The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchet (1983)


the color of magic
Image from Amazon

This is one of those books that’s world famous, on all the best-seller lists, a must-read for all scifi/fantasy fans, yet somehow I don’t like it.

For the uninitiated, Discworld is a scifi-fantasy series based in Discworld, a world that is flat like a disc and riding on the back of a turtle through space. The book has the fantasy elements of medieval England with dragons and wizards, but occasionally throws in some science-sounding words. The book is a parody of fantasy novels, known for its outrageous scientific interpretations of Discworld.

Now I almost feel guilty for writing this review because Mr. Pratchett died recently. So I feel it necessary to mention now that I don’t think the book is bad, by any means. I think it’s just not my style. In fact, I’m still not entirely sure what it is about the comedy itself that I didn’t find appealing. I thought of several theories:

1-Perhaps the comedy is so famous that it has already been copied by countless people and so to me seems unoriginal.
2-It’s the comedy of a different time, specifically of the 80’s and not the 21st century. I ran into this problem with Huckleberry Finn.
3-It’s British.
4-It was incredibly funny for its time because not many books were meant to be funny. But now with books filled with comedy such as the Percy Jackson series, it seems relatively tame by comparison.

No matter what the reason, I didn’t especially enjoy the comedy. It got a few laughs here and there, but overall that wasn’t enough to carry the entire book.

So what would be enough to carry the whole book? Like I said, I overall would not read the book again. It did several elements well enough. No element in it is bad or annoying. But while some of it is moderately enjoyable, I didn’t find much to be great.

Let’s start with the characters. The book didn’t focus very much on developing characters, but that’s just a matter of style. The only character I thought was especially good was Death himself, which is why I’m giving Discoworld another chance by skipping ahead to “Mort”, a story about someone being apprenticed to Death.

In this book Death. Is. Funny. Every scene that has him in it has something funny about it, whether it’s Death complaining about how Rincewind “doesn’t keep his appointments” or the cartoonish way that people realize they’re going to die. He also gets some good lines, like taking away “1/9 of a cat’s life”.

I also enjoyed Twoflower from time to time. In the beginning, it was great to see a naive tourist visiting medieval England. But by the end of the novel he’d learned nothing and was getting a bit annoying.

The one well-described, original character was Hrun the Barbarian and his talking sword. They were the only characters that ever surprised me. However, they were in about 1/4 of the book, so it’s not as if they could carry much of the story.

Now let’s look at the writing. The writing style is 3rd person omniscient and is overall pretty casual. One thing you’ll have to get used to is the constant changing of scene. The book is almost written like a TV episode, where you’re constantly shifting from one situation to another. Each scene only lasts about a page. It doesn’t have many complicated words and is easy to read. Pratchett even has a few really interesting lines, like how he describes a massive fire in the town of Ahnk-Morpork as “a mere comma in its long history, not the end”. The writing itself has no problem. In fact, the occasional lovely insight (like the comma metaphor) adds onto his clarity. It’s rare that you don’t understand what he’s saying, and honestly I think the sentences I didn’t understand were the result of my lack of understanding of adult British phrases from the 80’s, and not the sentences themselves. He sometimes uses clever, funny euphemisms which are always understandable. He doesn’t describe many scenes in detail, but few people do. In fact, the writing is probably the funniest part of The Color of Magic; the situations aren’t humorous, but the way he phrases peoples’ thoughts and feelings is hilarious.

And now the plot. There was only one scene in the book where I was invested in the plot at all, and I’ve actually forgotten what scene that was (which is not a good thing). The plot honestly seems like a half-hearted way to get in a few cheap jokes and show everyone a little bit of Discworld. This is where things get confusing and annoying. He constantly skips around to irrelevant scenes that aren’t funny or necessary. The villains aren’t defeated in any clever way. In fact, half the time they’re defeated just due to a plot device that was added in at the last moment (to be fair, the idea of Discworld is that nothing makes sense and so these plot devices are excusable. But that doesn’t make them any more enjoyable.). There’s one scene where the two main characters apparently switch dimensions and get sucked into our world in an airplane. If the scene had been funny, I might have enjoyed it. Since the scenes don’t last very long, I was only confused for about a page. But the scene had absolutely nothing to do with the plot or characters or even Discworld, considering they were on Earth at that point.

So let’s finish on a positive note: the ideas. This is what makes me tempted to hear about the rest of Discworld (though I don’t look forward to reading it). A lot of good books feature unique ideas, but Pratchett’s are all over the place. The world on a turtle and earth is flat thing isn’t anything new, but I did like the way that he described this nonsensical world in scientific terms. I liked the gods playing a dice match with the characters’ lives and how the camera actually had a tiny painting demon in it. I liked all those things. I wasn’t particularly inspired by any, but the book was so full of them that I want to hear more. There were plenty of original ideas that I’m surprised haven’t been used anywhere else in cultural references since then.

Overall, I think the reason I don’t like this book is the lack of comedy. The experience is like watching a cartoon; there’s not a lot of beautiful writing/animation, the characters don’t get much focus, and the plot doesn’t entirely make sense. If the book was funny, then I would have seen it as a cartoon and therefore loved it. But since that element was missing, I really didn’t see much value in the other elements of the story.

As I said before, I’m giving Discworld a second chance. Who knows? Maybe I’ll suddenly understand the humor. Maybe Pratchett will also have moved onto developing characters and plot by that time (“Mort” is not the second book in the series).

So have any of you read Discworld? What did you think of it? If you read it recently and remember it, what do you disagree/agree with me on? I’d love to respond to any questions, comments, or concerns, whether or not they’re related to the book review.




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