This one was a struggle. The first four Discworld novels are flawed but interesting in different ways. TCM is an author throwing as much invention at a wall (or disc) and seeing what sticks, TLF does the same but brings to bear more of a plot and structure to the story, ER introduces his first great character and deepens the atmosphere of the Discworld as a place, and Mort can’t be acronymed.
But Sourcery is forgettable and unfortunately not very good. It was the first book where I looked at the box of second hand Discworld novels under my bed while I was reading it and thought ‘just what the hell were you thinking in buying all of these?’.
It’s a rehash of The Light Fantastic, which was a bit of a rehash of The Colour of Magic, along with some cherry picked bits from his third and fourth novels. So you have a phenomenally powerful youngster (like Eske in Equal Rites) bringing threats to a benign authority and not being respectful of the power he wields (like The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites), causing the world to be threatened with a world ending calamity (pretty much every single Discworld novel to date).
As I have noted previously, Pratchett is bashing out these novels at an incredible pace at this moment. The plots are largely similar – person offered unspeakable power, bad things happen, world saved with some dreadful/amazing puns along the way – but instead of issues with each novel being ironed out by the editor or through extensive rewrites, you get the sense (almost certainly wrong as I am just some bloke on the internet wildly speculating without a modicum of informed knowledge) that his belief was ‘but this is fun, I’ll get it right with the next book’.
There was enough momentum with each novel that the reader puts the flaws to one side because of the strength of characters (Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites or Death in Mort), Pratchett wrestling greater control over plot and structure, or just the fact the books are packed with jokes and excruciating puns.
Sourcery pretty much fails on all counts, even though Rincewind makes a reappearance. While the first two novels fitted quite nicely in with Rincewind’s reluctant hero archetype, after spending time with Granny or Death, the relative slightness of his character is obvious. He lacks the interesting darkness and ambiguity within Death or Granny. And he’s definitely not as funny.
The structure of the book is very weak. By the end of what should be the first act, where the threat is established and Things Have Changed (amid optional atmospheric music), you realise the book has fewer than 100 pages left to actually develop a plot worth reading. So it doesn’t do that and the end (and middle, to be fair) is rushed and unsatisfying. And there are only so many end of world threats you can have before you suffer from a bad case of apocalypse fatigue.
It’s a weird book because if you had been following Discworld up until now, you would have seen a steady improvement with each novel. The wheels fall off at this point and it’s hard to work out why. If Sourcery was published first or second, then I would probably have enjoyed it a lot more than I did. But I know he can do better.
There are some interesting things raised, such as the fact the wizards helped to bring the revenge of the sourcerer upon themselves because of barmy dogma. Ipslore, the father of the eighth son of the eighth son of the eighth son and villain of the piece, was driven away from the wizards’ college because he fell in love.
The political machinations of the Unseen University, with magicians striving to boost themselves up the ladder, are like office politics but with fireballs and lightning added into the mix of passive aggressiveness and double-crossing. It may be quite tough at the top, and it is probably even tougher at the bottom, but halfway up it’s so tough you could use it for horseshoes.
And even when a book isn’t quite working, Pratchett can still make you chuckle or write enjoyable scenes. The high point of the book for me was Pratchett’s own tribute to Ridley Scott’s Alien, except the Librarian (an orangutan because Magic) is cast in the role of HR Giger’s xenomorph and you are rooting for it to bring all manner of hell onto the evil magicians trying to ruin the library (an abhorrent crime if ever there was one).
What was now attempting with considerable effort to unscrew Sconner’s head by the ears was a screaming nightmare with its lips curled back to reveal long yellow fangs.
Perhaps Sourcery was his way of saying goodbye to his early work, by revisiting some early characters, themes and stories for one last hurrah. (Remember what I said above – I am only some bloke on the internet widely speculating with no knowledge whatsoever). It fails on almost every count but where he goes next is deep into Shakespeare and then onto Egyptology. And there’s not an apocalypse in sight…
Previously on Pratchett Job: