In Praise of Pratchett: The Shepherd’s Crown


Goodbye, and thanks for all of it, and all of them

The day this was published, there was a lunchtime event at the Manchester Waterstones, with a quiz and a reading from the last Discworld novel. I got 22 out of a possible 28 on the quiz, which wasn’t enough to win me a prize. Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett’s friend and assistant read the first part of chapter 2. It was about Granny Weatherwax, and it wasn’t hard to realise, from very early on, what this extract was going to be about. There were people wiping their eyes all round the Events Room, and I’ll admit to being one of them.
I’d toyed with the idea of postponing reading the book. I was in the throes of re-reading Monstrous Regiment and it seemed appropriate to complete reading the whole series, complete writing all these essays about the books and what they’re about and what they do and how I’ve responded. And it put off the evil hour before there were no more Discworld books at all.
But after that chapter – and this was chapter 2, so very early in the book – it wasn’t going to be possible to wait. I went home and I read it. And the longer I read it, the more my heart sank. It had been there in Rob Wilkins’ reading, a little nag of doubt. Granny Weatherwax talking for the last time to Death. Not bargaining or fighting or suggesting, but accepting. Her time was up, and Witches know: shall we go? We have already gone.
Only… it didn’t sound right. Even through the emotion of what we were listening to, there was something wrong. And it carries on through the book, from start to finish. The Shepherd’s Crown was being lauded from all sides, a final triumph, a fine ending. Everyone loved it. But I don’t. The triumph is in self-delusion, in wanting the book to be what we all wanted it to be, in telling ourselves that it is indeed wonderful, that it’s the send-off we dreamed of.
And it’s not. Not for me. It’s a shadow, a shadow of what Terry Pratchett was about as a writer. There were things I was uncertain about in Raising Steam, that I thought then were signs that the Alzheimers was starting to take effect, and The Shepherd’s Crown is far further gone. I don’t recognise anyone in this book. I know them by name, and I know them by place, but I don’t hear their voices, not once.
When Granny talks to Death, it doesn’t sound like either of them. Nor does Nanny Ogg sound like Nanny, nor Magrat like Magrat, nor Ridcully like Ridcully. Nor Tiffany Aching like Tiffany Aching. The most awful thing about this book is that it sounds like it was written in defiance of Rhianna Pratchett’s proclamation that no-one will take up the mantle. It reads like someone who has written a Discworld book but who can’t get under the skins of the characters, cannot make them sound like anything more than a much-dulled, homogenised version of themselves.
Believe me, I am not saying this lightly. I so do not want to be saying anything of this sort. Granny Weatherwax’s death begins the story with a powerful emotional charge, that carries the book for several chapters, although even then the idea that she would hand over her cottage to Tiffany Aching – so young, so not of the Ramtops – and that this would be accepted so immediately and with so little opposition rings false. But, as Granny’s influence fades so quickly away, the story flattens out and gets less and less life-like.
And even as we’re allowing the emotions to carry along, we cannot but help notice that people are not who they ought to be. Nanny Ogg in particular is a parody of herself, drinking to excess, continually telling Tiffany that they are witches and what witches are or do. It’s narrative as dialogue again, even more so, and the worst is the equivalent of the funeral.
In I Shall Wear Midnight, Nanny Ogg transforms the old Baron’s funeral into a celebration and an affirmation of life. We watch her do it, the effect is tremendous: sadness is absorbed into warmth, into Life. She does the same here, or rather we’re told she does. We don’t see it for ourselves, and I at least didn’t feel it.
The problem with all of this is that without the right voices, not least from Pratchett himself, the rest of the book struggles to coalesce into reality. Discworld was a thing of improbabilities, a fantasia of impossibilities, but Pratchett made it believable without effort. Not so here: The Shepherd’s Crown requires a leap of conviction where ordinarily only the tiniest shuffle was necessary.
I’ve heard people query whether Granny’s death was really necessary, but that’s easily answered. It’s key to the plot, which is the final attempt by the Elves to break back into Discworld and take it for their pleasure again: the removal of Granny weakens the boundaries and allows the Elves back in.
But it’s also essential on psychological grounds. Granny Weatherwax has always been the leader witches don’t have, the best and most formidable of them, the last bulwark. Tiffany Aching became Terry Pratchett’s favourite character, and for her to become the best witch, the ultimate bulwark, she either has to beat Granny, or Granny must otherwise be removed. Nobody’s going to buy Granny Weatherwax being outdone, not for a second.
So Tiffany becomes the bulwark, at her young age. We’re not told how old that is, but seventeen isn’t a bad estimate: seventeen, and the chief and most powerful witch, responsible for casting out the Queen of the Elves as she once did when only nine.
Except that the Queen is no longer as powerful as she was. That defeat has damaged her glamour, reduced her status, diminished her. She is overthrown by Lord Peaseblossom, an arrogant, ignorant son of a bitch, elf to his fingertips and stupid with it. The railway is here, weaving webs of iron across the Discworld, swarf is in the very air, the Elves haven’t got a chance, but the crass bully can’t believe in any limits to Elvish power. The Queen is not just overthrown but beaten, mutilated, her wings torn off and she is cast out into Discworld.
Under the nose of Tiffany, of course. Who takes her in, takes her over, and starts to convert her towards humanity.
Redemption, of course. Not for races, this time, but a single individual (two, in fact: Mrs Earwig, the snooty witch, will turn out to be totally proof against Elvish glamour, and top notch in a fight). The Queen learns to become human, to think of and help others, to shed arrogance and glamour. It’s a glorious notion, and one that ends in tragedy when she is slaughtered out of hand by Peaseblossom, but the biggest problem is that I don’t believe a word of it. Tell, not Show. It’s too quick, too perfunctory, too flimsy for me to accept, and the death scene is too short to have the impact that is wanted.
Still, Tiffany marshals her witchy forces and Discworld wins a final victory. Tiffany proves herself not only to be the chief witch, but also the ultimate shepherd, surpassing even Granny Aching, or at least so we’re told.
One point should be made here, as it is in Rob Wilkins’ afterword to the book, which he also read out at that Waterstones event: The Shepherd’s Crown, though complete, is unfinished. It was Pratchett’s practice to polish and polish, to re-write and re-work each novel up to virtually the printer’s door, adding, changing, improving even as he was deep into the next book. This book was orphaned before it could have all that attention, and it is not what it would have been if the extra time could somehow have been begged, borrowed or bartered.
Even on a second reading, not overcome by shock at how unlike Pratchett all this is, I seriously doubt that enough could have been done to remove the most serious flaws in this book. It fails to come alive because the characters fail to stand on the page. Take Geoffrey, the boy who wants to become a witch, and who Tiffany dubs a calm-weaver. He’s an entirely new creation, along with his intelligent goat, Mephistopholes, so the only voice he has is the one in this book, but the voice is never alive. Geoffrey doesn’t have a word of dialogue that sounds as if it’s being spoken by a human being, let alone a teenage boy. Furthermore, between first and second reading of The Shepherd’s Crown, I’d completely forgotten him, so big an impact does he create.
What is he for? What’s Mephistopholes about, especially with that name? (And why, in a non-Christian setting, is that name significant anyway?)
Anyway, Geoffrey is responsible for a new advancement in Discworld, which is the creation of men’s sheds. Even the bored and disinterested King of the Elves gets one, though I can’t say that the concept ever totally convinces. Like the Railway, it’s less a funhouse mirror image turned into a Discworld creation than a straight adoption of something that exists in our world.
Pratchett does better by introducing Railway Arches, though that’s something that will probably be lost on an audience much younger than me: I can’t help but be taken back to the likes of Alf Tupper – The Tough of the Track.
Is there anything more to say? This is a book that falls short of the high standards that Terry Pratchett set for himself and maintained far longer than any writer so prolific had a right to maintain. It fails against those standards, despite the high qualities that the book’s conception embodies. It may well be a better book than many others of that ilk, but I cannot judge it against any other standards than those that have satisfied me for almost half my lifetime.
During that time, Pratchett was a writer of great breadth and depth, of humour and anger, and with the ability to bring the two forces together, time and again. He was a clever and subtle writer, a gifted plotter, with the ability to evoke emotion and insight. My pet hate in writing is the writer who uses the words: As you know… They are an abomination to me, the tactic of a writer who has no better idea of how to convey information to his readers than to have his characters sit around and tell themselves what they already know. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, they’re thin. Hell’s bells, no-one in real life ever says ‘As you know’: any writer worth reading can find a way to say them that a living, breathing person might use.
Terry Pratchett never used the words ‘As you know’ in any form in any of his Discworld books. Until The Shepherd’s Crown. And they’re everywhere. That is what his condition took from him.
I wish I could say better things, but the only thing you can give a writer is honesty in how you respond to their words. And this is honestly not a good book.

In Praise of Pratchett: Thief of Time


With Thief of Time an era came to an end, for this would be the last Discworld book to sport a cover painted and drawn by Josh Kirby, whose art had defined the image of Discworld for us all from the beginning. Such a shame that there would be no more.
At least Kirby went out on a high, for Thief of Time was another monster of a story, with Pratchett in complete control of the various threads that he wrapped into one powerful threat from the very first sentence.
I always think of this as another Death and Susan book, the last, in fact, but it’s that in no more than half. The Auditors of Reality are on the attack again, this time cloaking themselves in flesh in order to manipulate the somewhat unhinged Clockmakers Guild foundling, Jeremy, into building a Glass Clock that will stop Time for ever. Death is aware of this and, once more, the Rules prevent him taking a hand in opposition, so once more his mostly human granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is required to act as his trigger finger.
And Susan accepts her role with far less resistance than in any of her previous appearances, despite her fervent desire to be only human, only normal. She’s progressed from Governess to teacher now, and a very effective teacher of course. But once the Death of Rats shows up, with Quoth the Raven in tow, Susan’s resistance is primarily token. She’s getting used to her ‘powers’, to being what she is and not what she wants to be. And she’s quicker to realise that there’s a very big threat out there that can’t wait for her to go through the usual unavailing protests.
Normally, that would be enough, but Thief of Time has another, almost more important dimension. We’ve already had a cameo from Lu-Tze, the Sweeper, back in Small Gods, but this book is as much his as it is Susan’s: more so because we now are introduced to the History Monks, their monastery at Oi Dong, and of course, Rule One.
Actually Lu-Tze is, like Death and Susan, part of a double act, paralleling our already familiar pair. Instead of Grandfather and Granddaughter, we have Master and Apprentice, with Lu-Tze taking responsibility for the most naturally-gifted, untrained and untrainable novice you could imagine, Lobsang Ludd. Oddly enough, Ludd’s just as much a foundling as is the obsessive Jeremy, but whilst Pratchett makes nothing of that, it’s going to be a matter of critical concern.
So: the Auditors, in the awkwardly human form of Lady Myria LeJean, are leading Jeremy to the construction of the Clock that will finally bring unlimited order to the Universe, and Susan on the one hand, and Lu-Tze and Lobsang on the other, are the parallel forces trying to prevent this outcome.
Pratchett adopts a dramatic model that’s rather unusual for him. There’s but a single story, though the piecemeal approach of the early part of the book delays this realisation. Pratchett starts several threads with no apparent connection to one another, but all of which soon start to coalesce, not into the same direction but for the same destination from opposite ends.
As soon as we understand the significance of the Glass Clock, we understand that it is going to be made, and that this will have to be dealt with. But with a single event to prepare for, Pratchett can stretch the story over a longer period than we’re used to, and without any sub-stages of significance to provide us with peaks and troughs.
It’s all a slow accumulation of tension, the better to emphasise that, when the Clock is set in motion, we have reached The End, and that only very special talents, operating in a sphere far beyond the knowledge of anyone else, can take any actions that might lead to the winding down of the clock and the restoration of any kind of observable reality.
The stakes are consequently higher, not to mention more remote, than in any other book in this series. A fact  emphasised by the slightest of devices, as Pratchett separates every section of his story with the italicised word tick, which collapses in on itself, leaving the whole of what will or won’t be salvation to take place between ti- and the perhaps never found -ck.
Though Pratchett has a down-to-Earth side to his story, Thief of Time is another of those books that operate deeply in the fantastic. It’s not a fantasy story as such, being based on a decidedly science fiction concept, that of stopping time, and its solution depends on the fact that the two foundlings, Jeremy and Lobsang, are connected: they are not twins but rather the same person, born twice in different split-seconds, and due to be rejoined as one being.
Creator of the menace, resolver of the menace, what was Jeremy/Lobsang becomes Time himself, inheriting his role from his Mother, who proves to be less permanent an anthropomorphic personification than Death, who is never going to take up pipe and slippers and leave it all to Susan to take over (then again, unlike Time, Death is not ‘married’).
Indeed, more strongly than he’s previously hinted, Pratchett leads us to believe that Lobsang and Susan, being two of a kind, will go on to forge a relationship as only they – literally – can. Perhaps that’s why Susan never returned in any later stories: reader, she married him (or at least snogged him in the stationery cupboard).
But Pratchett does still have a serious element to bring to the fore, which is what it is to be human. Throughout Thief of Time, with each of its mythopoeic characters – Death, War, Famine, Pollution, Time – Pratchett touches on the idea that, although none of them are human, they are human in shape, put into that shape by the beliefs of the humans on whom they act.
And being human creates an abyss into which everything must fall. Susan is more aware of this than others, though Death has seen too much of life not to have gathered an understanding of by just how much their expectations of him have influenced how he appears, talks, acts and thinks.
But Pratchett is at his most explicit in the form of Lady Lejean, the Auditor turned some form of flesh, who undergoes the full effect of becoming human and everything that means. She begins as Myria, a simple reflection of Myriad, but accepts Susan re-naming her as Unity. Through her, we see something of what it means to have the world cease to be one thing and become two: yourself… and everything else.
It’s what Pratchett brings to this book that we take away, the other side of the coin of mirth. For we can laugh, and gasp in excitement, and chew our nails over impossible threats, whilst knowing as readers that there is a solution, there will be a way out. And we can close the book on Time, and Susan, and Lu-Tze, and even giggle at his Fifth Surprise.
But we can’t close our eyes to the gap between ourselves with our eyes shut, and the rest of everything.

Sandman Overture # 6


By chance, a couple of days ago, I came across my review of Sandman Overture 1, which I read with a grim smile at its optimistic cheeriness and enthusiasm. In particular, I couldn’t help but seize on the assertion that Neil Gaiman had written this preface to the Sandman series of twenty-five years previously, which is certainly what we were all led to believe: six issues, published bi-monthly, starting in November 2013, ending in September 2014.

Today, I paid a fleeting visit to the centre of Manchester to purchase issue 6, which appears exactly twelve months behind schedule, having scraped in just under the wire to do so.

And though artist J.H.Williams is notorious as a slow artist, it is not he who has to take responsibility for this fiasco. As early as the interminable delay between issues 1 and 2, Gaiman accepted responsibility for failing to provide his artistic collaborator with scripted pages to be drawn. I have heard nothing since that suggests that the ongoing difficulty in producing this book was down to anyone else.

Now, should he choose to exercise it, Gaiman has a ready-made excuse for these delays, in the form of his previous defence of George R. R. Martin. I’d like to say that I agree with every word Gaiman says at the other end of that link. Wearing the hat I wear as a reader of comics for fifty years, bearing in mind that throughout that period, and even now, comics is a serial form of fiction that is heavily dependant on the even rhythm of its schedule, I don’t regard such an explanation as adequate.

I have already said, as much as a year ago, that had I known what would happen, I wouldn’t have even started the story. I would have waited for the Graphic Novel collection, and I don’t mean the hardback volume that is already treading on the heels of this comic with a haste that is indecent in the circumstances. The paperback is at least twelve more months away.

But what, we dare ask, is my impression of the Distinguished Thing now that it is present in its entirety? I have carried the comic home without opening its pages, have written the first half of this blog whilst it remains in the Forbidden Planet bag, and I shall now read the story in its entirety, and only then offer my opinion.

*******************************************************************************

And it is good.

It’s so very good, and so very wide, and it seeps into every part of a story begun twenty-seven years ago, and ended nineteen years ago, as if in every part of it it was in Gaiman’s head during the nights that followed the Great Storm, when the shape and the idea came about.

And Williams draws or paints or does both and neither as if he is shaping the stuff of dream instead of using pencil, paper, ink, or even pixels.

And it will need many more readings for me to appreciate the immensity of this story, including those readings that will be necessary to eradicate the thoughts and feelings that form the first part of this revue.

For it is very good indeed. But it carries within it a sense of completion that makes it very hard to imagine that Gaiman will ever return to The Dreaming again.

In Praise of Pratchett: Hogfather


As with Soul Music, my initial reaction to Hogfather was mild disappointment, and perhaps from the same reason. Pratchett once again uses a plot he has previously employed: Death foregoes his role as the Grim Reaper, and that forces his granddaughter, Susan Sto-Helit, into his sphere.
There’s considerably more to it than that, however, since Death does not actually abandon the role of Death as take on another, more urgent anthropomorphic personification, any more than Susan actually uses the scythe for real. And, a couple of years on from Soul Music, she’s a far more sympathetic character than her sixteen-year-old self.
But Susan Sto-Helit still cuts across the grain of Discworld, with her furious determination to be resolutely normal, her heels-dug-in resistance to being put in a position to use the ‘powers’ she has inherited from her grandfather, notwithstanding her eminently practical attitude to childhood fears and fancies. Which usually boils down to using the poker.
In due course, it will kill the villain, as is only right and proper.
As with Reaper Man, the adversaries are again the Auditors of Reality, still determined on eradicating humanity and unpredictability from the Universe. Their vehicle, on this occasion, is the Hogfather, the Discworld’s Father Christmas, or rather it’s NOT the Hogfather, since the first thing they do is to have the guy killed.
Or, as this is commissioned through the Assassin’s Guild and their most seriously over-the-edge member, Mr Jonathan Teatime (pronounced Te-at-tim-eh), we had better say inhumed. For Mr Teatime has worked out how to kill all the Discworld’s major figures and it doesn’t take long before the reader realises that he is rather eager to turn his hypotheses into facts.
So: Mr Teatime ‘kills’ the Hogfather on Hogswatch Eve (by what manner, Pratchett doesn’t let on, reasoning correctly that this is one of those things best left to the reader’s imagination rather than be spelled out and be found inadequate or impossible to believe): Death, in order to prevent belief in the Hogfather from dying out, steps into his shoes to distribute Hogswatch presents with the maximum amount of evidence the fat guy has been around: the spare Belief psychically released by the Hogfather’s absence manifests itself by creating all sorts of unexpected but logical Anthropomorphic Personifications, like the Verruca Gnome, the Cheerful Fairy and the Oh God of Hangovers, especially around Mustrum Ridcully and Unseen University: and Death specifically forbids Susan to investigate why her grandfather is running around in a red robe with a false beard and a cushion tied around his waist.
Pratchett builds his story around four inter-locking strands, two comic, two serious. The Wizards are the purely comic element: from the uncovering of the determinedly-hidden B. S. Johnson bathroom and its inevitable short-comings, through the array of improbable creations introduced with an ominous glingleglingleglingle, they provide the bulk of the laughs, with little connection to the serious element of the story.
Similarly, Death’s progress as the psuedo-Hogfather is primarily played for laughs, a combination of the basic incongruity of the role and his continuing inability to fathom out the necessary rituals of the role, which also feeds into Death’s own increasing interest in humanity and why it is. It’s far more firmly attached to the story, and Death does indeed come into its conclusion in wholly dramatic terms, but its main gravity is in the chance it gives Pratchett to paint a picture of Christmas – and children – under the skin.
Susan is always going to be a serious element by her very nature. Pratchett gets over the implied matching of her to Imp y Cellyn by simply ignoring that ending to Soul Music, though this tactic is less successful when applied to the thought of why Susan, as Duchess of Sto-Helit, a Duchy that her father and mother governed well and influentially, has become a nobody of a Governess.
Of course, being Susan, she’s not exactly a nobody, but when Pratchett jokes about the difference between Susan’s social status and that of her middle-class employers, he does draw attention to the discrepancy. And though Susan is determined to surround herself with normality, that doesn’t prevent her from being able to see the imaginary childhood fears, like bogeymen and the bears that wait to gobble up children who step on the cracks, and indeed the illusion of childhood itself.
So she’s halfway into the world of the Death of Rats and the talking raven with an eyeball fetish even before Death’s specific instructions not to look into things further press her into an investigatory role that will take her to the place where somebody absolutely, urgently needs to go, which is the one place Death can’t go.
Which leads us full circle to Mr Teatime, an outwardly cheerful young man who seems to be permanently on the up-curve of manic depression but who is completely and utterly a psychopath. Not only has he inhumed the Hogfather, but he has also gotten himself and his band of top notch Ankh-Morpork street thugs into a strange kind of castle in a strange kind of world, the land of the Tooth Fairy.
This is where the book starts, for me, to lose track of what it is about. Teatime has been hired to inhume the Hogfather, and it is precisely he who the Auditors want rid of, and whose ability to preserve himself (with Susan’s help) ensures that the sun will rise in the morning. Teatime commences this process by attracting the attentions of the Tooth Fairy (well, one of them at any rate), and using her delivery service to slip out of reality as we and the Discworld knows it.
But Pratchett never establishes, or even hints at a connection between the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy. Indeed, the former has his own ice castle, which crumbles into nothingness ear;y on, whilst the Tooth Fairy’s base – a child’s drawing made three dimensional in superbly creepy manner – continues to exist.
And Teatime, after collecting all the teeth, a surprisingly horrifying image, and making them available to control ALL the children by magic, is after the wizened being who lies behind the Tooth Fairy operation, which is NOT the Hogfather, and is in fact THE Bogeyman, who has been collecting the teeth to protect them from being used, and who fades out of existence, leaving an obvious void.
What confuses further is that Pratchett’s etiology for the Hogfather leads back to similar roots, with the two figures perhaps as balancing images: The Bogeyman is the old dark, the Hogfather the turn of the seasons, the restoration of the sun from its darkest period to the light. The path from there to the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas has no clear route in either case.
It’s a confusing ending, and one where I really do not see what Pratchett was trying to say, which is one of the reasons where, despite the tremendous humour, I really can’t place Hogfather amongst the front rank of Discworld novels.

In Praise of Pratchett: Soul Music


After four totally top Discworld books in a row, personally I find Soul Music a bit of a come down. There are a variety of reasons for this, some to do with the book itself, some that are purely personal reactions, which is hardly surprising if the subject is something so subjective as music.
Structurally, the book is another of those that present parallel strands that are primarily separate but which intersect on the way to a climax that draws both stories together. In the one half, we have the arrival on Discworld of the local equivalent of Rock’n’Roll, which involves Mustrum Ridcully and the Faculty, not to mention an unusually diverse band of musicians: human, dwarf and troll.
In the other, we have another of Death’s forays into existentialism, and the need for someone to sit in for him, this time introducing Susan, Duchess of Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabell, from Mort, and, in defiance of all known laws of genetics, Death’s grand-daughter (also to be his co-star for the other books of this sub-series, where she will be considerably more palatable than she is here).
But that’s one of the issues with Soul Music: too much of it is made out of pieces from previous Discworld novels. The Band with Rocks In is a re-mix of Moving Pictures, down to the enthusiastic exploitation by Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler and the presence of some overwhelming animistic force that smells very forcefully of the Dungeon Dimensions.
And Susan’s story is a re-run of Reaper Man, and Mort, this being the third time now that someone’s had to stand-in for Death and do a pretty poor job of it.
I’d also like to mention here that it’s not until I’ve chosen to re-read the Discworld series with a critical eye that I realised just how often Pratchett throws in the Faculty, from the moment Mustrum Ridcully debuts: they’re in every book since Moving Pictures, with the exception of Witches Abroad and Small Gods, and this hot streak hasn’t ended here. I had not previously appreciated just how much Pratchett enthused about them.
Turning to the stor(ies), let’s go first into The Band with Rocks In. This consists of the random assortment of Imp y Cellyn, of Llamedos, a small, rain-sodden analogue of Wales, harpist. dwarf horn-blower Glod Glodsson and troll rock hitter Lias Bluestone (who will take the impeccably trollish stage name of Cliff – cue obvious ‘joke’ about how someone named Cliff will never last in the music business).
Imp’s beautifully made harp gets accidentally smashed when Cliff sits on it so he gets a guitar from one of those shops, that have always been there, only not necessarily yesterday. It’s a place where musicians are forced to pawn their instruments and no-one seems to be too bothered by the fact that this guitar, rough and primitive that it is, has the number 1 chalked on it.
But there’s a spark as soon as Imp picks it up, only it’s that kind of unhealthy spark that signals that Imp isn’t playing the guitar, because it’s playing him. And so Music with Rocks In is born!
Indeed, shortly thereafter, Imp supposedly dies, except that he lives on, because he’s got the music in him. It’s just like something from the Dungeon Dimensions, an expectation that Pratchett plays with throughout the book (mainly through Ridcully), though in the end it turns out to be the heartbeat of the Universe: not so much the Big Bang as the Big Chord.
This side of the story plays with rock cliches such as Live Fast, Die Young, and the Faculty turning into teenagers, though not of a particularly modern or even contemporary kind. Which is where one of my personal problems with Soul Music rears its head.
It’s simply a matter of age. Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and grew up during the formative years of rock’n’roll, whereas I date from late 1955 and I’m post-Beatles Boom. Soul Music recapitulates the birth of Rock’n’Roll, and the reactions that surrounded it, something which creates no emotional resonance for me. Imp y Cellyn turns out to translate roughly into Bud of the Holly.
And of course there has to be the equivalent of a punk band in there, in the hapless quartet of Jimbo, Crash, Noddy and Scum, who have no musical ability nor see any need for any when the right look will do. It’s a condescending portrait at best, and it gets up my nose. Though you wouldn’t think it to look at me, now or even then, I was into punk, which was one of the most exciting and enthusing musical times of my life, and I’m one of those who isn’t ashamed of it, or revisionist in any way, and this portrayal offends me.
Which may well be why, ultimately, the Music with Rocks In half of the story doesn’t really gel for me. It never quite takes on a convincing shape, especially as even Pratchett admits it’s music that’s not meant for this Universe. Discworld is a pre-Industrial society, and Rock’n’Roll is a city music. It never feels at home, and it’s significant that it has to be banished without trace for the book to end.
To call something both an alien incursion and the rhythm of the Universe at the same time is a feat not even Terry Pratchett can pull off.
As for the other half of the series, Soul Music introduces Susan, who will go on to co-star with Death in the remainder of his sub-series. Properly, she’s Susan Sto Helit, Duchess of Sto Helit, though here she’s a skinny sixteen year old at a sensible private school. And she’s an orphan.
That’s because she’s the daughter of Mort and Ysabell, and her state of orphanhood (with, apparently, no other relatives, no guardian or, frankly, anybody) is due to Pratchett’s understanding of the conditions imposed by the end of Mort. When Death turned over Mort’s lifetimer, he didn’t grant him a life: that moment was, by cold logic, the exact midpoint of Mort’s life, and the time of his death was not merely fixed, as is everybody’s, but known to the Duke, unlike everyone else.
And that this has to happen, that Mort cannot live beyond a fixed point without becoming immortal and thus inhuman, is one of the underlying themes of this side of the book and, in the case of Mort’s choice – and Ysabell’s decision to share that moment – is one of the few really successful moments in it.
Susan is relevant because Death is going through an existentialist ‘What’s it all about, really?’ phase, immersing himself amongst humanity and trying to forget in all the old, classic ways. But if he’s not there to do The Duty, someone else has to and, in defiance of all notions of genetic heredity, and the lifelong efforts of Mort and Ysabell to make her entirely human, Susan has to take over for her ‘grandfather’.
And she’s going to be every bit as bad at it as her father was, only, instead of Mort’s essential ineptitude and generous nature, Susan is wielding the cold fury of her Common Sense.
Because Susan’s a sixteen year old girl, and she’s the worst kind of sixteen year old girl (Rhianna Pratchett would have been sixteen during the time this book was written, but I’m going to assume her father wasn’t drawing from life). She’s supercilious and self-centred, uncaring of anything that she isn’t personally interested in, treating everything else with the towering contempt girls that age spray. It’s stupid, and people are stupid. And Susan is only to willing to use the special abilities she’s already ‘inherited’ from Death to indulge herself in what I can only see as her ignorant prejudice.
(She gets better after this, but in this book, she’s a horror).
And as Susan Death, she’s going to make changes. Just letting things happen like that is so stupid. She’s going to see that the good people don’t die, just because it’s their turn. They’ll be left alone and it’ll be the bad guys who get it.
Being a sixteen year old girl, Susan takes a personal interest in Buddy, assisting the Music in keeping him from the harm intended by the Musician’s Guild, and generally making everything worse until the only way out is for Death to wake up to his responsibilities and play the empty chord, the one that will wind the Universe down unless the music gives Buddy/Imp back…
So Susan learns a lesson about the universe, and Imp comes back in a new role, though since it’s as someone working down the chip shop, it seems he’s progressed from Buddy to Elvis, only without the Music. A Happy Ever After ending is implied, though not committed to.
As for the rest of the book, this is where Pratchett introduces the Canting Crew, the quartet of Beggars consisting of Foul Ole Ron, Foul Ole Ron’s Smell, Coffin Henry, Arnold Sideways and The Duck Man, who will meander through a few books. It’s also the first appearance of Unseen University’s High Energy Magic building, complete with students and the first tubular construction of what will be named Hex, which will play a much more consistent role from hereon.
So, a blip, in my terms at least. But only a blip.

