Tuesday, 23 March 2021

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Ankh-Morpork is the greatest city on the Discworld - a flat planet carried through space on the back of four elephants standing astride a giant turtle - and has seen fire, flood, famine and even the odd barbarian invasion during its long history, but even it is unprepared for the arrival of a much more devastating threat: tourism. Twoflower is the first visitor to the city from the distant Agatean Empire, and is happy wandering around taking "pictures of the sights" with a magic box and soaking up the authentic atmosphere. This behaviour in Ankh-Morpork would normally result in him having the lifespan of a mayfly confronted by a supernova, but luckily the wizard Rincewind has kindly volunteered to be his guide and protector in return for not having his extremities removed by the city's Patrician, who is anxious to avoid insulting a foreign power with an army in the millions.

Unfortunately, Twoflower's attempts to introduce the concept of fire insurance to the hardy and creative business-owners of Ankh-Morpork results in an enforced flight from the burning metropolis and the beginning of a long and very strange journey across the Disc, taking in dragons, spaceships and the fabled temple of Bel-Shamharoth along the way. All the while the only spell that has ever managed to lodge itself in Rincewind's mind is very keen to get itself said, which could be a very bad idea indeed... 

There is no more disheartening notion than the one which has sadly been reality for the past six years: the Discworld series is complete. There will, never again, be a new Discworld novel (or any other) published by Terry Pratchett. This state of affairs was once unthinkable: almost annually between 1983 and 2015 - and sometimes two or even three times a year - a new Pratchett book would be released and cheerfully climb to the top of the bestseller lists, glowing in critical acclaim and adulation. It was easy to take Pratchett and his books for granted, that is until there were no more.

But whilst that state of affairs is sad, it does mean we can now sit down and consider the Discworld series as a whole, and its position in the wider fantasy and literary canons. Pratchett was a funny, human writer, a reluctant (but accomplished) worldbuilder, a canny satirist and a fierce critic of human nature. His books fairly overbrim with intelligence, vigour and, occasionally, genuine anger at the state of the world. Discworld was the mirror he used to shine a light on real-world concerns, sometimes just to gently poke fun at them and sometimes to eviscerate them with savage, forensic analysis. If he occasionally faltered - there's a few (and only a few) books he wrote mid-series which sometimes felt a bit too reminiscent of earlier books - it was only briefly and usually still entertainingly.

A lot of that came later, though. The first book in the series, The Colour of Magic (1983), was conceived as a one-off, an attempt by Pratchett to improve his writing career that was, if not in danger, than certainly faltering. His debut novel, The Carpet People (1971), had been a successful children's book but Pratchett had been reluctant to get typecast as a kids' writer. His next two novels, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981), had been adult-aimed science fiction, with a more serious edge. They'd been greeted with near-total bafflement and faded into obscurity almost instantly. Despite that, Pratchett had been tickled by the idea in Strata of a flat planet and, having failed to make the subject sing in SF, reworked it into a satire of fantasy tropes. This proved much more successful and The Colour of Magic became a near-instant, surprise hit.

The Colour of Magic exists in a bit of an odd state when viewed from 2021. As a satire of fantasy, it works. It's funny and breezy and succeeds because it has a serious edge to it as well. Pratchett is smart enough to know that it's much better to satirise something you love, and that a lot of comedy that despises what it's poking fun at just ends up being obvious and mean-spirited. Pratchett was a deep-seated, genuine fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Anne McCaffrey, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and the book overflows with affectionate pastiches of those authors (well, apart from Tolkien, which Pratchett thought was too obvious). So Rincewind and Twoflower meet barely-concealed analogues of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, with Ankh-Morpork here feeling like Lankhmar with the serial numbers filed off, before teaming up with Conan the Barbarian Mk. II and getting into trouble with Budget Cthulhu and an entire civilisation of Dragonriders of Pern-wannabes. A few Zelazny-isms get trotted out, with Ankh-Morpork being apparently the ur-fantasy city, the one all other fantasy cities are but shadows of, like Amber if Amber had a massive homelessness and civic disorder problem. Pratchett's erudite wordplay also recalls Vance's Dying Earth, although even Pratchett struggles to match the sheer vocabularic firepower of on-form Vance.

Taken on its own merits, this is all entertaining, if risking being dated horribly: the authors who were the touchstones of any self-respecting fantasy collection in 1983 certainly are not in 2021. Fortunately, Pratchett uses the satirical strokes of the setting to propel his own narrative and his own characters. Rincewind, a wizard who can't use proper magic due to a powerful uber-spell sitting in his brain, scaring off all other comers, works as the Only Sane Man protagonist who frequently responds to any given situation exactly how most people would (i.e. running like hell) and only finds himself motivated to apparently heroic action through the threat of an even worse punishment or by coincidence. Rincewind isn't quite at the Harry Flashman/Ciaphas Cain level of "selfish coward whom things work out for anyway," but he's at least nodding in that direction. Twoflower is also an engaging character, his early appearance as a hapless buffoon quickly replaced by his characterisation as an intelligent observer of events unfolding around him, which he sometimes feel doesn't apply to him as a tourist (despite no-one else knowing what a tourist is).

Of course, The Colour of Magic also has to be contrasted against the later Discworld novels. In that light, the novel may be considered an absolute primal example of Early Instalment Weirdness (warning: TVTropes link), with a lot of things that clash with later books. Pratchett's writing style is much less polished here, his sense of humour a bit broader and more obvious than normal, and character development is less-assured. Both the Patrician and Death are characterised much more differently to their later appearances (with Death's motivations and character being heavily retconned just three books later, in Mort), to the point that some fans have pondered if it's actually a different Patrician here. The book is solid, but also a bit disposable. Readers approaching the novel from the knowledge it has forty successor books which have cumulatively sold a hundred million copies and is one of most critically-acclaimed fantasy series of all time, may feel a bit baffled at the slightness of this work.

The book is also oddly-structured, in being four self-contained, episodic narratives that have been combined to form a novel-length work, like a fixup novel. I'm not sure why - Pratchett never seems to have considered individually publishing the four episodes as short stories in magazines - but it both gives the novel a feeling of pace but also of being rushed, with each of the sections of a very short novel (which is barely 280 pages long in paperback as it is) roaring along at manic speed before transitioning to the next episode.

If you want to find out why Pratchett is one of the 20th Century's best-selling British authors and most popular fantasy authors of all time, The Colour of Magic (***½) may disappoint or leave you a bit puzzled. This is embryonic Discworld, slotting pieces to place to serve as the foundations for later greatness. But as a stand-alone, affectionate satire of fantasy, and not just the usual suspects, it remains quite entertaining. The story continues (for the only time in the series) directly into the sequel, The Light Fantastic. The novel is available in the UK and USA now.

Note: I published an earlier review of the book here.

1 comment:

mffanrodders said...

Quite a timely review. I stopped reading Sir Terry’s books some time ago. Not for any specific reason, but my reading habits changed. Lately, I’ve been downloading them when the Kindle edition comes up cheaply on Amazon. I have a yen to re read them all.