The gods didn’t listen. He knew that. He knew that, of all people. But it had never mattered before. You just went through the motions and came up with an answer. It was the ritual that was important, not the gods. The gods were there to do the duties of the megaphone, because who else would people listen to?
Throughout the Discworld novels thus far, the reader has been shown the importance of symbols. In Equal Rites, Granny tells Eske how her medicines are largely just flavoured liquids. They work because people believe in them and the ritual around them. That’s why she wears a black hat. It’s what witches should do.
Belief and ritual are at the heart of Pyramids. Its beginning is a frenetic riot – a race through Ankh Morpork as Teppic tries to pass his final exam and graduate as An Official Assassin, interspersed with how he came to join the Assassins’ Guild and his early days boarding. You are thrown back and forth in time at great speed and get sucked into Teppic’s tale in an incredibly short amount of pages.
As well as being a talented assassin, albeit one with issues surrounding killing (a fatal flaw if ever there was one), Teppic is heir to the throne of Djelibeybi, Discworld’s Egypt and an absolutely woeful/genius pun, even by Pratchett’s low/high standards. It sits as a buffer between the warring nations of Tsort and Ephebe and has seen better days, with its riches plunged into expensive, impressive but useless Pyramids. When his father dies, Teppic returns to Djelibeybi to take the throne and decides to build the largest pyramid the country has ever seen. Because that is what he should do.
Except it’s not. Pyramids bend time, preserving the inhabitant, so building the biggest one warps time so drastically that the country literally disappears, causing war to almost break out between Tsort and Ephebe. And that’s without mentioning Teppic rescuing his half-sister from the clutches of Dios, the villainous high priest, how Teppic’s late father, now his mummy (sorry), leads an army of the undead to try and destroy the country’s pyramids, how a camel is the greatest mathematician in the Discworld, or how the builder Ptaclusp uses the temporal jiggery-pokery to staff his organisation with past, present and future versions of his sons.
Where to begin, eh? Dios is best as he fits into the classic trope of how the best villains are the ones who don’t realise they are the bad guy. He is determined to stick to the traditions of the country, at all costs, even when that means he shifts the country 90 degrees through space and time and brings all of the country’s gods to life.
His religious fervor and clear role as the villain of the piece could mean you could read Pyramids as a diatribe against the church. Thankfully, it is not as simple as that. On the one hand, religious spectacle crippled the country economically as Teppic’s ancestors built pyramid after pyramid. A worker who touches Teppic has his hand cut off, because the ruler of the realm is dubbed a god. When they are made real, the gods chaotically tear through Djelibeybi. And as Pratchett puts it towards the novel’s end: The trouble with gods is that after enough people start believing in them, they begin to exist. And what begins to exist isn’t what was originally intended.
But on the other hand, gods are real. Teppic is a god – there’s that wonderful scene after his father dies where his every step sprouts flora in Ankh Morpork. Faith is not a bad thing. And ritual is important to all of the characters. Teppic and Ptraci (another groan) both have an attachment to their knives and bangles – they “don’t feel properly dressed without them”.
Dios is the villain but his motives are driven by his desire to do the best thing for the realm, rather than moustache twirling, Dick Dastardly cackling stereotypes. His ending, and the novel itself, is utterly brilliant, with Dios thrust backwards in time thousands of years (I forgot to mention he has been living for more than 7,000 years when we first meet him and preserves himself in a pyramid. Because Discworld). It’s not explicit, but you are led to believe Dios is who formed Djelibeybi and its culture millennia ago.
It’s fundamentalism that Pratchett is criticising, rather than religion itself. The novel, like his others, encourages an inquisitive spirit and the ability to ask difficult questions. But even that is perhaps simplistic, as the worldly Teppic is not the best person to lead the realm. At the end of the novel, he buggers off to live the assassin life, leaving his half-sister Ptraci (seriously, groan) in charge, someone who has spent her entire life in the country.
This is the best Discworld novel to date and one so wonderfully constructed that Teppic is never seen again and Djelibeybi never revisited. Pratchett nails it so perfectly in this novel, there is nowhere left to go. The only thing I can find fault with is he still fails to get the voice of children right. Eske in Equal Rites was not great either, although you could maybe put her adult voice down to magic induced precociousness.
A quibble so minor it should be wearing a hard hat. Next up, we are heading back to Ankh Morpork to meet one of Pratchett’s greatest characters for the first time…
Previously on Pratchett Job: