Book review, Discworld, humour, Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic (Discworld 1) by Terry Pratchett, 1983

Colour of magic

So this is where it all began. I returned to the original Discworld novel as a change of pace from Dickens and with one question at the front of my mind – would it stand the test of time? How well would it have aged, and how fully formed was Pratchett’s early vision of Discworld? Would the detail and complexity all be there, or would, as I assumed, the detail have developed and accrued over time, book by book? Which is a lot more than one question of course.

Remarkably the Discworld universe is almost completely fully developed in this first portrait. The cosmology or Astrozoology – with the Great A’tuin and his accompanying elephants – is all there, and Pratchett had obviously given a lot of thought to the practicalities of a flat world with its hub and the Rim. Ankh-Morpork is complete in virtually every detail (quote) with the pre-Sam Vimes Watch, the Patrician (not yet identified as Vetenari) and the Thieves and Assassins’ Guilds. The Unseen University with its complex hierarchy of wizards and ArchWizards is there, as is magic as a practical working concept. I really enjoyed the way Pratchett plays with the idea of science being a modern equivalent of magic – not a new idea of course, but one he has fun with, for example when Rincewind is trying to work out how Twoflower’s camera works.

“This is all wrong. When Twoflower said they’d got a better kind of magic in the Empire I thought – I thought…

The imp looked at him expectantly. Rincewind cursed to himself. “Well if you must know, I thought he didn’t mean magic. Not as such”

“What else is there, then?”

Rincewind began to feel really wretched. “I don’t know” he said. “A better way of doing things, I suppose. Something with a bit of sense in it. Harnessing – harnessing the lightening, or something”.

‘The Colour of Magic’ also features two of Pratchett’s most-loved ‘characters’ – Twoflower’s sapient pearwood Luggage, and Death. The Luggage is an indefatigable multi-legged terminator, while Death already speaks in his distinctive capitalised tone, and already has his habit of appearing when least expected, such as here when the landlord of the Broken Drum is trying to set fire to his cellar to claim on his recently agreed inn-sewer-ants polly sea:

“At the top of the cellar steps Broadman knelt down and fumbled in his tinderbox. It turned out to be damp.
‘I’ll kill that bloody cat,’ he muttered, and groped for the spare box that was normally on the ledge by the door. It was missing. Broadman said a bad word. A lighted taper appeared in mid-air, right beside him.
‘Thanks,’ said Broadman.

The other thing that struck me, and which may be controversial, is that over time Pratchett became a much better and funnier writer. That’s not to say ‘The Colour of Magic’ isn’t funny – it is – but I think his comic style matured and improved. His love of groanworthy puns is already evident here, but some of the jokes go beyond being bad dad jokes, and are just plain bad, for example:

“My name is immaterial,’ she said.
That’s a pretty name,’ said Rincewind”

There is a thin dividing line between using clever references to other writers and genres, and just being derivative. Pratchett tiptoes close to the line sometimes in this novel, and in particular I have always thought that his debt to Fritz Lieber, author of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series has been acknowledged but never fully appreciated. In later novels there is a lot more Pratchett and far fewer borrowings – references of course, but done in a way in which the original source is acknowledged without being simply reproduced.

Almost lastly, a bit of a moan about this edition. It is the Corgi edition shown above, with the original Josh Kirby illustration (which I always felt were a bit over the top tbh), published this year with a mention of Pratchett’s death in the frontispiece. The blurb includes a quote from the independent calling Pratchett “one of the funniest English authors alive”. Was this just a case of laziness by the publishers not bothering to update their copy, or just a bad joke?

Finally, a quiz question for you, which should be easy given the subject of this blog entry – who are Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen?