaspode the talking dog, and another Igor (all Igors are about the same, aren't they?).

There's lots of fun, more than the usual amount of sexual tension, and of course some terrific battles, escapes, chases, and moments of pure terror. You also learn the interesting fact that werewolves are just as much hated and feared by wolves as they are by humans, and for approximately the same reasons. And the whole concept of the Fifth Elephant is something else! (Hint: fat is mined in Uberwald.)

The Truth

The 25th title in the popular Discworld series is called The Truth, and to tell the truth, I enjoyed it thoroughly. In the tradition of Moving Pictures and Soul Music, it introduces a new hero who, in turn, introduces a new pop-culture art form into the fragile reality of Ankh-Morpork. Unlike those two prior instances, however, the journalist with the movable-type printing press who introduces the concept of a daily newspaper does NOT end up opening a rift into the Dungeon Dimensions and letting out some kind of hideous entity from the beyond.

By this time the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has learned to expect such unexpected outcomes from seemingly innocent yet disruptive enterprises like the Daily Times. And he warns young journalist William de Worde that he will be held personally responsible if a rift in reality is created. And having anticipated this disaster, naturally it is nipped in the bud.

Instead what happens is the Patrician himself is framed for murder, and it falls to young William (who feels obligated to tell the Truth at all times) to get to the bottom of it, in spite of the ill-feeling of various guilds and powerful members of the community, the ambivalence of Commander Vimes of the City Watch, and the truly frightening evil of Messrs. Pin and Tulip, who (in an interesting passage) are revealed to be neither murderers nor assassins but, far worse, killers. (Interested? Read the book!)

What de Worde has on his side is a beautiful girl named Sacharissa, a printing press run by dwarves, and a cutting-edge photojournalist who also happens to be a reformed vampire (a lovely fellow named Otto who talks with a German accent, takes part in a 12-step program to break his blood addiction, and crumbles into dust every time he takes a flash picture, which at first is rather inconvenient for him). Oh, yes, and also Foul Ole Ron's bunch of looney street bums, Gaspode the talking dog (who turns confidential informant named "Deep Bone"), and a troll named Rocky who wants to be a sportswriter.

It's actually a quite exciting adventure, with lots of fun thrown in: like swear-words toned down to family language (one character goes around saying "---ing" all the time, and everyone wonders what the heck "ing" is supposed to mean; and another character warns that someone is going to go "Librarian poo," if you catch my drift).

William makes another appealing hero who has the additional appeal of showing Vimes & Co. from a different point of view. It's another good installment in the series, and I look forward to future titles!

Thief of Time

The 26th tale in the Discworld series is another Susan Sto-Helit adventure (Death's granddaughter), and it once again has to do with the evil Auditors of the Universe making a sneaky attempt to assassinate All Life.

Bureaucratic types, you know. They can't abide untidiness, and nothing is more unpredictable and messy than life, especially humanity. They've tried before now to rub-out mankind (see Reaper Man and Hogfather) but now they've hit on something truly diabolical: build a clock that can measure the heartbeat of the universe (the smallest possible division of time in which anything can possibly happen) and Time herself will be trapped, everything will stop, and the universe will exist without change forever. How tidy can you get, eh?

Only Death is on to them, and while he collects the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (including the Fifth Horseman, who left before the group got popular, ha ha) to fight the battle of Armageddon, Susan accepts the assignment to track down a History Monk whose weirdly gifted apprenctice seems to be the key to the whole thing.

History Monks! We're talking about people who can move incredibly fast by "slicing time," and who use machines called Procrastinators to pump time from where it isn't needed (like, for instance, the sea) to where there doesn't seem to be enough of it (like the city). But Lu Tze's ex-thief apprentice, Lobsang, is especially gifted because, apparently, he is the son of Time herself. This is the sort of thing that only happens in Discworld.

But what really makes it weird is the dangerously sane clockmaker Jeremy, his gruesome assistant Igor, and the creepy Lady who pays him handsomely to build the doomsday clock & then, for some reason, keeps sabotaging it so that he can't quite finish it. It's quite an interesting story and it also introduces a new use for chocolate - as a deadly weapon!

EDIT: In my original reviews, I had these last two titles reversed. Thanks be to Fantastic Fiction for helping me sort out the sequence of these books.

Terry Pratchett, Part 4

The Discworld Series (cont'd.)
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 14+

Lords and Ladies

This fourteenth Discworld book is essentially the sequel to Witches Abroad. Again it centers on the Kingdom of Lancre, where the former court Fool is now the King. But the real movers and shakers are the three witches Granny, Nanny, and Magrat. As they return home from their adventures abroad, Magrat's on-and-off romance with King Verence quickly ripens into a marriage engagement and a large guest list starts to show up, including Archchancellor Ridcully, the Bursar, the Librarian, and Ponder Stibbons from Unseen U. And some of the townspeople are preparing a special entertainment, in the spirit of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Unfortunately there are also uninvited guests who are summoned into Discworld from a "parasite universe" (don't ask!) by, would you believe, the Entertainment itself, which is unwisely performed at a circle of very special stones which any witch would know is supposed to keep undesirables out of our universe. Undesirables like, to begin with, a wild unicorn. Unlike the sweet fluffy unicorns of bedtime-story lore, this is a very fierce animal that is ready and willing to gore anyone to death who gets in front of it.

But more to the point, undesirables like the Elves, a.k.a. the Good Folk, the Gentry, the Shining Ones, the Lords and Ladies, etc. Who look like tall, slim, impossibly beautiful people with lovely voices full of laughter, but who regard humans as animals for them to hunt. We're talking about extremely attractive, merry folk who, without any cruelty whatsoever, rob, kidnap, terrorize, play with, and destroy human beings because they do not regard us as people with feelings.

It's a very frightening portrait of elves, which again, runs contrary to notions you may have held... and while Nanny Ogg is being wooed by Casanunda, the dwarf who claims to be the second-best lover in the world, and Magrat is struggling with whether she is ready to be Queen, Granny faces perhaps her deadliest enemy while worrying about her sanity, uncertain of her survival, and confronted with the boy who once asked her to marry him (and who is now Archchancellor of Unseen University).

Nanny Ogg's brood of children and grandchildren also figure in the story, including her youngest son Shawn who is, all by himself, the entire standing army of Lancre (except when he's lying down), and her oldest son Jason, who is the best blacksmith and farrier in the world and knows what price he has to pay for it. And one of the funniest scenes in the series so far takes place when the King tries to outrun Shawn to pick up the mail because he's expecting a how-to book, with full color illustrations, on matters of marital intimacies.

There's a lot of side-splitting stuff in this book. I like it a lot. I thought the ending was a bit of a deus ex machina but then again, the whole novel is a take-off on A Midsummer Night's Dream with bits of Peter Pan and The Taming of the Shrew thrown in. The part where the village tradesmen attempt to do a play on the king's wedding night about a bunch of village tradesman attempting to do a play on the king's wedding night (which happens to be Midsummer's Eve) is particularly funny in a multi-layered way.

Of course only in Discworld would there be a dance where one of the steps is called KILL! And I am still continually amazed by the infinite nuances of the word "Oook!"

Men at Arms

Here is the fifteenth Discworld novel, which after quite a stretch in the boon-docks finally takes us back to the grand old town of Ankh-Morpork. It again features the Night Watch, headed by the chronically depressed, often inebriated and slightly cynical, yet honorable, Captain Samuel Vimes. He is getting ready to marry the richest woman in town and retiring from the force. Meanwhile, Ankh-Morpork has its first serial killer ever, and the only thing worse than the pressure to solve the crimes is the pressure on Vimes & co. NOT to solve the crimes.

Everyone gets involved - the wizards, alchemists, beggars, assassins, and fools; trolls, dwarves, and the undead; the Patrician (Lord Vetinari), Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler, and Gaspode the talking dog. But above all that includes Vimes' men: the fat, lazy coward Sgt. Fred Colon; the sticky-fingered, untrustworthy Cpl. "Nobby" Nobbs; and most importantly, the honest, likeable, charismatic country boy (raised by dwarves), Carrot Ironfoundersson, who stands seven feet tall, has the strength of a troll, and is described as wearing whatever room he walks into (that is, everything and everyone sort of fades into the background).

At the bottom of everything is the barely-concealed fact that Carrot is destined to be the King of Ankh-Morpork (it's been centuries since the city has had a king at all), but Carrot has no desire to be king. But what can he do when Vimes is busy getting married and a serial killer is using the first "gonne" in the history of Discworld to attempt to force Carrot to be king? What can he do when he has the power to teach worst enemies to be best friends (a troll and a dwarf, for starters) and has fallen in love with a woman who doesn't dare tell him that she's a werewolf? What can he do against a killer wielding a weapon so powerful, it's more like the weapon wields the killer?

And can this simple, straightforward, scrupulously honest country bumpkin wangle his way through the labyrinthine politics of Guilds and conflicting groups of City Guards to solve a mystery everyone would rather keep hush-hush? That's what the adventure is all about and, in a Discworld spin on the killer-thriller police procedural, Carrot faces all that PLUS a riot that threatens to tear the whole city apart.

So it's yet another exciting adventure full of droll humor that ranges from to . Carrot is the paladin of Discworld heroes, a man of civic pride in a city that doesn't deserve it, and a model of virtue in a society that responds to the word "virtue" with the word "Gesundheit." But will he still have the girl in the end? You'll have to read it for yourself to find out!

Soul Music

The sixteenth Discworld novel introduces us to a new heroine: Susan Sto-Helit, granddaughter of death by way of death's adopted daughter Ysabell and his one-time apprentice, Mort. She has been sent to a girl's boarding school in Quirm (a cultured city not far from Ankh-Morpork) where, at age 16, she doesn't understand why she sometimes remembers the future and can become invisible at will.

Then Death goes out on one of his periodic depressions, trying to erase the memory of taking the lives of Mort and Ysabell in a terrible carriage crash. And Susan, who has been carefully raised NOT to know that Death is her grandfather or even to believe in such a person, suddenly finds herself thrust into the role of Death Himself. All in all things are going surprisingly well until she comes face to face with a boy who is about to die, and realizes that she is destined to have a future with him.

The boy is a druidic bard named Imp y Celyn (which turns out, when you get down to brass tacks, to be a paper-thin cover for Buddy Holly). Beautiful as an elf, sensitive and sweet-natured, and extremely talented, he has made the fatal mistake of swearing that he will be the most famous musician who ever lived. The gods do not take kindly to hubris, you know.

Running away from his homeland, Imp/Buddy comes to Ankh-Morpork to make a name for himself, falls in with a dwarf horn player named Glod and a troll drummer named Cliff, and soon they're struggling to get started in a Guild economy which makes it prohibitively expensive to join the Guild and impossible to earn money by playing music without joining the Guild (unless you want parts of your body stomped on), so you can see their problem.

A magical guitar comes along - well, not magical exactly, but the sort of guitar that plays the guitarist - and the next thing you know, the instrument possesses Imp/Buddy and leads his band on a madcap musical chase surrounded by screaming fans, a greedy talent agent named C. M. O. T. Dibbler, a murderously vindictive Guild of Musicians, and a girl Death who wants to save Imp/Buddy from death (and worse than death), but doesn't know exactly how or why. Along the way she is helped or hindered by Albert, Death's manservant; the Death of Rats and his talking raven steed; Ridcully and his silly wizard faculty at U.U.; and other strokes of luck.

Meanwhile, Death (Sr.) tries various methods of forgetfulness, including joining a wacky Foreign Legion where everyone is trying to forget (with absurd levels of success), drinking himself silly at the Mended Drum, and joining the company of hobos like Foul Old Ron.

Other old favorites show up, like Sgt. Colon and Cpl. Nobbs of the City Watch. And as this is the Discworld story in which the magic of Rock'n'Roll plays out (somewhat along the lines of the magic of Hollywood in Moving Pictures) you can expect a lot of music industry in-jokes, from take-offs on song titles and band names to merciless portraits of human folly at every level and on all sides of the stage. Heck, there's even a motorcycle in there somewhere. But what will probably keep you turning the pages, more than anything else, is the romantic suspense (though a bit twisted from its usual format): does the girl save the boy in time? And will they live happily ever after?

Interesting Times

The seventeenth Discworld tale once again features the most powerless and chronically-frightened Wizard in Discworld, Rincewind. The title is based on the "ancient curse": "May you live in interesting times."

Dear old Rincewind reunites with his old partner in adventure, Twoflower, from the original two books that started the Discworld series (The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic). Now Rincewind is summoned from a peaceful interlude on a tropical island, where he and the Luggage are stranded, apparently in the wake of the events of Eric.

Using powerful magic the wizards at Unseen University send him to the mysterious Counterweight Continent (some combination of China and Japan) where the services of "the Great Wizzard" (sic) are required. There he gets tangled up with a war of succession for the imperial throne, a revolution by young intellectuals who are too polite to make effective revolutionaries, and an invasion by a barbarian horde consisting of seven old men, one of whom is more of a schoolteacher than a hero.

I am speaking of Cohen the Barbarian, a.k.a. Genghiz Cohen, and his Silver Horde: Caleb the Ripper (who keeps tabs on hero obituaries); Boy Willie (who wears orthopedic shoes because BOTH of his legs are shorter than the other); Truckle the Uncivil (who is trying not to swear so much), Mad Hamish (who rides a wheelchair and is very deaf), Old Vincent (who has problems with memory and bladder control), and Ronald Saveloy, a borderline-postal school teacher who is trying to bring some culture (and a plan) to these old barbarians.

Throw in a devious villain, a maniacal emperor, a bunch of silly revolutionaries, an impossible palace invasion and an even more unlikely battle, a few golems (actually, not a few), a butterfly that literally creates weather patterns, and the mysterious mating rituals of the Luggage, and you have a book that really lives up to its title.


The Phantom of the Opera goes bananas in the eighteenth Discworld book.

Since Magrat Garlick married the king of Lancre (and one doesn't have time to be a queen and a witch at the same time, no matter what the fairy tales say), Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have felt that something is missing from their little coven. Something about "maiden, mother, and crone," just isn't adding up, even though Nanny is obviously a mother and Granny is arguably BOTH a maiden and a... well, you know.

They have their beady eyes on an obese girl named Agnes Nitt, but Agnes has other ideas. She runs away to the bright lights, big city of Ankh-Morpork to chase her dream of being an opera singer. And she's really quite good. It's just that her shape, size, and nice personality stand in the way of her becoming a great diva. In fact, her big break (so far) has been standing behind a gorgeous & airheaded young woman with "star power," and "ghosting" her arias (concealing the fact that the girl with star power couldn't sing her way out of a paper bag, sort of thing).

Agnes' good personality and tendency to keep her cool in stressful situations also comes in handy, because the Opera House is haunted by a masked ghost that, until lately, was considered a sort of good-luck charm...but has recently branched out into murder.

The owner of the opera company, a wealthy cheesemaker who thought opera would be a nice thing to do in his retirement, has begun to learn that an opera is a madhouse at the best of times. He is at his wits' end dealing with vicious sabotage, dead bodies, and (in a scene that took my breath away, laughing) lunch with "Lady Esmerelda Weatherwax" in which the dessert, spitefully provided by Nanny Ogg, turns out to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

Throw into the mix Nanny's evil cat Greebo, who has a penchant for assuming human form; a mentally-and-physically-not-quite-all-there youth named Walter who sweeps the floor and unplugs toilets but at night sits on the empty stage and listens to whole operas in his head; a handsome young organist who seems to be up to something; a couple of bumbling Night Watch cops (Cpl. "Nobby" Nobbs and Sgt. Detritus, the troll); a box seat that by tradition must always be empty on opening night; a series of letters on Opera stationery that contains, among other things, too many exclamation points and written-out maniacal laughter; a disembodied singing coach who comes to young divas in the middle of the night; an Italian tenor who never seems to stop eating pasta even though, unbeknownst to anyone including his personal assistant, he is actually a native Ankh-Morporkian who hates tomatoes; an orchestra that goes out and gets drunk during intermission; and an organ-playing orangutan from Unseen University...

It's a good mystery, with loads of suspense and, of course, breathless laughter. Opera is held up to the ridicule it deserves, but it is also recognized to be something wonderful that can enrich the lives of lonely people like Walter. Everything you can say about show business goes triple for opera, as it is beautifully depicted here, including familiar operas referenced in cracked Discworld style.

The whodunit is the main thing, but of course Granny Weatherwax's powerful magic also plays a huge role. The plot culminates in a scene stinking with irony as the killer rants and raves in a very operatic way about how much he hates opera, and then dies a ridiculously operatic death. For opera lovers and haters everywhere, Maskerade is not to be missed.

This book reminded me of the joke in Men at Arms that made me laugh so hard I had to take a walk before I could continue reading. A sniper had tried to shoot Vimes from the roof of the opera house, where he rushed as fast as he could run and climb, and then (says Pratchett) when he had reached the roof, he "threw up allegro ma non troppo." (You don't have to know that that's Italian for "fast but not too much" to appreciate the humor.) This style of wit, mixed with sad, sad puns and moments of outrageous slapstick, absolutely saturates these books.

Feet of Clay

The ninteenth Discworld story once again features Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the City Watch, with his now-dozens-strong corps of policemen that is slowly but surely coming into the Century of the Fruitbat in terms of investigative procedures.

In Maskerade it was already mentioned that Vimes had secret (undercover, or at least plainclothes) officers investigating secret crimes. Apparently he's in a lot of trouble with a lot of rich people who are willing to pay good money to have him assassinated, but so far he's managed to stay a step ahead of the Assassins' Guild. Someone also has it in for Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and someone else (perhaps) has started to lose faith in Carrot's prospects of being crowned King and has turned his hopes toward, of all people, Nobby. And someone else yet is using golems (animated clay men who follow the orders of their master) to kill people in a string of crimes that form the central mystery of the tale.

The crime detection is aided by a new sort of CSI unit consisting entirely of a failed dwarf alchemist named (get ready for it) Cheery Littlebottom, and the sensory equipment available to the werewolf Sgt. Angua. The crimes are most perplexing. Someone has poisoned a poor old woman and her infant grandchild (fatally) AND the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork (not fatally). Someone has murdered two harmless old men in their places of business. Rats are mysteriously dying. And something has gone very wrong with the city's work force of strong, silent golems (man-shaped, man-sized pottery that works without rest, powered by spells or prayers written on a paper "chem" enclosed in their heads).

Commander Vimes is up to his neck in this one, trying to keep the Patrician alive while struggling to figure out HOW he has been poisoned, let alone by whom. Angua is trying to think of a way to leave Carrot but she can't seem to break free of his magnetism. Cheery Littlebottom is trying to come to terms with her femininity. Colon is getting ready to retire and go into farming. Troll Sgt. Detritus is waging a war against drugs. Young Omnian Constable Visit-the-Infidel-With-Explanatory-Pamphlets tries to proselytize everyone at Pseudopolis Yard. And Nobby finds himself at the center of attention when the city's nobles decide that HE may be the long-lost heir to the throne. And while the Watch increasingly becomes a melting pot of humans, trolls, dwarves, the odd gargoyle, and the undead, a truly diabolical enemy is closing in on target...

If I said any more, I would spoil the mystery, which is very exciting and which also, for the first time in Pratchett's books, brought me to the point of tears. For further reading on golems I recommend Golem in the Gears by Piers Anthony (one of his numerous, pun-filled Xanth novels).


The twentieth Discworld novel is a good read, solid entertainment.
The villain is a handsome young assassin named Teatime (Teh-ah-TIM-eh) who is, unlike most assassins, a raving psychopath. Together with a band of thugs, thieves, and misfits (including an expert at picking locks and a student wizard trying to pay off some debts) he takes on the job of a lifetime--or rather, of all lifetimes.

His target is the Hogfather, the Discworld equivalent of Santa Claus, though he wouldn't say no to killing the Tooth Fairy and Death Himself into the bargain. And of course, because Discworld is on the edge of reality, where the boundary between Real and Unreal is very, very thin, this sort of thing is bound to cause bizarre side effects. Like, for instance, the fact that every time the wizards at Unseen University happen to mention a fanciful creature, like the "Eater of Socks" or the "Cheerful Fairy," it comes into existence. Like the fact that Death himself is doing the Hogfather's rounds on a sleigh pulled by four wild boars, accompanied by his faithful servant Albert (in a gnome costume). Like the fact that death's granddaughter, Susan Sto-Helit (the daughter of Mort and of Death's adopted daughter), now working as a governess to a wealthy family in Ankh-Morpork, where her job consists mainly of using the poker on creatures conjured into existence by the tortured imaginations of her young charges, finds herself riding Binky the pale horse of death across the boundaries of reality, accompanied by Bilious the "oh god" of hangovers, while Teatime's team of crooks is picked off one by one by their worst childhood fears in a castle of human teeth. And as a side-splitting side plot, you get to see Foul Old Ron and his team of filthy beggars changing places, for one Hogwatch Night, with the patrons of a gourmet restaurant.

I think Teatime may actually be the most frightening villain Pratchett has imagined so far. Though his accomplices mostly come to their own, more or less deserved ends without his direct intervention, the way he holds them in his fear is, well, fearsome. On the other hand Susan Sto-Helit is a wonderful, anti-Mary Poppins-type heroine. And you'll have a lot of fun with the wizards and Death and the Hex machine invented by Ponder Stibbons (basically, a magical super-computer that is growing into something like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey).

There are already four recurring characters with a rather limited vocabulary but whose utterances, nevertheless, elicit warmth and laughter from the reader. To quote them: "Oook!" SQUEAK! "Buggrit! Millenium hand and shrimp!" and +++Out Of Cheese Error+++. (From Left: the Librarian, the Grim Squeaker, Foul Old Ron, and Hex).

The architectural marvels of Bloody Stupid Johnson continue to amaze, the charming simplicity of Death (accompanied by his not-so-simple man-of-all-service) continues to sparkle, and the whole idea of a haute-cuisine restaurant serving variations on mud and boots is simply not to be missed.

Terry Pratchett, Part 3

The Discworld Series (cont'd.)
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 14+


The seventh novel is totally different from those that have gone before, but you can see one thread that connects it to Wyrd Sisters: the idea of a country that is magically isolated from the flow of time. Lancre only skipped 15 years. In Pyramids however, the Old Kingdom a.k.a. Kingdom of the Sun a.k.a. Djelibeybi is like Egypt at the height of its pyramid-building, king-worshiping tradition... only it has been frozen like that for 7,000 years.

Enter one progressive-minded king, who sends his son Teppic off to Ankh-Morpork to study at the Guild of Assassins. This sounds a lot like Hogwarts, only instead of studying magic, you study being a licensed assassin... and you pass your final exam, basically, by surviving it.

No sooner has Teppic finished his schooling, than he is summoned back home by the death of his father and the demands of being king of Djelibeybi. This doesn't turn out to be so easy, what with a social structure that insulates Teppic from having any real power or even freedom, from making any changes in his society. It gets even harder, when he makes an enemy of the high priest Dios, when his father's giant pyramid temple distrupts the fabric of space and time, when a pantheon of nasty Egyptian gods comes to life, when the mummified dead walk (or rather, lurch) through the streets, when the neighboring nations (essentially, Greece and Troy) decide to make war on each other, and when the only hope for everybody is a king who is more at home in Ankh-Morpork than in his native land, an assassin who would rather be a king than kill people, and a camel named You Bastard who happens to be the greatest mathematician in the world.

There is also a scantily clad handmaiden, a man who carries his twin brother folded up in his pocket, a river full of giant crocodiles, a giant dung beetle that pushes the sun across the sky, and a symposium of Greek-style philosophers and creative artists who have to pay somebody by the minute to listen to their inane babble. It's just ptoo funny pto be missed. And a ptotally wild adventure, pto boot!

Guards! Guards!

The eighth Discworld book introduces another recurring circle of characters. One of our new heroes is a big, honest, cheerful young man named Carrot who was raised by dwarves (he thinks of himself as a giant dwarf). Carrot joins up with the corrupt, sleazy, and virtually suicidal Night Watch in the city of Ankh-Morpork, just in time for the city to be terrorized by dragons that a secret society has conjured up in order to flush out the heir to the long-vacant throne.

In this city of cities, where the Assassins and Thieves have their own legally-recognized Guilds that make a certain level of crime legal (it's a glorified protection racket), the humble police force is pretty much a joke. You only belong to the City Watch if you've failed at everything else, or did something wrong to deserve the punishment. And you only last long at it if your instincts for self-preservation outstrip your desire to enforce the law.

Basically, there are no laws to enforce except, Don't make the Patrician angry (he's the leader of the city's mercantile class, and serves as a combination of city manager and ruthless tyrant). However the place used to have laws. Enter Carrot Ironfoundersson, whose application (by mail) to be on the City Watch is bewildering because nobody volunteers for the job, and who comes to town memorizing a huge book of laws that no longer really apply. And if he's not enough trouble, enter the dragon, whose purpose is to restore the monarchy that has lain dormant for hundreds of years. Whoever steps forth to vanquish it is supposed to be the rightful heir to the throne.

But all is not as it seems. And so enter a jaded, cynical, but still basically honorable captain of the City Watch, Samuel Vimes, who is naturally knurd (the opposite of drunk--I don't mean sober, which is only the absence of drunkenness, but a horrible kind of anti-drunkenness which is nasty to experience). Because of his sense of honor, and his knack for opening his big mouth when he shouldn't, he's been stagnating in this law-enforcement job in a town where laws are emphatically not enforced.

Vimes is feeling pretty hard-done-by, "brung low" by the woman that is his city, until he and his faithful squad (fat Sgt. Colon and cockney Corporal "Nobby" Nobbs, and now Carrot) get the assignment of a lifetime: to solve the problem of the dragon.

The result is an exciting, rollicking adventure yarn that owes a lot to hardboiled detective fiction (especially an existential speech by the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, toward the end of the book). You will meet old favorites - Death, the organgutan Librarian - plus new characters and concepts, and lots and lots of great gags. The characters are all nicely drawn. Have no fear; you will see Nobby, Colon, Vimes, and Carrot again.


The title of the ninth Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett is Faust, crossed out, with Eric written over it instead. Obviously this is a spoof of Faust with partial credit given to another author named Josh Kirby. It's a short novel, compared to the other Discworld stories, maybe more of a novella or novellette.

Anyway, Eric is a 13-year-old demonologist who decides to conjure up a demon, so he can get three wishes: to be the ruler of the world, to meet the most beautiful woman who ever lived, and to live forever.

Meanwhile, the current Devil has taken a page from humanity's Book of Tortures and turned Hell into a bureaucratic nightmare. He is watching Eric on with interest, hoping to make something truly fiendish out of this young soul. However, Eric blunderingly summons Rincewind the wizard from the nether realms, where he was trapped at the end of Sourcery, along with the Luggage, which is so fiercely loyal that it literally follows him to hell and back.

So Rincewind and Eric go on a magical (?) journey together. The bumbling, cowardly wizard, who the boy is still convinced is a demon, somehow grants one wish after another and they all turn out wrong. At last they find themselves at the gates of Hades, where all you-know-what breaks loose.

Pratchett's twisted views of humanity are never more entertainingly displayed than here, though this is a very concentrated Discworld tale. One of his chief views, often touched upon, becomes a main theme in this story: that the greatest evils are not done by slavering monsters, demons, or deliberately evil people, but by well-intentioned, self-righteous people who think they are doing a "service to humanity." It's worth thinking about.

Moving Pictures

The tenth Discworld book reprises the roles of Death, the ape Librarian, the peddlar Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Detritus the troll, city watchmen Colon and Nobby, the Patrician, and others. But the heroes are new.

Victor Tugelbend, a brilliant student at Unseen University, is lazy and afraid of becoming a target in the wizard-eat-wizard world of magical politics. Victor has used his uncle's legacy and his own wits to become a "lifelong student," by consistently scoring less than a passing grade on the exams, but more than the minimum grade to keep his legacy. Just when the faculty is about to spring a surprise on him that will make sure that he passes this time, Victor is captivated by a new entertainment spectacle: moving pictures.

Of course the technology isn't quite the real-world type. The film stock is an explosive concoction developed by alchemists, the cameras are filled with imps that paint rapidly, the projectors rely on high-wattage salamanders, and the biggest movie mogul in Holy Wood is C. M. O. T. Dibbler, the epitome of shameless opportunist.

Something draws Victor to Holy Wood, where he falls in with an actress named Ginger, a talking dog named Gaspode, divers trolls, dwarves, alchemists, and "handlemen," and swiftly becomes a big dashing star of the silent screen (partly by his natural good looks, and partly by being possessed by the spirit of the place).

However, it soon becomes clear that the minds of man, troll, dwarf, etc., and beast are being influenced by a sinister force from outside reality, and whatever it is (or rather, They are), it wants to get in. And it's using Holy Wood to do it, as it did thousands of years ago...

And since real magic is what They thrive on, the only way to fight them is to use Holy Wood magic, which is real only while you believe in it. Hence, a climax in which Victor, the Librarian, a bath chair overloaded with wizards, and a camera man save the world while the crotchety Archchancellor and his sweaty-palmed Bursar fly around haphazardly on a broomstick. It's an outrageous tale full of knowing Hollywood references & puns (not to mention satire of legendary Hollywood denizens and their films). Imagine Gone with the Wind being re-made in Ankh-Morpork (title: Blown Away).

Appealing as Victor, Ginger, and Gaspode are, this is (as usual, for Pratchett) one of those stories that doesn't neatly tie up everything. For instance, does the boy get the girl, and does the dog get the boy? Who knows? Really, though, a neat ending is also necessarily long-winded and boring to read, and it doesn't propel you into the next book, and it ties up things that the author would probably wish were untied later. But anyway, it's one of the longer & more incident-filled, richly detailed & well-rounded stories in the collection so far, a move in a new an interesting direction for the Discworld series.

Reaper Man

Here is the eleventh book of Discworld, starring everyone's favorite smiley guy, Death. It also reprises the roles of the orangutan Librarian, whose vocabulary consists of the words "Eeek" and, most often, "Oook," but who somehow manages to be so articulate and subtle in his expression; Archchancellor of Unseen Univsersity Mustrum Ridcully, the "Bull Moose" type who has already won the distinction of being the first Archchancellor to appear in more than one book (they usually don't live that long); the nervous Bursar of U. U., the fat Dean, and the effete Lecturer in Recent Runes; arch-huckster Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler; city watchman Sgt. Colon; and of course, the Patrician Lord Vetinari and the familiar heads of the various guilds in Ankh-Morpork (thieves, assassins, alchemists, historians, fools, merchants, etc.).

And one character comes back for the second and obviously last time, the 130-year-old wizard Windle Poons.

The stars of the show are Death and Poons, in two intertwining plot lines. First, and most importantly, Death has been fired. The powers that be (the theology of this little universe grows more and more bizarre) have decided that Death is developing too much personality and it's interfering with his job performance. So they give him mortality and send him to Discworld to live out his days under the identity of a hired farmhand named Bill Door. The lady he works for is as close to a widow as a spinster can get, and Death begins to experience the feelings of a human being...

