Sunday, March 30, 2008

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.

No comments: