Sunday, March 30, 2008

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."

1 comment:

rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.