But then, sooner than expected, the "new" Death comes after him, and he must fight not only for himself but for the life of a child he would willingly die to save.

A side-effect of the transition between one Death and another, is the fact that nobody can seem to die properly. The "astral plane" has been filling up to dangerous fullness, some corpses are becoming reanimated because their souls have nowhere else to go, and the weird magical effects of all the excess life hanging about begins to grow dangerous to the citizens of Ankh-Morpork.

The climax of this thread comes when a strange new lifeform...either a parasite or a predator, or both...threatens the very existence of the city. And the city's chief hope lies in the hands of two zombies, a banshee with a speech impediment, a bogey man, two werewolves, a reluctant middle-class vampire and his uppity wife.

It's quite an exciting little adventure, actually two for the price of one, and it even has a love story in it (between a wolf that turns into a wolf-man at the full moon, and a girl who turns into a wolf-woman at the full moon). There's also a character that hilariously spoofs the sort of intensely religious lady who joins a church, gets really involved in everything until the smooth running of the whole church depends on her, then gets honked off at somebody and quits the church, leaving it in a state of chaos. She also happens to be a medium (well, closer to a small) who communes with a spirit called One-Man-Bucket (wait till you find out what that name means) and who, when her precognition is turned on, answers questions before they are asked. This makes conversation with Mrs. Cake veeeerrry interesting.

Witches Abroad

The twelfth novel of Discworld stars (once again) Granny Weatherwax and her friends, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. This time it's a take-off on the fairy tale of Cinderella, and several other fairy tales get mixed up in it, as well as a journey to the Discworld equivalent of New Orleans.

The front-cover blurb summarizes it as "Three witches make the Godmother an offer she can't refuse," which sums it up pretty well. It's about good and bad fairy godmothers - you can't have one without the other - and the peril of magic mirrors, and the evil of happy endings, and the way one witch tries to force the real world to live a storybook life (which amounts to, Be Very Happy On Pains of Death).

There's a frog prince, a sleeping beauty, a magic spinning wheel, a big bad wolf, a voodoo priestess, a zombie, a dwarf love machine named Casanunda (get it?), a lot of business to do with pumpkins, a riverboat gambling parlor, a Mardi Gras, a masked ball, some interesting magical duels, and a girl named Emberella forced to work as a servant though she is destined to be queen. There is also a tale of sibling rivalry and an outrageous episode in which Nanny's cat, Greebo, is transformed into a man. Quite an adventure! And the moral of the story is, you can't force happiness on people. It comes from the inside, not the outside.

Small Gods

The thirteenth Discworld adventure appears to be Pratchett's agnostic jab at organized religion. His views appear to be, there's a supreme being, but he didn't create the universe because if he had, he wouldn't have done such a lousy job, and you wouldn't want to address him in prayer lest you draw his attention to the sad state of things down here. Then there are the divine underlings that actually did create the world(s), but they don't get involved after that. Then there are the gods, who depend on believers for their power and reality. And in the Omnian empire, dedicated to the Great God Om, there is a terrible church that seems to combine all the nastiest aspects of fundamentalist Islam with the medieval Catholicism of the Crusades and Inquisition, possibly (if that is possible) exaggerated to an even more sinister depth of badness.

And yet for all their bloody-minded fervor, in the entire church there seems to be only one true believer - a slow, illiterate, simple-minded novice named Brutha (get it?) who happens to have a memory like a sponge and who, unbeknownst to himself, is the only believer keeping the real Om alive.

Om, helpless in the body of a tortoise whose words can only be heard by Brutha, knows that he has to keep Brutha alive AND believing in him, or he's finished. Only this isn't going to be easy, since Brutha has been hand-picked by the most evil Inquisitor (actually Exquisitor) in all possible Inquisitions (actually, Quisition) to be his aide on a crusade to destroy all the infidels in the world (such as people who believe the heresy, which on Discworld happens to be true, that the world is flat and has an edge and rests on the back of 4 elephants standing on the shell of a giant turtle named Great A'Tuin).

Om is going to have to learn a lot about being a god who cares about his people if he wants to have any people really caring about him. Interesting concept, a god learning lessons from his own church...

Brutha's a good guy, who seems to have more than met his match in the form of Vorbis, the head of the terrible Quisition. Vorbis wants to be the next prophet, and the fact that Brutha actually is the next prophet doesn't exactly bode well for Brutha.

There's a good deal of fun with Greek philosophy, some mad high jinks at sea and on the desert, a gripping climax that includes a mechanical turtle AND a turtle-shaped, man-sized barbecue grill, and the fact that eagles are the only animals that know how to have a tortoise for lunch.

Brutha is a good hero, some of the other characters are quite entertaining, and yes, both Death and the Librarian make at least cameo appearances. For all that it's hard not to take some of it personally (as a believing Christian), it does make some interesting points about the morality and philosophy of religion in general. In an entertaining way.

Terry Pratchett, Part 2

The Discworld novels
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 14+

Douglas Adams lives. If the Dirk Gently and Hitchhiker's Guide books by that late, lamented master of satirical sci-fi left you breathless with laughter, and at the same time feeling a whole lot smarter about the Whole Sort of General Mish-Mash, dry your tears. Try Terry Pratchett and you will agree: Douglas Adams writes again.

Actually, Pratchett has been around for a long time by now, and he is one of Britain's top-selling authors, particularly in the humor and fantasy categories. I was turned onto his books by a Harry Potter website that suggested that, somehow, the Discworld novels are comparable to Harry Potter. Actually, they are much more grown-up and a lot less mature. To be sure, they are full of magic, wit, imagination, and adventure, and I'll be the last person to tell a book-lover of any age what they should or should not try. Try Terry Pratchett and decide for yourself. As for me, I L.M.A.O.!!!

A few words should be said about Discworld. It's a magical place, where the 10 impossible things happen before breakfast every day, and if anything is a "one in a million chance," it really might just work. Poised on a thin spot in the fabric of reality, Discworld is a flat rotating disc with mountains, rivers, oceans, and civilization on one side, and four elephants standing on the back of the giant World Turtle on the other.

