Interesting Times, as well as being 17th in the Discworld series, is also the fifth novel to feature the world’s worst wizard, (or should that be wizzard?), Rincewind. So, cards on the table time – despite the enormous respect I have for all things Discworld, Rincewind is one of my least favourite characters. My heart sank a little when I read that this was another Rincewind novel (the fifth). I think there’s a good reason why after making several valiant attempts to resurrect him, Pratchett eventually allowed Rincewind to quietly fade into the background of Discworld.
‘May you live in interesting times’ is commonly thought to be an old curse (don’t we live in them right now?) usually attributed to the Chinese, although wrongly so according to my extensive research (Wikipedia). The phrase provides the inspiration for this adventure in which Rincewind travels to the Agatean Empire, the mysterious continent from which Twoflower, the naive but very rich tourist in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, came.
After Pratchett’s traditional framing introduction, the novel opens with the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork receiving a demand from the Agatean Empire to send them a great wizzard. The spelling mistake triggers the idea of sending them Rincewind. Of course this immediately leads to a series of disasters and mishaps from which he always emerges through sheer dumb luck.
The villain of Interesting Times is Lord Hong, a Machiavellian character who has read Twoflower’s book, What I did on my holiday which has inspired vague ambitions to conquer distant Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett’s record on villains is patchy, and Lord Hong doesn’t linger long in the memory – he is a bit of a cardboard-cutout psychopath. Cohen the Barbarian also makes a reappearance, accompanied by a Silver Horde of aging barbarian berserkers. Together with a new “Red Army” of young idealists and Rincewind’s trademark failures at magic, they capture the imperial palace, and with it the Empire. Lord Hong rallies the Empire’s armies, and the scene is set for an epic battle – six aging barbarians and an ex-teacher against 70,000 trained soldiers. What could possibly go wrong?
There are several fairly serious issues with Interesting Times. First, the jokes aren’t that funny. There’s always a high groan quotient in the Discworld novels, but the problem here is repetition. The Silver Horde are old, but really good at fighting. People who under-estimate them usually don’t live to regret it. If that joke is repeated once it is repeated a dozen or more times. Rincewind is a rubbish wizard and a coward, who will run away from danger at any opportunity, but is also a great survivor. Again, point made and repeated over and over again. The word intercourse is funny. Maybe once, but that’s enough.
And then there’s the rape ‘jokes’. The Silver Horde are barbarians, and rape women. Now they are old this is probably not going to happen, but it won’t stop them trying. I know the 1990’s were different times, but it was not funny then, and is certainly not funny now. Terry Pratchett was usually fairly progressive in his values (take for instance the ideas about religion in Small Gods), but this is a horrible mis-step. Am I being pious to find the opening scene – in which castaway Rincewind encounters several buxom Amazons who beg him to help them repopulate their race after a strange and highly specific plague has mysteriously wiped out all their menfolk – both boringly unoriginal and offensive? While I am being offended I may as well throw in the fact that much of the novel is culturally insensitive to the point of racism – Chinese/Asian people are portrayed as inherently funny – they speak strangely, eat weird food, misunderstand things, and are generally different to the citizens of old Ankh-Morpork.
About three quarters of the way through Interesting Times I was thoroughly fed-up – disappointed and un-entertained. And then something strange happened – I started to be engaged. I think I can pinpoint precisely the moment this happened – when it dawns on the Silver Horde that they may not win their battle (even though they quickly recover and offer surrender terms to the army) and begin to come to terms with their mortality – sooner or later all heroes die. There is a poignant scene where Cohen lists all his barbarian horde friends, and is told disbelievingly one by one that they have died, or worse retired into respectability. Old men don’t fear death, but they don’t welcome it either, especially not old heroes who have spent their life avoiding it. Pratchett doubles-down at this point by revealing the tragic back story to Twoflower’s loss of his wife, which is handled with dignity. Pratchett always was at his best when writing about Death.
So Interesting Times isn’t bad, but it hasn’t aged well, and could probably have been about half as long and not suffered. Rincewind fans will enjoy it, but there are few of the great quotable quotes that you can trip over elsewhere in the series. It’s not as thought-provoking or as funny as most other novels in the series, and Rincewind is as un-engaging as ever. Thank goodness the next novel in the series, Maskerade, sees the return of the wonderful witches!