Sunday, March 30, 2008

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.

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