Title: The Light Fantastic
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1986
Series: Discworld; Rincewind
#: 2; 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.91
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4
Spoilers for A Colour of Magic (Discworld #1)
Plot Description: I’ll leave it to the official blurb to do the job this time, simply because it’s a remarkable blurb:
In The Light Fantastic only one individual can save the world from a disastrous collision. Unfortunately, the hero happens to be the singularly inept wizard Rincewind, who was last seen falling off the edge of the world…
Ha! Told you! Bet that captured your attention. And now that it has, you can now go about forgetting your dismay at the fact that the second Discworld novel is also all about Rincewind. Or not, if you’re a Rincewind fan, because that’s amazing.
When light encounters a strong magical field it loses ail sense of urgency. It slows right down. And on the Discworld the magic was embarrassingly strong, which meant that the soft yellow light of dawn flowed over the sleeping landscape like the caress of a gentle lover or, as some would have it, like golden syrup. It paused to fill up valleys. It piled up against mountain ranges. When it reached Cori Celesti, the ten mile spire of grey stone and green ice that marked the hub of the Disc and was the home of its gods, it built up in heaps until it finally crashed in great lazy tsunami as silent as velvet, across the dark landscape beyond.
It was a sight to be seen on no other world.
Of course, no other world was carried through the starry infinity on the backs of four giant elephants, who were themselves perched on the shell of a giant turtle. His name – or Her name, according to another school of thought – was Great A’Tuin; he – or, as it might be, she – will not take a central role in what follows but it is vital to an understanding of the Disc that he – or she – is there, down below the mines and sea ooze and fake fossil bones put there by a Creator with nothing better to do than upset archeologists and give them silly ideas.
Isn’t he so funny? I speak, of course, of Terry P., not Great A’Tuin. So evolution is a joke on the Discworld, and Great A’Tuin is headed somewhere that’s possibly going to lead into apocalypse. Magic has become unpredictable, and Rincewind is needed. Not because he’s particularly heroic, but because he once snuck into the most secure room in the library and read one of the Spells in the Octavo (the book left behind by the Creator after he – or she – was done creating. The Creator was rather absent-minded, to be honest.) That Spell took the opportunity to enter his head and absolutely refused to leave, and nobody even knew which spell it was, because obviously no one else was going to go in there read the other seven spells just so they could find out.
This spell is part of the reason why Rincewind is such a failure as a wizard. He can’t remember any other spell because they’re all too scared of the spell in his head, and therefore won’t enter his memory to begin with. The other part of the reason why Rincewind is such a failure is possibly the fact that he hasn’t a drop of magical talent in him.
The spell wasn’t a demanding lodger. It just sat there like an old toad at the bottom of a pond. But whenever Rincewind was feeling really tired or very afraid it tried to get itself said. No-one knew what would happen if one of the Eight Great Spells was said by itself, but the general Agreement was that the best place from which to watch the effects would be the next universe.
Oh, and all the unpredictable Magic turned the Head Librarian into an Orangutan, which was a particularly fortunate turn events as far as the Head Librarian was concerned.
Through a curious turn of events, Rincewind, who when we last saw him was about to discover what happens when you fall off the Disc, was now hanging upside down from a tree. Something was saving his life, to the great chagrin of Death. Indeed, Death became so tired of trying to predict when Rincewind would actually die that he later forms a little habit of checking in on Rincewind every now and then. In fact, Death might even be said to have become a little fond of Rincewind (and while you might think that’s a strange thing for Death to do, you’ll soon figure out that this actually pretty typical of Death).
He goes on to create a religion for trees (through no fault of his whatsoever).
In fact Rincewind never spoke to this particular tree again, but from that brief conversation it spun the basis of the first tree religion which, in time, swept the forests of the world. Its tenet of faith was this: a tree that was a good tree, and led a clean, decent and upstanding life, could be assured of a future life after death. If it was very good indeed it would eventually be reincarnated as five thousand rolls of lavatory paper.
But I digress; I was speaking of one of the Great Spells, which is stuck in Rincewind’s head. After dragging Death out of a party he was attending (and he left his drink there too), the wizards at the Unseen University figure out that all eight spells must be said together at the moment when the world is supposed to end or whatever… which means they need to find Rincewind.
And now enter the villain, who is… an accountant? Well, sort of. He’s a wizard, really, and he’s a scheming wannabe murderer. This is nothing, because murder is the appropriate and preferred style of promotion amongst wizards, but the wizard Trymon is one of those people who are even worse than murderers.
Besides, there was something disquieting about young Trymon. He didn’t smoke, only drank boiled water, and Galder had the nasty suspicion that he was clever. He didn’t smile often enough, and he liked figures and the sort of organisation charts that show lots of squares with arrows pointing to other squares. In short, he was the sort of man who could use the word ‘personnel’ and mean it.
That’s right, Trymon is a CEO! Sorry, no, I mean he’s logical, and that’s worse than being evil.
He wasn’t good or evil or cruel or extreme in any way but one, which was that he had elevated greyness to the status of a fine art and cultivated a mind that was as bleak and pitiless and logical as the slopes of Hell.
Trymon intends to reap the benefits of saying all eight spells together at the moment of the Apocalypse, and will destroy anyone who gets in his way. He also has heard of the term “collateral damage” and deeply approves of it.
In the meanwhile, Rincewind runs into a bunch of computing engineer druids whose Stonehenge computers are being thrown off by the impending apocalypse. Two Flower’s delicate foreigner sensibilities mean that he ends up pulling a Passepartout from Around the World, and they are assisted in these endeavours by Cohen the barbarian, an eighty seven year old hero who doesn’t earn loyalties for all the sagas being sung about him.
In fact no-one was paying a great deal of attention to him; the druids that hadn’t fled the circle, generally the younger and more muscular ones, had congregated around the old man in order to discuss the whole subject of sacrilege as it pertained to stone circles, but judging by the cackling and sounds of gristle he was carrying the debate.
After all this, the virgin isn’t even happy she wasn’t sacrificed after all, because staying a virgin is a difficult business, and now all of that effort’s gone to waste.
The Light Fantastic is tightly packed with comedy and action sequences, and reminds me a little of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The fantasy genre obviously comes with the occupational hazards of featuring men travelling through the clouds on pieces of rock held up by the power of persuasion, which is why this sort of thing doesn’t feel as disorienting in a Terry P. novel as it does when one is reading Rushdie. Trust me, it’s quite one thing to be reading about an actual rock that’s actually flying, and quite another when you’re told there aren’t any real flying rocks – that that’s just meant to be a metaphor. Because that’s when things begin to get confusing.
Following their escape from the bloodthirsty druids is an astral trip to the domans of Death, where Two Flower teaches the Four Horsemen how to play bridge:
The Death of the Disc was a traditionalist who prided himself on his personal service and spent most of the time being depressed because this was not appreciated. He would point out that no-one feared death itself, just pain and separation and oblivion, and that it was quite unreasonable to take against someone just because he had empty eye-sockets and a quiet pride in his work. He still used a scythe, he’d point out, while the Deaths of other worlds had long ago invested in combined harvesters.
Then they run into cultists who think turning away from magic is the solution the Apocalypse. Death himself remarks on these cultists, telling Rincewind that while he approves of death of the body, which is an ending and which takes away pain, he cannot approve of the death of the mind. Taken by itself, that’s really not the sort of chilling statement of clarity one expects to find in a fun book about inept wizards and the Apocalypse. Once again, Terry P. the philosopher comes out of the woodwork for a moment. And that makes me glad.
The writing style shows a marked improvement from that of The Colour of Magic, and as the series progresses, Mr. Pratchett’s writing gets lighter and more fun, which does nothing but add to the impact of the philosophical musings hidden through his work.