Saturday, 14 August 2021

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

The remote and mysterious Agatean Empire has sent a request to Ankh-Morpork, demanding that the "Great Wizzard" be sent to them. After thorough research and exacting study (or about five minutes of asking around), the faculty at Unseen University determine this to be a request for Rincewind, nominal wizard and adventurer-at-large who once had dealings with a representative of the Empire. Rincewind is, reluctantly, rescued from his new home (a tropical paradise which doesn't seem to want to kill him for once) and transported to the Empire, where he finds the politest revolution in history is underway and the capital city is about to be assaulted by a horde of (seven) formidable barbarian warriors. Unfortunately, he finds his exploits and power have been "marginally" exaggerated by his old friend Twoflower...

Interesting Times, our seventeenth visit to the Discworld, marks the return of Rincewind and the Luggage for the first time since the mini-novel Eric, and the first appearance of Twoflower since The Light Fantastic, fifteen books earlier. Pratchett probably chose to revisit the OG Discworld characters due to a sense of occasion: the novel was largely written during the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Colour of Magic, at a point when the series' profile and success were booming. There was also a feeling that recent Discworld novels had become fairly complex in terms of story and character depth, and Pratchett wanted to get "back to basics," as it were, with another Rincewind travelogue adventure.

The problem is that by this point in the conception of the series, Discworld had really moved far beyond being a series of knockabout comedy novels and a return to that format does it little favours. Pratchett does try to make this first visit to the Disc's equivalent of China more interesting, with a full-scale revolution in progress, but he shies away from using the setting to make the similar kind of points he did about religion and politics in the classic Small Gods. He does, laudably, mostly avoid any kind of lazy stereotyping of Chinese culture, though a few clunky lines slip through. Twoflower is fairly underwhelming and low-key on his return, and the Horde feels like the same joke that was already every effectively made in The Light Fantastic being regurgitated for the sake of it. Pratchett also seems a bit uncertain in tackling the Empire storyline, to the point that the book is almost a third done before we even get there, leaving events there also feeling quite rushed and its villain not really developed.

The book does have a few good points. There's some good humour from the meeting of minds that is Ridcully encountering Rincewind, and the Unseen University metastory gets a bit more development as we encounter Hex, the Discworld's first computer. The more sophisticated Pratchett of the mid-1990s does do a good job of making Rincewind a bit more fleshed-out as a character, although this does seem mostly achieved by making him a bit more unlikeable than he was previously. There's also some entertaining gags which do work quite well, like the literal terracotta army that's controlled by the exact same icon scheme as the classic 1991 video game Lemmings.

Interesting Times (***) is not quite the weakest Discworld novel, but it may rank among the most disappointing. Pratchett doesn't use the setting or story to illuminate wider themes, at least very well, and if it ultimately avoids being Carry On Up the Yangtze, it doesn't exactly use its setting to great effect either. Still, Rincewind gets some much-needed development, it is fun to see Twoflower and the Luggage again (if only briefly) and the novel passes the time before Pratchett gets his mojo back again. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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