Monday, 19 July 2021

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Imp y Celyn, a musician from a druidic society, arrives in Ankh-Morpork to seek his fortune. Unfortunately, the entry fees to the Musicians' Guild are unaffordable and playing without their sanction is a good way of finding out if you actually need functioning hands or not. Joining forces with Glod and Lias (a dwarf hornblower and a troll drummer), Imp finds a strange guitar in a back-alley shop and inadvertently introduces the Discworld to Music with Rocks In. But the music wants to live forever, which means killing its creator. For Susan, the young Duchess of Sto Helit and granddaughter of Death (it's a long story), filling in for her grandpa whilst he takes a break, this presents her a tough quandary in her first week on the job.

Soul Music, the sixteenth book of the Discworld series, interrupts Terry Pratchett's imperial run of form in the series by not being stupendously excellent (after the one-two-three punch of Small Gods, Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms), instead settling for merely being pretty good. Pratchett is retreading old ground here, bringing rock music to the Discworld for study and satire in the same way he earlier tackled shopping malls (Reaper Man) and movies (Moving Pictures).

It's a solid formula and competently executed, but it still makes for something of a formulaic novel. Even the major subplot, in which Death takes some time off and mayhem results (for the third time in a dozen books), feels like we're in familiar territory.

Fortunately, formulaic and competent Pratchett is still pretty good by any standards. It helps that the novel's effective protagonist, Susan, is one of Pratchett's better characters, a sensible young woman who goes through life flummoxed at the sheer stupidity of many of her fellows and constantly trying to work out how to make things work out for the best. Susan does recur in several later novels, though she doesn't quite break through to the top tier of Pratchett characters like Vimes or Granny Weatherwax. There's also a surprising hard edge to her backstory, which relies on foreknowledge of Mort and makes the events of that novel somewhat bittersweet in retrospect.

The novel is funny, packed with references to classic rock singers, albums, lyrics and even cover art (the cover art makes a nod at Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell), though I wonder how some of these references have aged in 2021. Will as many people get the Michael Jackson, Blues Brothers, Buddy Holly, Sex Pistols and Who references now as then? If you do, then the book becomes genuinely a laugh riot as it riffs on real rock and roll events and history (both outright and subtly), gently but affectionately poking fun at the absurdity of the genre.

Still, greatness eludes the novel because it is so similar to previous books, not helped by Archchancellor Ridcully walking around giving metacommentary on how similar the events are to previous books. It also feels a bit odd, given their heroism and effectiveness in the prior novel, that the City Watch (here cameoing outside their own series) are treated as incompetent and ineffective buffoons here.

Soul Music (****) is entertaining and readable, especially if you are a classic rock fan, but still can't help but feel a bit of a letdown after the supreme quality of the books leading up to it. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. An animated version of the novel, produced in 1997 by Cosgrove Hall, is available on YouTube. I previously reviewed the novel here.

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