Posts Tagged ‘Discworld’

Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

Reading Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, has been a surprisingly emotional experience. Setting aside the quality of the book, which I’ll come to in a moment, it made me realise how much of a hero Pratchett is to me, and how hard it is to have mixed feelings about our real life heroes.

Raising Steam

Raising Steam is the 40th of Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Like several recent Discworld stories, it’s about characters facing the march of progress. Steam trains are coming to the Discworld, just as modernity is sending ripples through the ancient culture of the dwarfs. One of these changes leads to excitement and delight, the other to resistance and civil conflict. But Moist Von Lipwig, sometime conman and now a big mover in the city of Ankh-Morpork, has the task of managing these changes, or at least their practicalities. It’s either that or back to the hangman’s noose…

The march of progress

Progress might seem impersonal at times, but the reactions of the Discworld characters are very personal. Dark clerk Drumknot becomes a train enthusiast. Lord Vetinari sees a problem to solve and a tool to achieve it. The conservative dwarf grags see their traditions being undermined by outsiders. Simnel just sees the thing he is building.

In a similar way, our reactions to Pratchett’s ever-evolving writing style are very personal. I suspect that they’re primarily shaped by which of his books we started with.

I started reading Discworld when there were less than a dozen books. My attention was grabbed by Pyramids, Guards! Guards! and Small Gods. As this world grew deeper and richer, and Pratchett’s philosophising more central, I was absolutely sucked in. But somewhere after the twentieth book he started drifting away from the things that I’d loved. There were less laugh-out-loud moments, more direct focus on adventure and social commentary. Those were good things but the balance wasn’t what I wanted any more.

The stories that once made me laugh out loud now made me think, and as a British lefty who had now grown past his teens, the thoughts weren’t terribly new. I know people who’ve come to  his work later and consider his recent works the height of Pratchett brilliance. But me, I seem to be turning into something of a grag, and for a while I’ve been dwelling on the flaws in the Discworld.

Raising problems

Now we come to Raising Steam, and it’s not just age that is shaping my view. I have experience as a writer that I didn’t before, a knowledge of plot and structure that colours the way I read, that allows me to dissect the things I find problematic. Because readable as it is – Pratchett’s prose is still light and easy to absorb without becoming completely weightless – there are a lot of problems with this book.

I don’t want to dwell too long on any of this, because it breaks my heart to say it, but the plot is a damp squib. The characters are never really challenged, overcoming their problems too easily and without any risk of consequence. The initial promise, of a story about the development of the railroad, leads to a payoff that’s actually about the politics of the dwarfs. While the two have thematic connections, this still means that the book’s end doesn’t match its initial promise, which is deeply unsatisfying. Progress happens because its time has come, not through human effort and struggle, and this sort of pre-destined progress really gets my back up, robbing characters of their agency.

There’s also a problem with the dialogue, and it’s not just Simnel’s Yorkshire accent. Many characters have many great lines of dialogue. The problem is that they’ll deliver six of these great lines at once, turning snappy one-liners into speeches, becoming repetitive, slowing the pace and sucking the sense of action from a scene. It’s a real lesson in less is more – on their own these lines would have been classic quotable Pratchett, bundled together they’re a weight dragging the story down.

Keep reading Pratchett!

As I said, I’ve been finding this post hard to write. Pratchett is a huge hero of mine. An inspiring writer of dozens of books who has helped to popularise fantasy. A campaigner for the safety of orangutans, one of the most distinctive of the apes I so love. A man who is publicly battling to live in dignity as his mind gives way, risking public exposure to raise awareness of mental health issues. The man is an absolute legend. If the fantasy community can have national treasures then he is one.

And just as change has, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, affected both Pratchett and his Discworld, so I’ve changed as a reader. I can now do what I couldn’t a decade ago. I can live with the mixed feelings I have, not needing to hold the writer and his works up on a pedestal or to cast them aside.

Please, go out and read something from Pratchett’s Discworld. Read Wyrd Sisters or Pyramids or Guards! Guards!, or anything from about book six through to book 20. If you like those then read the rest. Even on an off day, Pratchett’s usually one of the better writers out there. He is worth your time and worth your admiration.

Just save Raising Steam until last. And when you get there remember that you’re reading for what’s come before, not for this story. Because progress is inevitable, and it can be great, but it isn’t always kind.

This book may not be great, but Terry Pratchett is. Sir Terry, I salute you!

I love monkeys. Not in the bad way, like those ancient folks who bred with horses and gave us the centaur menace. In a clean, wholesome, childish fascination kind of way. Because monkeys are awesome.

I should clarify that I don’t just mean monkeys, I mean all apes. But ‘monkey’ is a far better word to say. Just role it around in your mouth for a moment. Monkey. Then ape. It’s like deciding between trousers and pants. Let me tell you, Americans and other linguistic heathens, you are missing out by abandoning the trouser.

Monkeys know how to live

Monkeys know how to live

It was a trip to the zoo on my way back from holiday seven years ago that cemented apes among my favourite creatures. I watched the gibbons going nuts in their cages, swinging around, screeching, rattling the bars, flashing their teeth and everything else at passers by. And I thought to myself, that looks like fun. Those guys know how to live.

