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Friday, December 19, 2008

Discworld: Volumes 1-6

Discworld: Volumes 1-6

By Terry Pratchett

I recently bought most of Pratchett’s Discworld series off Ebay and began reading them in more-or-less chronological order, instead of the hit-or-miss order in which I read six other ones. The first six books come in at about 250 pages or less and that’s with easy-to-read print, so it doesn’t take look to read--I read half of one in two hours at a Starbucks. It seems most economical then to just review these first six all in a bunch instead of one-at-a-time.

The Color of Magic (Or Colour of Magic if you prefer the UK spelling): This is the first Discworld novel, published originally in 1983. I doubt Pratchett thought he’d still be writing the series 25 years later. This first novel serves mostly as a send-up of fantasy epics like “Lord of the Rings” and such and lays out the unusual geography of the Discworld, that being a flat world carried by four elephants on the back of a huge space turtle. The novel deals with Rincewind, a dropout of the Unseen University for wizards, who knows only one magic spell and makes a living on the streets of grubby Ankh-Morpork as best he can. When he is employed by a rich tourist from the far-off Golden Empire, Rincewind thinks he’ll make a quick buck. Little does the cowardly would-be wizard know that he’s gotten himself entangled in a quest that will take him to (and over) the edges of the Disc.

As I said, this largely lays out the geography of the world, with lots of explanations of how the Disc and its various societies, gods, and so forth work. (This includes the “color of magic” to which the title refers; that color is octarine, an eighth primary color.) On its own it’s an amusing novel, though not great. Having read future installments of the series, everything seems a bit off in this first installment. It’s like watching season 20 of “The Simpsons” and then going back to watch an episode of season 1 where the voices of some characters (notably Homer) aren’t quite right. Had I started with this one, I’m not sure I’d have been keen to read 30 more. (3 stars)

The Light Fantastic: This is a direct sequel to “The Color of Magic” and possibly the only direct sequel in the series, though if I’m wrong I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. Anyway, Rincewind thought he was through with crazy adventures, but an even crazier adventure beckons as the great space turtle seems to be on a collision course with a sun. It just might be the one spell Rincewind knows can actually help save the entire Discworld.

Like “The Color of Magic” before it, this one is good, but not great. I think Pratchett had begun the process of settling in more to creating a series instead of just one book. It’s still an amusing read if you have a couple hours to spare. (3 stars)

Equal Rites: This is the first Discworld novel to expand the universe outside of Rincewind. In this case the story revolves around a witch named Granny Weatherwax, who lives in the isolated Ramtop Mountains. On general principles Granny doesn’t like associating with non-witches, but finds herself becoming a mentor and guardian to a little girl named Esk, who seems destined to become a wizard. Just one problem: there’s never been a female wizard before.

There was some good potential for this story in the beginning, but the end never really lived up to it. For one thing, the story focuses itself on too narrow a timeframe, so that we don’t really get to see much of Esk’s challenges in trying to become a witch or her relationship to Simon. That they haven’t reappeared to headline any of the other 30 books probably says something about the author’s detachment to them. On a positive note, though, getting away from Rincewind allowed more of the Discworld universe to evolve. None of the Discworld books are probably essential reading, but this one even less so. (2 stars)

Mort: This is the first Discworld novel that focuses on DEATH as a main character. He appears in most every novel, at least in a cameo, but this novel really fleshes out (bad pun since he hasn’t got any flesh) Death’s world. Death becomes fascinated with humanity and so decides to experiment with human pleasures like drinking and eating, though fortunately not that other human pleasure. Meanwhile, he recruits a young man named Mort to cover for him. When Mort falls in love with one of his victims, the consequences are dire.

Maybe it’s terribly morbid, but DEATH is probably my favorite character in the series to this point. (Second is the Librarian, an orangutan who answers everything with a hearty “Ook.”) I’m pretty sure this laid the groundwork for the Susan character featured in future novels in the series, though I haven’t got to that point yet. Anyway, on its own I liked this novel, though not as much as the later “Reaper Man” that also focuses heavily on DEATH. Still, I’d have to say that of the first group it’s the one I liked best. (4 stars)

Sourcery: After two books Rincewind returns and once more the cowardly non-magical wizard has to save the universe. This time it’s not a collision with a sun about to put an end to the world, but a powerful ten-year-old sourcerer, so called because he serves as a “source” for raw magic—it’s a little complicated. A magic war breaks out among the wizards that threatens to destroy the fabric of reality unless Rincewind can save the day. (So everyone is pretty screwed.)

The Discworld universe continues to evolve with this book, especially the wizards. Rincewind is probably at his best of the three he’s featured in at this point and is forced with a real issue other than survival when he has to take sides against his fellow wizards. The only flaw is at the end some of the characters were left with little to do but stand around and watch the fireworks, so to speak. That’s a little slack storytelling. (3 stars)

Wyrd Sisters: This is the last of the six I’ve read and this time we’re back to Granny Weatherwax last featured in “Equal Rites.” Granny’s got a couple new friends to form a coven—of sorts—that soon finds itself embroiled in political strife involving the assassination of a king and his newborn successor. Much of the story is modeled after works of Shakespeare like “Macbeth” and “Hamlet,” which would probably be more humorous to me if I’d read (or watched) much Shakespeare.

I can’t say I’m overly fond of the Granny Weatherwax character, but I think if you like “Wicked” (the Gregory Maguire book or the musical) you’ll probably enjoy Pratchett’s less-than-fanciful account of witches—and it’s worth noting this came along seven years before Maguire’s book. As I said above, if I knew about Shakespeare I’d have liked it more, but that’s my fault not the book’s. (4 stars)

I got myself a big box of Discworld books for Christmas, so after the holidays I’ll get into that and post some more reviews when and if I feel like it.

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