Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review of Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

It seems there is no subject too big or too small, too esoteric or too familiar, that Terry Pratchett won’t tackle in Discworld.  His 1989 Pyramids, seventh in the series, sees the author exploring Egypt—just entering the groove that would become more than forty novels in the Discworld setting.  The humor amongst the best Pratchett has produced, the book still leaves something to be desired for plot.  As such, I’m guessing it won the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for historical grounding, wordplay, stabs at theme, and accomplishments to date, rather than consistent storytelling or characterization.

Pyramids is the tale of Teppic, son of Teppicymon XXVII who is king of the desert land Djelibeybi.  Sent to the Assassin’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork for grooming into an “educated young man”, after graduating Teppic finds he’s needed back in Djelibeybi due to a family emergency.  Djelibeybi stuck in a time warp, the state of the kingdom compared to Ankh-Morpork is a shocking experience.  Though determined to follow with tradition, Teppic soon finds what’s best from history may not be the best for his country.  

Djelibeybi being Pratchett’s go with Egpyt, running amuck are pyramids, gods, bangled handmaidens, desert lands, ghost kings, camels, and all other manner of the ancient land.  Mummies come to life, crocodiles lurk in rivers, and the riddle of the Sphinx fools everybody.  And Pratchett keeps all of it rotating at a steady tilt the length of the novel; for action and adventure, there is no shortage.

But for as nicely paced as Pyramids is, characterization and plot take a hit.  In the movement of events there are some things which don’t quite fit together.  The story occasionally bumbling,  Ptraci, for example, never quite settles into the story enough to allow her character to fully occupy the position she ultimately finds herself in (not to mention her disappearance in the middle of the story simply because there was nothing else to do with the character in the narrative).  Likewise, the armies Teppic finds in a neighboring kingdom, while delved into in relatively significant fashion, play little to no role in the overall storyline and seem digression for little other purpose other than to laugh at Trojan horses and point to burgeoning Greek power.   But most importantly, Teppic, as main character, is never presented in a fashion that has you chasing the story with interest.  The reader more phlegmatically following along, if it weren’t for You Bastard, Teppic’s tale may have dried up like the desert he rules.  

Ahh, You Bastard, the world’s greatest mathematician—and a camel…  Certainly my opinion will be drowned amongst the multitude of Pratchett fans, but I would say Pyramids is among the top three of the Discworld humor-wise.  Less slap-stick than Men at Arms and more subtle than The Color of Magic, Pratchett’s wordplay in the novel is at times among the best I’ve read.  You Bastard’s internal dialogue, the personalities and conversations at the Greek—err, Ephebien—tavern, and the architects as they banter and discuss the technique and commerce of pyramid building (like coffins!) is a stomach-jiggling delight.  Pratchett humor waves a bright flag of erudition with one hand while pushing the story along with the other, wordsmithing every step of the way.

The themes of Pyramids are not as developed as the humor, however.  Facets Pratchett would later rework with Small Gods and Thief of Time, the novel tackles following tradition merely for tradition’s sake (i.e. blindly), time in the long term, and the perception and effect of religious dogma.  Perhaps biting off more than he could chew, there is little balance to the moralizing save the final page.  Undoubtedly Pratchett would also like to have left more room for the value of custom and culture—which he does in later novels.  

In the end, Pyramids is a solid middle entry onto the Disc.  Pace able to pave over many plot inconsistencies, Pratchett keeps the story moving in gloriously humorous and adventurous fashion.  Playing with all manner of Egyptian stereotypes and real history, time gets twisted, the dead walk again, and pyramids vent time in bolts of blue lightning to keep their entombed kings alive—DEATH even letting matters be.   If you’re bored with the settings and characters to date, perhaps the novel’s singular position in Pratchett’s oeuvre might interest.  Pyramids often cited as a good entry point to Pratchett, I won’t disagree, but there are better books on the Disc.

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