Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sourcery by: Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett opens his fifth Discworld novel by stating the origin of an eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son: a wizard squared, a source of magic, a Sourcerer.  Sourcery is the first Discworld novel to return to a previous storyline as its main plot (The Light Fantastic doesn’t really count as that’s a direct sequel to The Color of Magic and they work together as one story).  This installment returns to the story of Rincewind who actually gets to go on an adventure where is characteristic cowardice and ability to talk his way out of situations is actually one of the solutions to the plot.  I contend that one of the issues of the first three Discworld novels read like short story anthologies to the detriment of their plots and my overall enjoyment.  Mort as a novel improved on this to show that Terry Pratchett can write some great stuff when he focuses his effort on one plot and message with generally linear progression from exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.  Sourcery, while keeping two plots going, at least does that to great effect while adding in Pratchett’s brand of comedy and commentary.

This time the commentary is twofold.  First as we are returning to the Unseen University, Pratchett is writing on gripes with traditionalism and bureaucracy.  Touched upon in Equal Rites, the Unseen University is obsessed with the procedure of gaining wizardry levels like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.  Coin, the Sourcerer of the title, comes to the University and finds it laughable at the lack of power the so called “eighth-level” wizards have and immediately enacts changes.  This brings up Pratchett’s second commentary, the throwing the baby with the bathwater in the changes.  This is revealed slowly over the course of the novel as his initial changes of replacing the Archchancellor and allowing everyone to improve in magic and reach new heights.  That changes when Coin decides that the library books must be burned down because they are of the old ways and he will bring the new ways of Sourcery.  It’s okay though because the Librarian locks himself in and saves the books.

Coin, while responsible for doing these terrible things, is not the villain of this novel.  Coin is just the victim of circumstance in this situation as his actions have been manipulated by the spirit of his father.  Coin is just a child and has this childlike desire of escaping to what would be his perfect world, which he does in the end.  His father, Ipslore the Red, is introduced on his deathbed with a scene with Death.  Ipslore had passions of the heart and against the lore of Magic he went and got himself a wife and had eight sons.  He was against the idea that wizards shouldn’t be falling in love and having kids, because he thinks that’s the pinnacle of life and without love life wouldn’t be worth living.  Death responds with cat’s are nice in a lovely nod to Mort.  Ipslore ends up cheating Death, who reacts appropriately.  Ipslore’s soul is placed in his staff and it is through this that he influences his son.  It’s his vendetta and Pratchett doesn’t actually explore this aspect of the novel that much except at the end of the novel when Rincewind is trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions, the University is saved, Ipslore is taken by Death, and Coin goes off to his own little world to enjoy the rest of his life.

Oh yeah, Rincewind doesn’t get a happy ending in this one.  The Luggage is smart enough to get him out of the University before Coin’s reign of terror begins, but as the hat of the Archchancellor is stolen by Conina, Cohen the Barbarian’s daughter, he’s on an adventure in no time fast.  Rincewind as a wizard hears the voice of the hat whispering in his ear to escape the city.  This takes them to Al Khali, a parody of Disney’s Aladdin and stories of that like which is a large section of the novel.  The party gains a few new members in the form of Nijel the Destroyer (a barbarian in training who falls in love with Conina) and Creosote (the seraph of the city who is just an idiot who allows his evil Vizier to run the city).  There are shenanigans with magic carpets, snake pits, snakes, and a rather small genie before returning to Ankh-Morpork.  The Patrician is turned into a lizard and Rincewind again has to face the Things in the Dungeon Dimension where he remains.  I won’t ruin most of the best jokes of Pratchett, but the novel is a great one with some issues with choosing not to go down certain possible story paths in favor of returning to Rincewind.  8/10.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Mort by: Terry Pratchett

Sometimes a book will come along and reach deeply into the heart of the reader and not let itself go until you’ve finished.  Sometimes it’s because of an amazing plot, sometimes it’s because of amazing characters, and sometimes (just a few sometimes mind you) it’s because it’s a book that comes around at just the right time to read.  Something similar to all three of these things happened to me when reading Terry Pratchett’s fourth Discworld novel, Mort, or as I would have called it Death’s Apprentice.  Mort is the first Discworld novel that Terry Pratchett would describe in his own words as a good book and is the first in the series to feature Death as a major character.  Yes, he had appearances in the other books, but here he’s really one of the highlights.

Death’s motivations for taking on an apprentice are varied, but include two major points.  First, he wishes his adopted daughter Ysabell to have someone her own age to talk to and second, he’s not quite satisfied with his lot in life.  Oh yes he realizes life and Death isn’t fair, that if he leaves his position whoever replaces him will be worse than him because he will remember living, and that he really doesn’t have a choice in the matter.  None of this matters as he tries it anyway and Pratchett writes Death in such a way that you really feel bad for the guy.  He’s somehow the most human and inhuman character of the novel.  He has the power to stop time, slice reality, yet his horse’s name is Binky and he likes cats.  He doesn’t quite understand the concepts of love or fun; music and dancing cause him to be flustered; he can be drunk and sober whenever he wishes; he drinks an entire bar; and yet the climax of the novel is an ultimatum: a fight between him and Mort.  This is where in the novel he is presented as an extremely menacing figure ready to kill Mort, yet in the final scene he is adorably grateful that he was invited to Mort and Ysabell’s wedding.

Ysabell made her first appearance in The Light Fantastic and here in Mort she’s gotten a bit of a change in the character department.  She’s still crazy and immediately dislike’s Mort when her father brings him home, which means that by the end of the novel they are married happily.  She has been sixteen for thirty years because time does not work the same in Death’s domain.  She’s been annoying Albert, Death’s manservant/butler/closest thing to friend, by taking books out of Death’s library about girls and reading them.  She has extreme sexual tension with Mort and they eventually find themselves the duke and duchess of a land, due to Mort’s meddling with time.  Of course Mort meddles with someone’s fate because he has some sort of attraction and this is where the book falters.  Princess Kelli is supposed to be who we are rooting for as she is accidentally saved from assassination by Mort while doing the Duty and while the plot revolves around her not being dead, Pratchett cuts back to her plot too many times for comfort and it gets boring.  She’s just there so we can get to the Unseen University with Albert, fix reality, and get Mort and Ysabell set up as a couple.

Albert is a much more entertaining character, even if he is a bit minor.  He’s your standard curmudgeonly old man who does his job, is good for a bit of a chat, but is harboring a great secret about his past.  He’s actually the founder of the Unseen University, where we actually get a cameo from Rincewind which is entertaining, and he’s probably able to keep Death calm and convince him to get back to his job.  He also becomes afraid of Mort when Mort starts to become Death which is an intriguing transformation, if not a complete one.  Mort is the emotional centerpiece of the novel.  Pratchett brings him quickly into the hearts of the reader by setting him up as the black sheep of his family.  He is sent to be picked up as an apprentice and has to wait until midnight, when all the other candidates are gone before Death comes along to make him his apprentice.  He’s not emotionally stable, probably stemming from his bad family life, and cannot help himself in saving a poor girl when he should have been doing his job and leading her on to the next life.  His quick wit and quick understanding of Death and his ways is something that really endears the reader to him further.  His slow transformation into the new Death happens by a few words in the same text style of small capital letters that Death’s dialogue uses.  His eyes become blue and he begins to lose control of himself.  He is a great character and he and Ysabell’s romance actually works well.  Mort as a novel gets an 8/10.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Equal Rites by: Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites is about million in one chances, eighth sons of eighth sons, men, women, witches, wizards, and numbers.  Terry Pratchett’s third Discworld novel takes on a new main character in the form of Esk Smith, meant to be an eighth son of an eighth son and ergo a wizard, but she comes out a daughter.  She still becomes a wizard of course, but not without lack of trying as Drum Billet passes on his powers before the cosmic mix up can be found and our dear old Death takes him away before they can be taken back, and now we have Esk destined to become a wizard even if the world around her tells her that women cannot be wizards.  Witches surely but never wizards.  Ironic that this is a girl power narrative often confused to be written by a woman implying that men cannot write satisfactory girl power narratives.