In Praise of Pratchett: Reaper Man


Though it’s not usually regarded as being among the Great Discworld Books, Reaper Man deserves a much higher reputation. It deals with Death, and death, and to speak of death means to speak of Life, and Reaper Man in its most fundamental moments is about what it means to Live.
In this book, Pratchett shows for the first time his understanding of the internal need of his characters to grow, to take on board the experiences he gives them, and to respond to those experiences by changing. Rincewind had, by this time, appeared in four books (five, counting his cameo in Mort) without being in the least bit different: the failed wizard, the inveterate coward, the one who runs away from danger only to land in even more danger.
Death might have been the only character to turn up in every book so far, but he had starred in only one, the afore-mentioned Mort. Now, what happens to Death in Reaper Man, indeed the whole perilous situation that arises in the two halves of its plot, is as a consequence of Mort, the outgrowth of what Death exposes himself to whilst he allows his apprentice to assume the Duty.
Now, Death has taken an interest, has begun to wonder about these humans that he meets but once, and that briefly. He has begun to develop a personality, as well as a function. And as a consequence, he attracts the attention of one of Pratchett’s greatest creations: the Auditors of Reality.
They’re not yet fully developed, not up to direct intervention in their quest to order existence into lines of utter predictability, but they petition their ultimate master, Azreal, and the outcome is that Death shall be replaced. Death is put out to grass, and his retirement gift is his own hourglass, but unlike the one he has always retained – the clock to his job – this clock (suitably gold) has grains of time in it, rushing towards the bottom.
So Death is sent out to live what remains of his life, subject for the first time to Time, among humans. He becomes a workman for Miss Flitcroft, who owns a farm by an un-named village in an unidentified part of the Disc, and is paid sixpence per week to bring in the harvest. The Reaper Man becomes the reaper man, Death has to learn Life among those with whom he has always lived, and thus he grows more appreciative of what life is, what has to be gone through, and what has to be accomplished under the knowledge that the end is always the same, the end.
Death’s lack of comprehension, his complex approach to fitting in under his new name of Bill Door, is not only hilarious, it is funny, and touching, and it takes Pratchett into regions considerably more serious than Discworld books are popularly supposed to be, yet without which the books would only be funny, and would end up being forgotten.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s ending. Death has been made to step down and, in due course, there will be a replacement (the delay in such succession is the wellspring of what is happening in the other, lighter-hearted, part of the story). But the new Death is a creation of the Auditors: it is melodramatic, it is shapeless, it relishes the bringing of death, it works in multitudes, it does not see death as something that happens to individuals, only as death itself. Pratchett is a little too blatantly allegorical in contrasting Bill Door, cutting a field of wheat stalk by stalk to a primitive, horse-driven Combine Harvester – the first instance of technology finding its idiosyncratic way into Discworld – but Bill Door’s instinctive shrinking from the Combination Harvester is nothing as to Death’s outrage at the New Death, and especially at the crown it wears.
Though the odds are stacked up against him, Death overcomes the New Death and, with a sense of empathy that will ever afterwards inform him, persuades Azrael to restore him to his job.
Pratchett comes into his own in these parts of Reaper Man, understanding the voice he has, awakening to the fact that Discworld is not just an entertainment park in its own right, but a focus for those things that, deep within us, we have to say.
That Reaper Man is not seen as one of the essential Discworld books is entirely down to the fact that it’s not simply a book about Death. I’ve always seen it as such, in a sequence from Mort to the later books that co-star Susan Sto-Helit. However, it’s just as much an Unseen University Faculty series book as it is Death’s: indeed, Pratchett emphasises the dual nature of the story by using different densities of font to immediately identify which half of the story we’re in. Though I can’t help but think that by using a near-Bold font for the Faculty half suggests a greater weightiness that is entirely misplaced.
Though the other half of the story ultimately descends from the same starting point, there is no overlap or crossover. The closest we come to this is a Rite of Ashkente that doesn’t summon Death, merely an Auditor.
No doubt it’s careless reading on my part but, in years of focusing upon Death’s role, I’d overlooked the prominence of Ridcully and the Faculty, for a second novel in succession. What they have to deal with is the absence of Death in its aspect of nobody actually coming to pick up the dead: in particular, 130 year old Windle Poons, whose return to his body in the absence of any kind of eternal rest to go to upsets all the other wizards.
(Ponder Stibbins hasn’t yet made a mark, but the Senior Wrangler is to the fore).
So the surplus Life Force, as well as animating Windle Poons and inspiring the ever-fanatic Reg Shoe to start campaigning for Undead Rights, has to go somewhere. It starts by popping up as snow globes which then turn into shopping trolleys (as you’d expect…) and matures into trying to take over Unseen University in its mature form as a Shopping Mall.
It may not be the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but I’m sure it sits down at the same family meals.
It’s funny, but so’s Death’s side of the story, and the Faculty story melts into insignificance besides that.
And I suppose so does Reaper Man‘s overall ratings. It’s a mix of the mature Pratchett with a throwback towards the juvenile Pratchett, though the mature writer is rather better at juvenile than his younger self.

In Praise of Pratchett: Mort


When non-Discworld-reading friends have asked my thoughts about their trying some of the books, I’ve always directed them to Mort. This has usually made them suspicious of why I’m telling them to avoid the beginning, but we’ve already been over that. If The Light Fantastic is where Pratchett first starts to sound like Pratchett, Mort  is where he first begins to write like Discworld and not fantasy.
That’s an unusual argument to make about a book set on a flat world, revolving on the back of four star-sized elephants, themselves stood on the back of a galaxy-sized turtle, and which involves the day to day workings of an anthropomorphic Death, but I believe a case can be made for that claim.
As far as Mort itself is concerns, it’s one of the easiest books to summarise. There’s a tag-line that’s been around since the novel first appeared: Death comes for everyone. When he came for Mort, he made him his apprentice.
And as for the plot, it too can be encapsulated very smoothly. When Death gives Mort a go at the Duty, Mort gets involved and takes the assassin, not the Princess who was supposed to die. He then has to battle against Reality’s determination to set itself straight.
It’s that aspect that, to me, shows the first real appearance of the idea-shape that is Discworld. The first three books have basically been plotted according to fantasy tropes that Pratchett has set out to undermine, satirise and mock, whilst still setting his story within genre-archetypes. He’s not totally abandoned that here, indeed he never will, but for the first time, his story is not about a fantasy topic.
It’s about Death, and what it leads to. It’s about people’s individual responses to leaving life, and how their expectations shape what, for them, follows. It’s about Fairness, and Justice, and how, at the ultimate end of all things, they do not exist outside the shape given to them, from thin air, inside the human mind.
Mort begins as a gangling, untalented, inutile adolescent, looking for a role in life. His natural abilities are non-existent, his future is as much of a blank as he is. Death doesn’t even select him as an apprentice for the purpose of training him in the job of being Death (though, having taken such a step, he is assiduous in provide such training). Mort’s been picked out for a highly-unlikely arranged marriage with Death’s ‘daughter’, Ysabell (who we met, very briefly, in extremely creepy mode, in The Light Fantastic.)
But once Mort is selected, his presence is the catalyst for two very different, and frankly worrying developments. Like so many people, when given responsibility, Mort discovers capabilities within himself that he would otherwise never have suspected. But his simply being there is another step in the slow progression of Death himself from being merely an Anthropomorphic Personification to someone who, against all expectation, becomes invested in his job, and starts to get interested in the people he, er, collects.
And the moment Death starts to offload his responsibilities onto his apprentice, and to take nights off in which he can explore, unavailingly, just what is this fun that his humans spend all their time pursuing, is the moment when his and Mort’s roles begin to crossover.
It also keeps Death from perceiving what Mort, in a rush of adolescent enthusiasm for a fifteen year old red-headed Princess (entirely understandable: there really is something abut a redhead…) has done. It might be a pure (as in naïve) surge of lust that’s prompted it, but Mort’s refusal to take the Princess Kelirehanna (Keli for short, though the second part of her formal name was admirably foresighted for 1987) is also an act of Fairness and Justice.
But Death knows that, at the heart of all things, there is no Justice: there’s just him. All Mort can do is to create a brief, localised alternate reality that hasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell of surviving the closing in of the real Reality (Pratchett borrowing here a concept that was a theme in Fritz Leiber’s SF work, the Law of Conservation of Reality).
And he has to face up to Death for what he has done, in a fight he cannot hope to win, with a egg-timer pouring out the very few remaining sands of his life. But Mort has two cards left in his hand: that he alone can understand what is demanded of Death, and that Death, despite his puzzlement, has become interested in humans…
Pratchett’s chosen method of resolution contains within it certain logical implications that, to his eternal credit, he would pick up, later in the series. Death himself would become one of those whose adventures form a sub-series in the main Discworld current, and of course his perpetually grumpy housekeeper, Albert, would return again and again, but although there were realistically no opportunities for them to reappear, I am sorry that we never got to see Mort and Ysabell again. I’d grown to like them.
I’d still pick Mort as the earliest book a Discworld virgin should read, though there’s an even stronger case to be made in the near future. It’s not only funny, but in it Pratchett dares to be serious for the first time. He would develop quite the taste for it, and discover that his readers were well prepared to go with him.