But what’s even better than a monkey? A science fiction or fantasy monkey of course. So here are some of my favourites.

The Librarian

You’re civilised folks, so I’m going to assume that you’ve read some Terry Pratchett. And while those books are full of great characters, by far my favourite is the librarian.

The librarian is basically the part of my brain that wants to be a gibbon. Transformed into an orangutan, he not only accepts his change of state but relishes it. It’s pure wish fulfilment, staying smart enough to read but dumb enough to communicate in ‘ook’s, swinging through the rafters by your toes, eating bananas and screeching at idiots.

And lets face it, what bookish nerd hasn’t wanted the strength and social licence to beat their mockers senseless?

Toy Story 3

I never watched Toy Story 3 before last night. I know, shame on me. It’s a beautiful work of children’s fantasy, full of noble ideals and talking toys. But what’s even better than a beautiful children’s fantasy?

A beautiful children’s fantasy with apes.

Honestly, they had me three minutes in with the line ‘death by monkeys’. But it was the monkey watching the security screens that really did it for me. A cute animal was made sinister by his bared teeth and the washed-out glow of those monitors. The juxtaposition with his happy clapping cymbals just made him all the more menacing.

Because that’s the thing about apes. Like people, they’re not just smart, funny and adorable. They can also be sinister and downright dangerous, like the baboons that invade isolated South African commuter townships, or the Mediterranean apes that raid cafés for booze. These are monkeys as mad villains or outsider antiheroes. I love those monkeys too, though I wouldn’t want to stand between them and a whiskey.

Ack-Ack Macaque

A gun wielding, cigar chomping, pulp action pilot ape. If that sentence doesn’t make you want to read a book then you’re lost to me.

I haven’t got round to reading Ack-Ack Macaque yet, but it’s been on my list since I read this review. I love the wild spectacle of old pulp stories, before people had such fixed ideas about what was possible and what fitted in each genre. You got space rockets to planets full of purple people. You got mole men beneath the earth. You got hidden temples, alien invaders and two-fisted heroes, probably all in the same book. And a cigar-chomping ape pilot seems the perfect embodiment of that.

Gibboning it up

How much do I love apes in fantasy settings? I have spent a whole weekend being one. Inspired by my visit to the zoo, I decided to play one in a live roleplay game.

What I actually played was a demonic imp called Gibbon, who ate monkey nuts, threw the shells at passers by and only spoke in ooks. I walked the monkey walk, screeched at people I didn’t like, generally aped it up. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had, and though I only did it twice in fifteen years at that game, it’s still one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done. Years later, people I didn’t know at the time would say to me ‘wait, you were that guy?’.

I love monkeys, but how about you? What apes have I missed? Or is there another beast you prefer in your fiction?

Picture by Ian (cr03) via Flickr creative commons

Yesterday’s post, and people’s responses, got me thinking about the books that I would never let go. So, in no particular order, here are my top few.

The World of Pooh by A. A. Milne

Oh no, the bees found the honey! Also, I discovered PicMonkey.

Oh no, the bees found the honey!
Also, I discovered PicMonkey.

This hardback has been with me my whole life. I loved Pooh and his gentle adventures when I was a kid, then rediscovered them when I was in sixth-form. The soft, simple prose, the whimsical events, the sense that it was alright not to rush and worry but just to amble along singing a little song to yourself, it really struck a chord with teenage me. In fact, Pooh’s Tao-like simplicity remains an inspiration to me to this day, and I dip into the book to lift me up when I’m feeling blue.

I gave a copy of this to my godson on the occasion of his christening. He can’t follow the stories yet, never mind read them, but I hope it’ll provide him with comfort and inspiration down the years.

The Deptford Mice Trilogy by Robin Jarvis

Look out, Jupiter might get you

Look out, Jupiter might get you

I read the first of these when I was eleven. It was my first brush with anything like horror, and it had a huge impact. The thrill of being both terrified and exhilarated at the same time was something new and wonderful. They were packed with atmosphere, and with a balance of hope and darkness that made them feel incredibly real despite their fantasy animal content. Over twenty years later, I’m still planning to go back and read them, once I can build up the courage. And any time I see a corn dolly, a little shiver goes down my spine.

This is as close as I get to Tenabreme‘s wonderful habit of collecting books remembered from childhood. Of course, it’s easier when you’ve never let the books go.

The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett

Just part of my pile of Pratchett

Just part of my pile of Pratchett

Of all the writers who have been active in my lifetime, Pratchett is the one whose wonderful work I most want to pass on to future generations. The tone of these stories may have shifted hugely over time, but I still love them all, from the weird satire of Colour of Magic to the heart-warming philosophising of his latest works. I’ve read half at least twice, Pyramids many more times than that, and Small Gods is one of my favourite reflections on religion. The man’s a treasure, and I treasure his books.

Unlike Ben, the Derleth collector I mentioned yesterday, I’m not a big keeper of books as objects. But if anyone harms my signed Pratchett there will be trouble.

So which books do you cling to, and why?