Friday, February 28, 2014

Review of The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The explosion of epic fantasy we are experiencing in 2013 was not even a blip on the market radar in the 1980s. A handful of British writers had written a few tomes in the first half of the 20th century—E.R. Eddison, C.S. Lewis, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien, and in turn were imitat—err, followed by a few American writers, Donaldson, Brooks, and others. But the veritable deluge currently ongoing was not even a twinkle in papa epic’s eye. At the beginning of the decade, a couple of names set out to re-define the term ‘epic’, going on to have market impact to this day: Robert Jordan, Glen Cook, and Terry Pratchett. The first choose to wallow in the archetypes of the genre to the point his series became bogged down by its own weight. The second choose to ignore good and evil and go in a grittier direction. And the third, well, the third chose another road: humorous subversion, and in turn has kept fantasy fresh and funny ever since. Monty Python’s fork in the road was 1983's The Colour of Magic; Pratchett hasn’t looked back since.

The Colour of Magic is a parody of absurd proportions. Starting in Ankh-Morpork, a rough-and-tumble city of medieval presentiments, the book tells the story of Rincewind, a wizard kicked out of Unseen University after learning only one spell. Running into a man at a bar, Twoflower (a naïve tourist from rich foreign lands), the two find themselves stumbling and bumbling their way from one unwanted adventure to another, trying to stay alive while keeping possession of the one thing everybody wants: a walking chest of gold. Yes, you read the last phrase correctly. Made of sentient pearwood, the chest ends up protecting the pair more often than needing protection. The thieves of Ankh-Morpork, the dragons of Netherlands, and the wizards of the Big Sea all wanting a piece, The Colour of Magic is a romp.

So what exactly about epic fantasy is Pratchett satirizing? It would seem everything. From the innocent-man-encounters-adventures-beyond-his-dreams to the strong warrior paired with the wily thief, dragons to Conan-esque mercenaries, anti-quests to cliff-hanger endings (literally), Pratchett drags in the biggest, fattest stereotypes he can think into his story, and pokes and prods them with all the god-given humor a person could want.

One of the most common elements of epic fantasy is the scope of the world envisioned, seemingly the larger the better these days. Pratchett undermines this rather handily: instead of a land far, far away, he throws his world onto the shoulders of four elephants riding on a giant tortoise through space. The barbarians, well, they’re still barbarians, but their pea brains get them into more trouble than their brawn can get them out of. And the wizards, if Rincewind is any example, are not the omniscient wielders of spells and wisdom we would have them be. Like looking at a color negative, the fantasy elements are familiar, yet possess a hue that is Pratchett’s own.

It is thus the satirizing that sets The Colour of Magic (and its direct sequel, The Light Fantastic) apart from the Discworld novels that would come. The focus internal, there are few social and cultural issues—the trademark of Discworld, I think—that find their way into the narrative. Pratchett lightly roasts the idea of insurance in the first part of the book, but never critiques it like time (The Thief of Time), creativity (Soul Music), gender (Equal Rites), war (Jingo), religion (Small Gods), and the other concepts innate to the books which followed. The plot lacking an underlying sense of purpose as a result, the novel is enjoyable as the humorous subversion of epic fantasy, but is thin beyond.

In the end, The Colour of Magic is a satirical subversion of epic fantasy that is full of adventure and possesses all the elements of humor Pratchett would expand in later Discworld novels. A heavy dose of puns, a smattering of the abstract, some slapstick here and there, and the simply indescribable, the novel is as much fun as any of the other books. The bumbling Rincewind, the wild scenes he unwittingly (and unwillingly) becomes a part of, and the sheer joy of being introduced to A’tuin the World Turtle and the rest of the Disc are the main draws. Lacking the moral punch of later publications, this one is to be read for fun and the manner in which it comments upon and progresses the sub-genre of epic fantasy. Given what their series have become, I would take Pratchett over Jordan any day.

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