September 25, 2023

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Discworld Read-Along #2: The Light Fantastic


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

Today’s entry:  book two, The Light Fantastic

First Appearances:  the Librarian; Cohen the Barbarian; Death’s house, clock, and human daughter; Unseen University/wizard politics; dwarves and gnomes.

Introduced to Discworld: um, creation myths?  memos and agendas?  Not much this time.

The plot:  In the previous book, Rincewind, Twoflower, and the Luggage fell off the Disc.  At the start of this one, reality literally reshuffles everything so the three of them get back to the Disc alive and well.  The spell in Rincewind’s head is going to need to be said, and soon, because unless that spell and the seven others in the Octavo, the spellbook Rincewind glanced into while a student at the Unseen University, need to be read at the next Hogwatchnight (Discworld’s name for Christmas), or else there’ll be real problems.  The Eight Spells, apparently sentient things, know what needs to be done and work to make sure Rincewind does it.  It seems they specifically chose him for his knack of Not Dying.  Upon hearing this, Rincewind points out he’s nearly died many times.

“Exactly,” is the Spells’ reply.

Along the way, Rincewind encounters the greatest hero on the Disc, Cohen the Barbarian.  Cohen’s 87 years old.  He ain’t what he used to be.

Meanwhile, back at Unseen University, a wizard who prefers corporate-style leadership to wizard tradition and magic, Trymon, a former classmate of Rincewind’s, takes over the school.  He’s…not quite right.  Not evil, per se, just not quite right.  The other wizards find him off-putting in ways they can’t really express.

Great A’Tuin, on his or her part, is headed for a red star.  The red star is causing mass freak-outs all over the Disc because no one knows why they’re going there.

Everything does work out in the end.  Twoflower ends his vacation and proceeds to give Rincewind the Luggage.  You get the idea at least half of that pair isn’t happy about that.

Commentary:  While still not quite right yet, The Light Fantastic still feels more like a real Discworld book than The Color of Magic did.  Rincewind alone seems to be about what he should be, though Pratchett is still more concerned with magic than he will eventually become, but the humor of the series is starting to crystalize.  Some of the running gags seems a bit odd.  Rincewind lands in a forest and discovers the trees can talk.  He accidentally starts a religion there, and from there, trees in that forest never seem to shut up.  That said, the trees are friendly and rather helpful even if everyone decides to ignore them because trees aren’t supposed to talk.

Trolls appear, acting not much like the violent brutes and morons that fans will come to know and love.  There’s a dwarf and a gnome that appear briefly, things we were told don’t exist in the previous book.  The original Archchancelor of the Unseen University goes by the last name of Weatherwax.  Whether he’s related to Granny or not isn’t mentioned here, but he seems to die under mysterious circumstances (it is implied the Luggage ate him) so it probably doesn’t matter.

Pratchett is also starting a theme of feminism in the Discworld.  Cohen sees to rescuing a virgin sacrifice from some druids.  The sacrifice, Bethan, does join the others in their travels but initially is quite put off by her not being sacrificed.  It was hard, you see, not going out on Saturday nights and so forth.  Likewise, a female hero is hired by Trymon to find the missing Rincewind.  Herrena has a moment where she reflects on how hard it is being taken seriously as a female warrior hero.  She’s actually rather competent and is only really removed from action by Bethan whacking her upside the head with a tree branch.  Practical armor and weapons don’t make for a sexy heroine like you’d find on the cover of a fantasy novel, the narrator reminds us, so we should get out collective heads out of the gutter.  It’s almost a shame that the character didn’t reoccur.  Pratchett would get the opportunity to do more with other competent women, but he’s getting a small start here.

Trymon, though a one-off villain, also has some promise in that the way he takes over the various wizard branches is through using real world political and corporate management systems.  Wizards don’t understand memos, flow charts, and agendas, so simply having those things sets him a bit above the other wizards in the room.

Cohen the Barbarian seems to exist mostly to make old person jokes in this novel.  His Golden Horde is missed, as is the fact of how Cohen became a great hero by being good at not so much fighting as something else.

That fact also helps Rincewind.  When he has to save the Disc from the awful things from the Dungeon Dimensions, he doesn’t use magic.  He can’t anyway.  He uses other skills he has, and even though he’s not good at these particular skills, he’s a lot better at them than anything from the Dungeon Dimensions, leading to a first in his life when something runs away from him.

Pratchett also does two things for future use.  First, we see the spell that turned the Unseen University Librarian into the familiar orangutan form he holds in all the other books he appears in.  The Librarian may be the single most (in some cases, only) competent being on the entire Disc, so seeing the transformation after the fact here was nice.  Pratchett would get a lot of use out of the character who’s vocabulary is limited to a single word:  Oook.

Likewise, a visit to Death’s house will act as a set-up for the various Death novels, starting with Mort, the fourth overall Discworld novel.

Finally, Great A’Tuin’s journey makes some sense, but really the giant turtle will be slowly phased out as a major plot point anyway.  Much like focusing on actual fantasy elements becomes something Pratchett does less and less as the series progresses, the giant space turtle doesn’t really have a whole lot to do, much like the nasty things in the Dungeon Dimensions.

Next book:  Granny Weatherwax, or a prototype of her depending on who you ask, appears to teach a young girl about magic in Equal Rites.  I am not sure when I will get to that one as reading too many books by the same author, even authors I really like, too close together is not a good idea for me, so this one may not be done for a couple weeks.   Besides, though I read it a bunch of years ago, this one is not one of the ones I still have in paperback, and Amazon is having problems with the Kindle version.  As soon as I am able, I will probably be able to purchase the book.

In the meantime, you’ve been warned and have time to catch up.

Interested in the previous entry?

The Color of Magic