It has swashbuckling heroes, broomstick-riding witches, cowardly wizards, despotic rulers, and characters with names like Cohen the Barbarian and Casanunda, the world's second-best (and shortest) lover. It has a very charming figure in black named Death, as well as other living legends. It has a wide range of stories, from a spoof of Faust to a police-procedural murder mystery. And, if it doesn't blow your mind first, Discworld will rupture your ribcage from laughing too hard.

EDIT: The Discworld series currently stands at 31 adult novels, plus 4 juvenile novels (see "Part 1"), a graphic novel, a children's picture book, and a collection of short stories. This is besides adaptations for stage and screen, an illustrated version of one of the novels, several omnibus editions, and a plethora of reference books based on this series. I have a bit of catching up to do; of the adult novels, I have only read the first 26(!), though a couple others are on my "getting around to it" shelf. Other novels by Pratchett include The Carpet People, The Dark Side of the Sun, The Unadulterated Cat, and (with Neil Gaiman) Good Omens.

The Color of Magic

This, the first in the on-going Discworld series, is the first book in which the words THE END actually made me laugh out loud. If you want to experience a very funny, very intelligent piece of humor-fantasy-adventure, look no further.

The Color of Magic is about a world where... well, remember how certain ancient myths told that the world was a flat disc sitting on the shoulders of four elephants riding on the back of a giant turtle? That's this world, and it is full of thieves, assassins, wizards, demigods, demons, dragons, magical swords, walking luggage, and interdimensional paradoxes.

The humor and the philosophy in this book are strikingly similar to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, but the setting is different: instead of bug-eyed aliens, you have magical creatures; instead of a journalist, a two-headed politician, a "struggling actor," and a total loser fleeing in a starship from the demolition of Earth, you have a wizard, a hero, and a tourist fleeing on horseback from the flames of a walled city. Accompanied, not by a paranoid android, but by a steamer trunk that walks on its own 100 legs and has teeth that can bite off the arm of anyone who tries to rifle through it uninvited.

Adams and Pratchett even have a similar taste in character names. Compare Slartibartfast or Zaphod Beeblebrox with Rincewind, Twoflower, and Hrun the Barbarian. Of course my favorite character name so far was Zlorf Flannelfoot (president of the assassins guild).

In this maiden voyage of Discworld, you are introduced to this marvelous magical world where, as it is noted more than once, "million to one chances come up nine times out of ten." Our guide on this first journey is the cowardly wizard Rincewind, whose magical career is hampered by the fact that he only knows one spell, which (a) he must absolutely never, under any circumstances, use; and (b) prevents him from knowing any other spells. Rincewind lives a hand-to-mouth existence in the rancid-smelling, brutish twin city of Ankh-Morpork, of which the following description from the fourth book serves as an excellent example:

"Poets have tried to describe Ankh-Morpork. They have failed. Perhaps it's the sheer zestful vitality of the place, or maybe it's just that a city with a million inhabitants and no sewers is rather robust for poets, who prefer daffodils and no wonder. So let's just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colorful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle, and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound."

Enter Twoflower, from an isolated country on the far side of Discworld (not the flip-side, mind you), an insurance actuary who has decided to become the world's first, and so far only, tourist. Picture him as a pudgy little Asian guy with glasses & a camera slung around his neck. Only the camera is actually a box containing a small demon who paints really sharp pictures really fast.

Twoflower is the exact opposite of Rincewind, particularly as regards his inability to sense danger, his lack of the instinct of self-preservation. Which makes them an interesting team and, eventually, fast friends. Twoflower is accompanied by the Luggage, a magical trunk that walks on 100 tiny legs, seems to have more room on the inside than on the outside, and is, shall we say, ferociously loyal to its master.

Rincewind's job is to show Twoflower the sights of his "quaint, picturesque" corner of the world, while trying to keep both of them from being murdered, mugged, trampled by trolls, fried by dragons, sacrificed by priests, thrown of the rim of the world, and so forth. For part of their journey they are joined by a big, beefy, not too bright warrior hero named Hrun the Barbarian, and later by a "water troll" named Tethis. Meanwhile they are stalked by assassins, thieves, politicians, demons, gods and goddesses, dragons, Druids, astronomer-priests, and pirates, to name but a few of the perils they face. And of course, Rincewind, being a wizard, can only die if Death personally shows up to claim his soul, only he repeatedly fails to die on schedule because (Death finally decides) of a lack of efficiency on Rincewind's part.

The adventures of Rincewind and Twoflower continue in the second Discworld tale, The Light Fantastic.

Anyway, if you need a Douglas Adams fix, do not despair! All is not lost! There are at least a couple dozen Discworld books, and if you buy them one at a time, you should be able to decide for yourself whether they're worth the investment without too much financial risk... though I've read them all now, and I'm pretty much convinced!

The Light Fantastic

The second Discworld novel picks up at the cliffhanger ending of The Color of Magic. Actually, it's a bit past the cliff-hanging stage, since everyone is already plunging to their deaths. Once again we join Rincewind, Twoflower, and the increasingly frustrated Luggage in a series of adventures that takes them even farther, wider, and into more danger.

This time they are joined by an 87-year-old, semi-retired hero named Cohen the Barbarian, who has a bad back, no teeth, chilblains on his feet, and a magnificent horse whose saddle is topped by a hemorrhoid ring, but who is STILL the leanest, meanest, treasure-stealingest, sword-fightingest, virgin-rescuingest hero in the world.

Joined as well by the latest rescued virgin, fetchingly named Bethan, they elude trolls, mercenaries, and mobs of religious fanatics while trying to save the world from colliding with a Red Giant AND from a very ambitious wizard named Trymon who is willing to join forces with the Outer Darkness...

It's a lovely adventure, and you'll really get a kick out of Rincewind and Twoflower. And though the next Discworld book (Equal Rites) moves on to a different circle of characters, fear not. You will see them again!

Equal Rites

Already in this third Discworld book, it becomes clear that you can read the series in any order you please. Well, mostly. It has very little to do with the first two books (The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic), but it introduces another set of characters you will enjoy for many Discworld novels to come.

First you meet Granny Weatherwax, a village witch from the rustic Ramtop mountains, who understands as well as anyone that Witch Magic and Wizard Magic are totally different things, and only a woman can be a witch, and only a man can be a wizard. The problem is, a female wizard has sprouted up right under her nose.

For a dying wizard (amusingly named Drum Billet), magically drawn to the mountain village of Bad Ass (don't ask!) to bestow his power on the eighth son of an eighth son (don't ask!!), dies before realizing that the child in question is actually a daughter.

Little Esk learns Witch magic from Granny Weatherwax, who is actually not her granny. But her gift for Wizard magic also surfaces and cannot be controlled. So against all odds, the two of them set off for Ankh-Morpork to enroll Esk, if possible, in the all-male Unseen University. In spite of making friends with a gifted young novice named Simon (who has severe hay fever, pimples, and a stammer), things don't work out as smoothly as Esk might wish...but when the Things from the Outer Darkness try to possess Simon, Esk is the only one who can save him!

It's again, a very fun adventure, and it has puns in it that would make Piers Anthony blush. But, it also has good characters and presents an interesting theory of magic, to interest all you Potterheads.


Technically this is the fourth Discworld book, though it isn't directly connected to any of the ones before it. It's about a clumsy but good-natured farm boy named Mort (short for Mortimer) who, for lack of any other employment, gets taken on as Death's apprentice.

Death has already proven to be an interesting and often funny character (at one point, you see him trying to play bridge with War, Pestilence, and Famine, and at another point he makes a thinly veiled reference to the classic chiller "Masque of the Red Death"). Now it seems death is going through a midlife crisis, if any word that has "life" in it can apply. Death is thinking about getting a different job, experiencing the human condition, and letting Mort take over the business.

Unfortunately, Mort falls in love with a princess whose soul he is supposed to harvest, and while Death is off fly-fishing, getting drunk, and moonlighting as a short-order cook, Mort is messing around with fate, reality, and the fabric of existence itself.

Meanwhile, Death's adopted daughter (don't ask!) has fallen in love with Mort, and an inept young wizard and death's manservant, who happens to be a very ept and very old wizard, also get involved.

There is intrigue, there is suspense, there is danger, there is romance, there is terrible magic, and there is a Pale Horse named, would you believe, Binky. It's a very entertaining yarn, and among its attractions are cameo appearances by Rincewind and the orangutan Librarian of the Unseen University ("Oook.")


This, the fifth novel of Discworld (though I don't know if chronology has anything to do with it) finds Rincewind living with the Luggage in a sort of utility closet at the Unseen University Library, unofficially assisting the orangutan Librarian. So his job mainly consists of fetching bananas.

But then something awful happens. A wizard has broken the "Lore" and gotten romantically involved (indeed, married) with a woman, has fathered seven wizards and then, his eighth son (being the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son) is a "wizard squared," or a sourcerer.

Sourcery is the primordial magic that was not meant for men, and its existence in these latter times threatens to tear the world apart. Particularly in the hands of a ten-year-old boy who is being ruthlessly controlled by the embittered spirit of his dead father, which controls him through the wizard staff father passed to son.

Anyway you learn a lot about why wizards are supposed to be celibate, and you also meet Conina, the beautiful daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, who wants to be a hairdresser but is predestined by genetics to be a high-kicking, swashbuckling heroine. Together Rincewind and Conina flee from U. U. with the Archchancellor's hat (don't ask!) in hopes of stopping the Sourcerer from using magic to take over the world.

They meet such interesting characters and creatures as slave drivers; a Seriph (like a caliph) who likes to drink wine, write bad poetry and listen to stories told by his concubines; a pimply, asthmatic, middle-class boy who was inspired to become a barbarian hero by a how-to book written by Cohen (he styles himself, ahem, Nijel the Destroyer, and his mother makes him wear long underwear along with the usual scanty leather costume); a genie in a lamp; Ice Giants; three very drunk Horsemen of the Apocralypse (that is also not a misspelling); a basilisk (which is described as having the legs of a mermaid, the teeth of a fowl, the wings of a snake, and the hair of a tortoise); a geas (you'll just have to find out about that one; or see Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones); lots of very ticked-off wizards; a magic carpet; and a great deal more character development of the Luggage than one has hitherto expected.

Wyrd Sisters

The Discworld novels continue in a funny, philosophical succession of age-old fairy tales touched up by a modern hand. The sixth in the series gets its title from a fine distinction (weird vs. Wyrd) that reminds me of the distinction between "fairy" and "Faerie" in J.R.R. Tolkien's Smith of Wooton Major.

Granny Weatherwax has returned (see Equal Rites), along with a newly formed "coven" of neighboring witches in the Ramtops mountains. They happen to live in the kingdom of Lancre, which is a 10-by-40-mile strip of forest in the mountains with a few villages and one town, also known as Lancre.

Besides the strictly-no-nonsense Granny Weatherwax, the Lancre coven includes Nanny Ogg, a hard-drinking, hard-swearing, thrice-married mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother many times over (each), who is waited on hand and foot by a tribe of gray-faced daughters-in-law whose names she never bothers to remember; and Magrat Garlick, a young witch full of the modern, earth-goddess, bangles-and-charms-and-dances-in-the-moonlight notions of witchcraft, of which Granny always says something like "I'm not having with such nonsense." Their coven is gathers weekly or monthly to bicker about their different approaches to magic... until...

Until Verence, King of Lancre, is murdered by his Macbeth-like cousin, the Duke, who is egged on by his Lady-Macbeth-like wife, the Duchess. Only a loyal servant gets away with the kingly crown and the infant heir to the throne, passes it (almost American football style) to the witches, who palm it off on a troupe of actors for safekeeping.

Each of the witch-godmothers gives the infant a parting gift, and good ones too, which basically result in the boy being the most natural actor in all creation. The troupe includes a dwarf who, contrary to his genetics, is a literary genius who writes great plays that become even greater when young Tomjon (as the prince is known) acts in them.

But back in Lancre the duke is becoming paranoid, and the Duchess is becoming dangerous, and the ghost of King Verence is restless, and the court Fool is falling in love with Margat, and what with one thing and another the witches risk a little dangerous meddling in political affairs by trying to hasten Tomjon back to his royal destiny, while the Fool carries a commission to the dwarf-bard (Hwel) for a very special play...

There are a lot of references to Shakespeare in this story, which is basically Hamlet meets Macbeth with a generous dollop of The Tempest on top. It demonstrates how Pratchett takes old material, combines and transforms it in his own exciting and delightful way. Plus you can blush and laugh at the same time when contemplating Nanny Ogg's drinking songs, entitled "The Hedgehog Cannot Be Buggered At All" and "A Wizard's Staff Has a Knob On The End."