Book Review: Discworld #2 – The Light Fantastic

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.

Next: The Sisters Grimm #1, 2 & 3 – The Fairy Tale Detectives, The Unusual Suspects and The Problem Child

Book Review: Discworld #1 – The Colour of Magic

Title: The Colour of Magic
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1983
Series: Discworld; Rincewind
1; 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.94
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Not Spoiler Free

The Colour of Magic

Plot Description: A failed wizard named Rincewind is hired to take a Tourist from the Agatean Empire (situated on the Counterweight Continent) around Ankh Mopork. Unfortunately for Rincewind, who is a certified coward (and proud of it), Two Flower happens to have a knack for getting into adventures and cheerfully facing Death.

Along with Two Flower is The Luggage, a sapient wooden trunk that runs along on hundreds of little legs all by itself. The Luggage has the ability to store everything neat and dry, and also a penchant for eating anybody and anything that seems to threaten its master. The Luggage quickly seems to realize that Rincewind’s lack of prowess in wizardry is beaten by nothing but his ability to get out of dangerous situations unscathed. Lord Vetinary, Patrician of Ankh Mopork, comes to the same conclusion, and poor Rincewind is pressganged into the role of bodyguard as a result.

A long time ago, people used to believe that the world is flat and round, like a disk, and that the sun orbited the Earth. And even longer ago than that, people believed the world was held up by a turtle, or by four elephants, or by a Titan who was serving a life sentence.

In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and startanned shoulders the disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.
Astropsychology has been, as yet, unable to establish what they think about.

This is the Discworld, which is shaped like a disk and orbited by two suns. It is held up by four elephants, who in turn stand on the shell of a mighty turtle called Great A’tuin. Terry P. explains it by saying that in a world of multiverses and parallel universes, the Discworld exists so far away on the probability curve that we can’t really see it – but since the probability curve does go that far, then it probably exists. And since it constantly balances on the point of probability, its existence could easily be wiped out.

It is said that when a wizard is about to die Death himself turns up to claim him (instead of delegating the task to a subordinate, such as Disease or Famine, as is usually the case). Rincewind looked around nervously for a tall figure in black( wizards, even failed wizards, have in addition to rods and cones in their eyeballs the tiny octagons that enable them to see into the far octarine, the basic colour of which all other colours are merely pale shadows impinging on normal four-dimensional space. It is said to be a sort of fluorescent greenish-yellow purple). 

This is why the Discworld works on magic, and this is why Magic is so important to this world. Now that I’ve explained all the secrets of the Discworld, I will let you in on one final secret. There is a colour of magic, and that colour is known as Octarine. It is invisible to the naked eye, but if you could see it, you’d identify it as a sort of fluorescently green-ish yellow purple.

I sound daft, don’t I? The truth is, after weeks of reading nothing but Discworld, I’d be prepared to bet everything that I have that the world I’ve been reading about is far more real than the one I’m living in. Such is the magic of this world, which is like a reflection of ours when seen in a convex mirror. Or perhaps a concave mirror. Or perhaps just a very old mirror that has turned wavy with age. It’s the same and yet it’s not. It’s been coloured in with magic where all the grey bits ought to go in our world. What’s ridiculous to us is perfectly sane to them, and notions of economics and insurance wreak havoc in their world.

Satire is a weapon in the hands of a master, and Terry P. is undoubtedly one of those Masters.

“It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plain fact of the matter was that the disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods had a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows.”

This being one of his earlier novels, Terry P. stands out more as philosopher than comedian, which I believe is one of the reasons why a great many first time readers get put off by this novel. He examines everything as though the secret of the universe lies under it, and in many instances, he’s completely right.

He also takes subversion of tropes very seriously, and this makes for a good combination in the company of caricature. Rincewind is a wizard who has never shown the least bit of magical talent. Two Flower is the typical tourist, completely oblivious to everything going on around him, being taken for a ride, and yet magically unharmed by the end of each adventure. The Heroes are all brawn and completely dimwitted, the goals of their lives being booze, hidden treasure, slaying whatever is evil, and overcoming insane odds. Oh, and getting the girl. When he reduces tropes to their completely literal essentials, one sees why those tropes were stupid to begin with.

I wouldn’t recommend The Colour of Magic to someone who has never read Terry Pratchett before, but once you’ve read some of his other books, I think you’ll find that The Colour of Magic all those unanswered questions, like “What in the world is ‘hubwards’?” or “What happens if you fall off the edge of the disc?”

If on the other hand, you’re not a Terry P. fan (yet), but love philosophy, magic and fantasy, then this is definitely the book for you.

Next: Discworld #2 – The Light Fantastic

Overview: The Discworld

Having discovered a treasure trove of books (including an almost complete set of the Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett) recently, I dove in and settled down for uninterrupted reading of around 35 books. I’m happy to say I’ve finished them, and are even now engaged in the process of finding the ones not included in my original discovery.

The first Terry P. book I read may well have been Lords and Ladies, almost five years ago. I’ve also read Wintersmith at some point, but now I no longer recall when that was. I was so enchanted by Lords and Ladies and by Esme Weatherwax that I immediately set about finding the rest of Sir P’s books. Being someone with a bit of OCD, I tried to start by reading Colour of Magic. Don’t do that. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll spend another five years being deprived of these wonderful works of art before you can work up the courage to start again.

I restarted my Discworld attempt with Monstrous Regiment. It was lovely. It was hilarious. It was followed in quick succession by Unseen Academicals, Making Money, Going Postal and a good many other highlights of Terry P.’s work.

Then I tried reading Colour of Magic again, and to my amazement, this time it actually made sense. Fair warning though: Colour of Magic and it’s immediate sequel – The Light Fantastic – are both Rincewind novels, and those are invariably the most boring and annoying of the Discworld books.

Within themselves, the Discworld books have separate plot lines that you can use to follow your favourite characters on their adventures. If every Terry P. fan followed this method, all the Rincewind stories would be thoroughly neglected. Interestingly, however, it’s also in many of Rincewind’s novels that very important things happen to occur, and all of the books reference each other a lot, so you might as well read them in order if you can.

Along with Rincewind, there are also the Wizards, the Witches, The Night Watch of Ankh Mopork, Tiffany Aching (who’s a witch), DEATH (who’s Death) and the progress of the Industrial Revolution in the great city of Ankh Mopork.

In addition to his incessant parodying of everything under the sun, Sir Terry’s writing reveals an excellent knowledge of humanity which is passed down in perfectly acerbic sarcasm. He tackles various political issues without ever seeming to have tackled them, and leaves racism, sexism and general elitism looking a little shamefaced and confused. In this sense, he’s a little bit like Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh Mopork, who seems to get everything done his way despite never seeming to lift a goddamn finger.