April 19, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along #1: The Color Of Magic


Beginning the occasional series in which I work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one book at a time.

Up first:  the first novel obviously, The Color of Magic.

First Appearances:  Rincewind, Twoflower, the Luggage, Death, the city of Ankh-Morpork, maybe the Patrician Havelock Vetinari.

Introduced to Discworld:  tourism.

The plot:  Most Discworld books deal with a new concept being introduced to the world.  This time around that concept is tourism.  Twoflower, a citizen of the Agatean Empire, arrives in the city of Ankh-Morpork to, well, see stuff.  He’s eternally optimistic and followed everywhere by his Luggage, a carnivorous trunk with hundreds of tiny legs that occasionally eats unwary thieves.  He’s also tossing gold around in amounts that suggest he comes from a place with a lot of the stuff.  He also works as an insurance agent back home, but no one in Ankh-Morpork knows what that is.

By chance, he runs into failed wizard Rincewind at a tavern and convinces Rincewind to act as his guide and translator.  Rincewind is an arch coward who only knows one spell, and its a bad one he dare not utter for complicated reasons I won’t go into.  He tries running for it, but he’s caught and the Patrician tells him he has to be Twoflower’s guide or else.  After that, the pair get involved in a series of scrapes, involving almost burning the city down, fleeing from trolls, being objects in a dice game of the gods, seeing a land full of imaginary dragons, and finally being caught and threatened to be tossed off the Rim by a far-away country’s wizard-explorers who want to know the turtle Great A’Tuin’s gender.  Death is lurking nearby waiting to claim Rincewind’s soul, since the benefit of being a wizard, even a bad one, is Death will show up personally to claim your soul when you die, and you can even see and talk to him.  For this book, he isn’t overly pleasant.

Commentary:  This book has all the signs of being the first in the series.  It doesn’t much resemble the sorts of things Pratchett will write about later on.  Pratchett has, unfairly in my mind, a reputation of being the Douglas Adams of fantasy.  Books like The Color of Magic make these comparisons more apropos, but later books will make that a bad comparison.  I enjoyed Adam’s Hitchhiker series for the most part, but that series was clearly there for laughs and nothing more, even if they were sometimes cruel laughs.  The ending of Adams’ final book was far too dark.  Pratchett was more interested in satirical comedy with Discworld.  Pratchett ends this particular book, however,  with what could be a dark ending, but he may already be setting up a sequel, so it may not matter.  Here, the humor is closest to Adams’ than it will be for his own.

For example, one of Pratchett’s usual forms of humor is the funny footnote.  He has only one in the entire length of The Color of Magic, and instead chooses to dispense additional information here with lengthy parenthetical asides, more like Adams’ personal narrative digressions than his own.

The reader is also treated, if that’s the right word, to prototype versions of characters that will be used more in the future.  Rincewind is about right.  He’s an inept wizard known mostly for running away.  Running away all the time can make for bad heroic narratives, which may be why Rincewind gradually disappeared as the main character in later novels and is instead used as a minor character in a few of the Unseen University books, so there isn’t much to change here.  The Luggage comes across as much more likely to eat people rather than simply follow Rincewind (or, originally, Twoflower) everywhere.  There is a Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, but it doesn’t seem much like Havelock Vetinari.  This one seems to be snacking on sweets a lot and his only physical description is given as having “chins,” plural, something that would seem off on Vetinari.  Most “off” for longtime fans who didn’t start at the beginning may be Death, who comes across as cruel and even malevolent, sucking the life out of random things when he doesn’t get what he wants (namely Rincewind to die on schedule).

Pratchett also seems more inclined to play up the fantasy elements of the world here.  Great A’Tuin is little better than a quick mention in later books.  Here we see whole societies dedicated to learning more about him or her, starting with whether A’Tuin is a him or a her.  There are Lovecraftian horrors waiting to show up and eat everything.  A good deal is placed on the gods, specifically Fate and the Lady.  There are explanations given for magic, and we’re told there are no dragons, and the only non-human-but-humanish races are elves and trolls, and none of those facts would stand in later books.  Elves would really not be a factor outside one book, dwarves become prominent, and trolls are prominently featured in many later books whereas here they seem to be mostly there as random thugs and brutes.

New readers to the series would probably be better off reading one of the later books, like Mort  or Small Gods.  Longtime fans would probably get a kick out of this one just for how different it seems from the rest.

That said, one thing that happened unexpectedly was Rincewind and Twoflowers were briefly transported to the real world, where Rincewind accidentally foiled a plane hijacking, and he became a nuclear physicist from New Jersey.  I’m not sure if my state of origin is meant to be a punchline or not, but it sure seems Rincewind would be a lot more competent if he were anywhere other than the Discworld.

Next book:  Rincewind, Twoflowers, and the Luggage inexplicably return in The Light Fantastic.