Monday, November 22, 2010

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, 1983

Like Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Terry Pratchett's series of genre-skewering Discworld novels have amassed a rabid cult of fans. The Discworld series is complex, interconnected and rather daunting at first glance, but I was pleased to find that the first volume, The Color of Magic, stands well on its own.

It's also the most delightful romp through a wacky fantasy world since the Oz books. The novel is fast, funny and utterly original. It gleefully mocks the tropes and cliches of the fantasy genre while developing a universe that works as more than a platform for jokes.

When naive tourist Twoflower arrived in the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork, he soon falls in with the wizard Rincewind, who he employs as his tour guide. Unfortunately for Twoflower, Rincewind is quite possibly the "most incompetent wizard in the known universe."

Together, Rincewind and Twoflower travel the Discworld, stumbling into misadventure after misadventure, including an encounter with a Lovecraftian monster, a run-in with a nation of dragonriders living on an upside-down mountain and nearly becoming human sacrifices for the Disworld's first space voyage.

The book is terrific fun. It is amazing for the sheer audacity of its scope and the inspired lunacy of Pratchett's creatures and cultures. Hydrophobic wizards? The deadly number eight? A living piece of homicidal Luggage? One author hasn't created this many memorable concepts since Adams's first Hitchhiker's novel.

Pratchett is also a fabulous wordsmith in the grand tradition of P.G. Wodehouse. His fantastical prose is just a pleasure to read, as is his witty dialogue:

Twoflower sat down on an ornate mother-of-pearl chair with a glass of oily wine in one hand and a crystallized squid in the other. He frowned.

"I think I've missed something along the way," he said. "First we were told we were going to be slaves--"

"A base canard!" interrupted Garhartra.

"What's a canard?" asked Twoflower.

"I think it's a kind of duck," said Rincewind from the far end of the long table. "Are these biscuits made of something really nauseating, do you suppose?"

"--and then we were rescued at great magical expense--"

"They're made of pressed seaweed," snapped the Guestmaster.

"--but then we're threatened, also at a vast expenditure of magic--"

"Yes, I thought it would be something like seaweed," agreed Rincewind. "They certainly taste like seaweed would taste if anyone was masochistic enough to eat seaweed."

"--and then we're manhandled by guards and thrown in here--"

"Pushed gently," corrected Garhartra.

"--which turned out to be this amazingly rich room and there's all this food and a man saying he's devoting his life to making us happy," Twoflower concluded. "What I'm getting at is this sort of lack of consistency."

"Yar," said Rincewind. "What he means is, are you about to start being generally unpleasant again? Is this just a break for lunch?"
---(pages 182-183)

Just as much fun as the crazy creatures and amusing wordplay are the characters themselves. Even though Rincewind and Twoflower are in the middle of pure insanity, they both really start to endear themselves to you. The hapless, anti-heroic Rincewind is just hilarious and Twoflower's wide-eyed innocence is a perfect counterbalance. The supporting characters are excellent, too: Hrun the Barbarian, who struggles to count to three, Kring the talking sword, Death himself, the aforementioned Luggage.

The book isn't entirely without flaws. The opening segment is the weakest, and doesn't do the best job of integrating the novice reader into Discworld. Pratchett's writing has a distinctive, purely original rhythm that takes time to get used to; it can be jarring at first.

But once you're immersed, The Color of Magic is a smart, fast-paced joy to read. It's very funny, sometimes hilarious, but it also creates characters and a world that genuinely work as more than just a joke machine. I definitely look forward to visiting the Discworld again.

NEXT UP: I am currently working through both The Brothers Karamazov and Diana Gabaldon's fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross. They're both huge books, and it's been a slow reading month. The very next one I review will probably be Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

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