The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Color of Magic is a hero’s journey tale done in comedic fashion. It’s the first book in Prachett’s disc world series. An incompetent wizard, Rincewind, becomes the guide to a goofy but wealthy tourist named Twoflower. However, as it happens the events that confront these two on their journey are part of a game being played between gods. I loved the humor, liked the story, but wasn’t a fan of the organization of the book.
I should admit up front that fantasy is–hands down–my least favorite genre, and I can’t say that view didn’t jaundice my perception of this book. However, it’s a testament to Pratchett’s humor and readability that I continued reading it.
What is my beef with fantasy in general? First, once one introduces magic, how does one maintain tension in an environment in which anything can happen effortlessly? Obviously, fantasy fans find plenty of tension to keep them reading, but I just don’t get it personally. I know that one retort is that the same could be said of other speculative fiction genres. To the degree that is true, I also don’t care for those other genres so much either. However, sci-fi (for example) has a basis for constraints that can be widely agreed upon. Second, the appeal of feudal society for setting perplexes me. I guess there is a certain romance to these periods for fans (perhaps because they imagine themselves in the statistically-unlikely role of king or knight as opposed to the much more likely position of serfdom, but whatever), but I see this type of society as backward and unsustainable (a ten millennia old kingdom maybe possible in a world of magic, but not in a world as we know it.)
I know fantasy fans will be able to come up with examples of how their favorite authors avoid both of the pet peeves mentioned. In truth, Pratchett does a good job of negating these pitfalls. With respect to the magic problem, he makes the protagonist wizard really inept and, therefore, easily in situations over his head. Simply put, he makes his lead weak relative to those confronting him. With respect to the setting issue, Pratchett creates an entirely different kind of world, the disc world. This is not Charlemagne’s Europe with wizards.
Prachett is often compared to Douglas Adams. In fact, if you Google “the Douglas Adams of fantasy,” you are sure to pull sites pertaining to Pratchett. One can see the same type of absurdist humor in Prachett’s work. Here’s a compilation of a few of my favorite lines:
“Being Ymor’s right-hand man was like being gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.”
“No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.”
“Yah. I outnumber you one to two.”
“He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided.”
“But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”
“Your affected air of craven cowardness does not fool me.”
Pratchett appeals to the downtrodden in all of us. This can best be gleaned from the tale of Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos. Dactylos is a superb craftsman who is blinded, has his hand cut off, and suffers ever greater indignities because the Emir wants him to never again produce anything as lovely. It’s like the myth about Shah Jahan having the hands cut off Taj Mahal craftsman, except Pratchett’s Emir keeps asking the same man of increasing handicaps back to construct ever greater marvels of engineering.
The book is arranged in just four chapters. This is a bit of an oddity for commercial fiction, and I don’t really care for the sparse employment of breaking points in this book. Again, if I was enough of a fan of fantasy to read this in a single sitting (or even a few sittings) I would likely not find this to be an issue. However, I read it over time and interspersed with many other books (a lot of which were more captivating to me personally.) This might seem like a ridiculously nit-picky point, but for those of us who have a lot of reading up in the air at once, being able to readily put a book down and pick it up seamlessly later without losing the story is of great benefit.
If you like humor, this book will appeal to you. If you like fantasy, I suspect you’ll doubly like it–as long as you have a sense of humor. If you don’t like either, this book will not be for you.
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