The Sandman: Overture, issue 1


I confused myself in the comics shop earlier, about how long ago it really was since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series ended. but it is still the best part of twenty years since the final issue of the series, and twice as long as the series ran. And I’ve always been counted among those who would happily have sold a reasonably distant member of their family for another story. And now finally that’s not necessary (just as well given I don’t have any suitable kin to offer), because Gaiman has not merely agreed to write that one more story, but has actually completed it and the first issue has been published.

Of course, DC being DC, the event is going to be milked for all its worth and the herd in the next field as well for, whilst Gaiman’s story will consist of only six issues, these will only be published on a bi-monthly basis, meaning that the end of this story will not be known until September 2014. To ensure our money doesn’t get stagnant in our pockets keep us going in between episodes, we will be able to buy ‘Special Editions’ of the previous month’s comic, with ‘extras’. I will say no more.

So, what’s it like, returning to the Dreaming with Gaiman after all these years? Has he still got it? Does this feel right, does it feel authentic? Hell, yes, it’s like never having been away.

Gaiman’s story is the one before it all began, the one that ends with issue 1, almost twenty-five years ago, when Dream of the Endless was captured by the self-styled Magus, Roderick Burgess, returning from a mission that has left him desperately tired and weak. This is that story, so already we know two things. The first is that this is taking place during the Great War in Europe, and the second is all of Dream’s future to come.

Stories are always difficult to tell when you know their ending in advance. The ingenuity of The Day of the Jackal (on film at least) lay in how it sprang its story of why the Jackal failed, when his approach had been so impossibly meticulous. Gaiman has an advantage in that this story need not connect itself in such a sense to the already-known series, since all it has to do is to deliver a ‘desperately tired and weak’ Sandman to a pre-arranged point, but Gaiman wouldn’t be Gaiman if he ignored that challenge.

What we have so far is a mysterious dream sequence far away in space, on a planet that is not Earth, and whose inhabitants include a race of intelligent, if immobile plants, one of whom dreams of a strange black-petaled, white-faced plant that senses something deeply wrong on this planet, and then burns. This incident creates ripples: Destiny reads in his book of entertaining his sister Death, who is perturbed that she has just collected their brother Dream a hundred galaxies away, and it is never very good when one of the Endless dies.

Then there is the Corinthian, disobeying Dream by entering the waking world, by killing. He is brought to Dream’s London offices to be uncreated away from all his friends, but Dream’s intentions are disturbed by a summons: not a common thing but not unknown,yet this is a summons that cannot be refused. Dream has time only to return to the Dreaming, leaving the Corinthian to roam unchecked, to collect his helmet of office and his pouch of sand (he wears his ruby already) before being summoned in an instant to, we assume, this planet of humanoids, insects and plants.

He arrives prepared for anything. Except for what he finds: a fold-out, four page spread of Dreams: nor dreams, but Dreams: himself, replicated, variegated, over thirty different incarnations, all answering the summons.

Where this leads is two months away, in another year.

Overture comes with alternate covers, at least for issue 1. As was traditional, Dave McKean has also returned, but series artist J. H. Williams III has drawn an alternate cover, as depicted above, which is the one I’ve chosen. Williams has been one of the leading artists in comics for over a decade, and he is immaculate in this issue, meticulous in his detail and in full command of his craft. Parts of the art is in black and white, although it might be better to describe it as grey and white. Practically the only quibble would be that, in the London office sequel, his Sandman is hugely reminiscent of the Shade, from James Robinson’s Starman, but then I like the Shade so I’m fine with that.

This is, as usual, very much a first issue, setup and mystery, and a generously depicted atmosphere. There are still stories to be told within Gaiman’s Dreaming, within Gaiman’s Endless. This is the first: I will not be alone in hoping it will not be the last.