The Color of Magic

The Color of MagicAfter my experience of watching the wonderfully entertaining Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, I decided to read some of his work. So I picked up The Color of Magic, which is the first of the 39 book series (the 40th book will come out in a few months). At first, I was not disappointed. Pratchett is a very inventive and and funny writer.

I’ve never been much of a fan of the fantasy genre, so the book amused me above all as a parody. In the foreword to the paperback edition I’ve got, he writes, “If I had a penny for every time someone asked me where I got the idea of the Discworld, I’d have—hang on a moment—£4.67.” Or his clear swipe at Tolkien, “The Discworld is not a coherent fantasy world… There are no maps.” Indeed. I always hated all those stupid maps and more generally I’ve hated how seriously Tolkien (and even more his fans) took his world. That’s why The Hobbit is infinitely better than The Lord of the Rings. But I digress.

In the story itself, Pratchett is equally sharp. The main character Rincewind explains that while there are many reasons to hate heroes (think Conan the Barbarian), “What he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.” Clearly, the man has lived in the real world. The gods of the Discworld—one of who is Zephyrus the god of slight breezes—go around to atheists’ homes and smash their windows. And there is this funny exchange:

“I should have realized that you weren’t a real wizard when I saw you didn’t have a staff.”

“Lost it in a fire,” lied Rincewind automatically.

“No hat with magic sigils embroidered on it.”

“It blew off.”

“No familiar.”

“It died.”

About halfway through the novel, I stopped marking the funny bits of the novel and started marking the bad bits of writing. You see, for all of his wonderful creativity, Pratchett is a poor writer. The lack of clarity is stunning. And this was apparent from the start. I think that I had to reread every description two or three times to figure out what was going on. Really, it is that bad.

Let me give you a good example of what I’m talking about. Rincewind and Twoflower are sitting in a boat worrying both about sinking and floating off the edge of the Discworld.

He [Rincewind] spotted a small green frog which was paddling desperately in the grip of the inexorable current. To Twoflower’s amazement he found a paddle and carefully extended it toward the little amphibian, which scrambled onto it gratefully. A moment later a pair of jaws broke the water and snapped impotently at the spot where it had been swimming.

We’ve got major pronoun problems here. The way that I read it first was that Twoflower was amazed to find a paddle and that the fish snapped impotently where itself had recently been. I quickly figured out that this was wrong. Twoflower was surprised by Rincewind’s actions and the fish attacked the spot where the frog had been. The problem with this is that it is very hard to simply experience the story. Normally, one reads the words and they are turned into an image in the mind’s eye. In reading Pratchett, it is a three step process: read, translate, imagine. It is very frustrating.

Still, the book was enjoyable. Pratchett has a fine imagination and I generally found that I was happy while reading it. And given the ridiculous pace at which he writes (two books per year), it isn’t surprising that his books would be a little on the careless side. But it’s sad, because I’m not planning on reading any more of his books despite their many pleasures.

0 thoughts on “The Color of Magic

  1. Ha — the nerds were right, as they often are. I got into Pratchett through his collaboration with Geek God Neil Gaiman, "Good Omens," which I still enjoy more than anything Gaiman’s written on his own. (He’s not bad, to my taste, just not funny enough.) It has angels and devils basically enjoying pissing each other off more than waging some celestial conflict for the souls of mankind, whom they regard as pretty trivial when all’s said and done.

    So I came across this "Gateways To Geekery" piece from "The AV Club," about how to appraoch Pratchett’s work, and at first I obeyed its advice:

    http://www.avclub.com/articles/terry-pratchett-novels,64917/

    It specifically mentions skipping his first books, which I did. It suggested "Small Gods," which I loved; I almost got weepy at the end. I read "Going Postal," and enjoyed it immensely. Then a few more. Then a few more, with diminishing returns. Obviously, I was ignoring this sage advice:

    "The sheer volume of Discworld books, combined with the ease with which Terry Pratchett’s books can be read, and their quality, can trigger the impulse to binge on them. Try to avoid that."

    The nerds were right, as nerds often are. So I’m taking a break, and when I return, I’ll go back to the ones the nerds suggested, not just what’s handily available on the library shelf.

    If you liked the BBC "Going Postal" and enjoy Pratchett’s bent humor but not his prose, I think there are several more TV adaptations available. Maybe check out nerd reviews and see which ones they liked best.

    My brother has been trying to get me into fantasy, and I enjoy a lot of it in a harmless-escapism sort of way, but I never remember the plots afterwards. Pratchett’s, I remember.

    A pair that stuck out were by Dianna Wynne Jones, "The Tough Guide To Fantasyland" and "Dark Lord Of Derkholm." "Tough Guide" is a parody guidebook for travelers venturing in fantasy environs, pointing out all the cliches of fantasy lit. "Derkholm," probably much more fun for those not familiar with a ton of fantasy, is about mild-mannered farmers in a fantasy universe whose world is upended by tour operations demanding the farmers re-arrange their entire lives to provide the cliches visiting tourists want to see. Again, funnier if you know the cliches being parodied, but works as a stand-alone story, too.

    I wouldn’t bag too hard on Tolkein fans. They just want a different world to live in, and is that so wrong? Tolkein himself once made a distinction between the escapism of avoiding responsibility and the escapism of dreams as a way to cope with ugly reality. Now, the distinction between the two gets fuzzy where Tolkein fans are concerned. And I wish everyone who hated our reality worked to change it instead of escaping from it. You need both, though. Few can be saints and devote themselves entirely to fixing a broken world; sometimes, you just want to sail around the universe with spaceships or what not.

    Or, Noam Chomsky takes a day off:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/exhausted-noam-chomsky-just-going-to-try-and-enjoy,17404/

  2. @JMF – I don’t mind escapism. It is just that Tolkein is some awfully serious escapism. I don’t have a problem with anyone enjoying what they enjoy. But that doesn’t mean I want to be seen in public with them. ;-)

    What worked in the movie [i]Going Postal[/i] is that the fantasy elements were all background. It could have been simply a ghost story. And, as I’ve said, I have a big crush on Claire Foy.

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