The simple girl power narrative in the book is the weakest aspect, mainly because after the first few mentions and the first few times Esk overcomes someone saying she cannot do something because she’s a girl, it becomes rather boring as the book comes to the same flaws as The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic.  The plot is paper thin and really there so Pratchett can move from one scenario to another scenario.  At least we do not have a third book of this happening to Rincewind and Twoflower, as they’re characters are developed enough as a third book would have the narrative become stale.  Pratchett decides to introduce an entirely new set of characters to facilitate a new story.  Eskarina Smith is the novel’s plucky young protagonist, who is written perfectly as a child.  Esk never feels like one of those too perfect to believe perfect children, nor one of those too evil to believe troubled children.  She has her moments of naiveite, not understanding how the world works and her wizard’s staff facilitating this worldview through its weird actions.

The bulk of the book is taken up by Esk and Granny Weatherwax journeying to the great city of Ankh-Morpork to enroll Esk in the Unseen University.  They get in all sorts of troubles on their travels including bar fights, fortune telling, and defending the Unseen University from the Things from the Dungeon Dimension in the book’s rather rushed climax.  Granny Weatherwax is a character who will reappear in later books, but here she is just a supporting player in Esk’s story.  Granny is a witch who specializes in herbs and headology, basically telling people what they would like to hear causing their own futures to line up.  She can of course do magic and you would regret crossing her, but why bother when her methods work wonders.  Weatherwax is a kind soul deep down, but she puts on a stern air as she teaches Esk witchcraft and begrudgingly takes her to the Unseen University.  She has no real time for wizards and their so called pure magic and steals the scene whenever she’s present.

The final important major character is Simon, a wizard in training with a stuttering problem.  Simon is quite a poor character as he immediately falls for Esk who is only happy to help him speak.  He’s got extremely powerful magic powers, but is obsessed with working through complex mathematics which are magic in their own right, and sitting back while abuse is hurled at him constantly.  It is through poor Simon that the Things nearly enter our world, but he eventually gets better.  There are plenty minor characters in the novel with highlights being the librarian of the Unseen University (an orangutan) and Archchancellor Cutangle who has no chance of getting together with Granny Weatherwax, but sadly the book does not do enough with the abundance of characters to leave the deepest of impressions.  5/10.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Light Fantastic by: Terry Pratchett

The Light Fantastic is an interesting novel if you are coming to the Discworld with no prior experience to the series like I am.  It is first and foremost a direct sequel to The Color of Magic, but it demonstrates a real improvement in the writing style as Pratchett, while not doing a satire on anything more than fantasy tropes as was with The Color of Magic, has improved at telling a story and sticking to that story.  The format of The Color of Magic as four short stories which allows for Pratchett to tell two great ones and two average ones, but The Light Fantastic is first and foremost a character piece.  This character piece is based on that of our incompetent wizard Rincewind, who only knows one spell from the Octavo which jumped into his head and has been waiting for the right moment to jump out.  The problem with this one is that Rincewind isn’t exactly a deep character.  Sure he’s extremely enjoyable to follow, but he doesn’t really have much growth or development beyond being a coward and being manipulated into doing the Octavo’s bidding.

The more interesting character of this novel is Trymon, the kniving wizard who becomes the Archchancellor of the Unseen University after an accident with the Luggage kills the old one who was trying to summon the final spell of the Octavo.  Trymon is one of those villains with one character trait and a lust for power, coming straight out of a hammy B-movie, he invites the audience into his thoughts in a series of schemes before his eventual defeat.  There’s a reason that Tim Curry plays him in the television adaptation of the novel as there’s nobody else who could really play Trymon.  He could do without the tentacles at the end though.

While the format of the novel was indeed improved upon, there is still a very episodic nature to the events.  The plot is tied together with a shooting star signaling the time that all eight spells of the Octavo are to be read before the end of the world.  Of course it is up to Rincewind and Twoflower to stop this, even if they end up reading the spells and the Disc continues to be except the Great A’Tuin gives birth to eight baby space turtles.  The plot is tied up very loosely and Terry Pratchett has gone on record saying he didn’t really know where he wanted the book to go at points and it shows.  There are some amazing scenes: Cohen the Barbarian and Bethan have a great relationship, the eating of the gingerbread house abandoned by a witch because of those horrible children, Twoflower teaching the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse how to play bridge and Death becoming addicted to it, and Death’s daughter Ysabell are all highlights of the novel, but the whole is still not the sum of its parts.  The book is extremely enjoyable overall, but feels like it’s a first draft with no endgoal in mind.  7/10.