The (disc)world was Terry Pratchett’s oyster. No subject too big or small to be tackled by his continent’s worth of trolls and humans, dwarves and exploding dragons, even after nearly fifty novels and Pratchett’s passing the possibilities still seem endless. He dealt with silent films in Moving Pictures to YA coming-of-age in the Tiffany Aching series, religion in Small Gods to the fallacy of economy in Making Money—Pratchett went anywhere his ripe imagination wanted. Music inevitably popping up, in 1994 Soul Music, and all its glorious appreciation and humor regarding the evolution of rock ‘n roll, rolled onto the scene like Death on a Harley Davidson.
A poor, young guitarist named Imp Y Celyn comes to Anhk-Morpork looking for work. When he discovers he needs a license from the musician’s guild to perform on the street, he joins forces with Glod Glodson, a dwarf who plays horn, and Lias Bluestone, a troll percussionist (aka rock beater), and the trio hold their first, illegal gig in a local tavern called The Mended Drum. The improv performance drawing a more positive reaction than expected, a strangely disparate yet rebellious-minded group of people love the new music, and show their appreciation for the style they call ‘music with rocks in’ by inciting a small riot. The night also has other implications. Imp intended to die in the rioting, it’s only that Death was on existential hiatus that Imp remains alive. ‘The Band with Rock In’ exploding popularity with every performance at the Drum thereafter, rock stardom is born, and the disc will never be the same.
Music one of the most entrenched aspects of popular culture, Pratchett has a wealth of ideas to play with. And he takes full advantage. From simple puns like ‘elvish’ and stepping on blue leather boots, to riffs off the evolution of certain artists, like the Beatles or Buddy Holly, there is no shortage of humor, both direct and indirect. The wizards likewise getting into rock ‘n roll (Ridcully makes a leather jacket with “Born to Rune” written on the back), there is no end of laughter.
Playing into Imp’s, or as he comes to be known, Buddy’s story is Death. Riffing off the seemingly large number of musicians taken before their time, Pratchett introduces a new character to discworld, Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter who takes over the skeleton’s duties while he is off dealing with his existential issues. Oh, and squeak, squeak, squeak, alongside Susan the reader meets the Death of Rats, and the glories of interpretation.
Every reader’s mileage will differ, but for me, Soul Music was one of the funniest Discworld novels I have read (a good number, to date). Likely because I appreciate music, and as a result how Pratchett played with the idea of rock ‘n roll, it strikes a chord (har har). Playing with the evolution of different sub-genres (punk, metal, etc.) as well as the lives of famous rockers (Buddy Holly, Elvis(h), Pratchett uses his knowledge to good and most often humorous effect.
I watched the movie adaptation before reading Soul Music, and thus knew that it would be a good book. But I underestimated how much better it would be. Pratchett working with a broader canvas that allows for better contextualization of the interplay of mortality, music, and the coming of age of rock ‘n roll and the recording industry (a facet of the novel many people overlook), he does the subject matter justice, often in side-splittingly funny fashion. The movie does have its charm, as well as a few one-liners that are very Pratchett-esque yet not in the novel, but overall the novel is better. What Moving Pictures is to the birth of the film industry, Soul Music is to the birth of rock ‘n roll—complete with Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler.