When you read an author’s body of work exclusively, it’s much easier to see the joins. If you were reading the Discworld as it came out, you were usually getting around two Discworld books a year during the early 90s. That is a manic publication schedule but one that would allow a reader some space to breathe and enjoy something else.
I haven’t had that luxury, reading some 28 since early November (I’m reading ahead and currently on Night Watch). This has been fine as I’ve been able to read outside of Pratchett if I wished. I haven’t so far, which gives you an idea of how much I’m enjoying this.
Tracing the evolution of his writing has been fascinating. Following what he has improved upon, what he dropped and how he has changed shows how flexible and talented a writer he was at the height of his powers. I’ve also liked the dawning realisation that writing about how slowly light travels in the Discworld isn’t as fascinating as he thought it was in the first umpteen books. For example.
You can probably guess there’s a ‘but’ coming here so we might as well get to it. Soul Music is not a good book. It’s mediocre and really disappointing, doubly so as I really enjoyed this when I was younger. While he does try to do something different and move on from the themes of the first chunk of Discworld novels, its execution is lacklustre.
Thus far, Pratchett has been excellent in writing about death – I’ve written before about the excellent scene in Mort where Death’s temporary apprentice shepherds a woman into the afterlife but any scene with Death actually doing his job is full of warmth and humanity. That’s one but there are countless – a wonderful scene between Granny and Death is a few books down the line in Maskerade.
Soul Music purports to deal with the other side of death, which hasn’t been explored to date. That of grief and those you leave behind when you die. It’s infuriating because you feel this is something Pratchett should be able to handle easily and leave you sobbing by the novel’s end. Pratchett on grief is a no brainer! Why hasn’t he written about this before?
Here’s why it doesn’t work. Surrounding this theme of grief is the wider plot. Soul Music tries to do for rock and roll what Moving Pictures did for film. Armed with a mystical guitar, Imp Y Celyn brings rock and roll to Ankh-Morpork. He should have died shortly after arriving but Death has gone awol again following the death of his adopted daughter Isabel and son-in-law Mort. Stepping into his robes is Susan, his precocious granddaughter. She turns up to watch Imp (now rechristened as Buddy) die tragically during his first gig. This doesn’t happen. The music saves him. Cue the inevitable fallout of what happens when grand schemes are interfered with.
The weakest thing about Moving Pictures was its flimsy to nonexistent satire of the film industry. It made up for this with a plot charged with unstoppable momentum, an excellent sub-plot about social responsibility and some excellent jokes and puns.
Soul Music fails on all three counts.
The latter irks the most because I hadn’t really read a Pratchett book to date that wasn’t at least funny. Even Sourcery was funny (in places). Given how music gave us This is Spinal Tap, one would have expected Soul Music to follow it as its literary equivalent. Instead, there are poor jokes referencing band names with a Discworld spin. So for the Velvet Underground read The Surreptitious Fabric. That’s as good as it gets.
One criticism of Pratchett could be that he strays sometimes into whimsy that is just a little too pleased with itself. Soul Music’s overloaded whimsy is best represented in the name of Buddy’s band – there is something that sets me on edge about The Band With Rocks In. It reads like a Pratchett parody. I won’t even start on his take on rap music.
If the jokes don’t work, does his take on the music industry make up for it? Again, it’s a no. Managers are greedy, drummers stupid, the grown-ups don’t understand the hip new sound the kids are grooving to, everything is really very obvious. There’s a clever Kirsty MacColl reference nestled at the end and an attempt to hitch the novel’s finale to Don MacLean’s American Pie but everything just feels so laboured and forced.
Death and Susan’s plot is underwhelming, a shame after the brave step to kill two rather important characters on the first page. It comes as a shock but it never really follows through with what it promises. In his foreword, Pratchett writes of how the novel is about memory – if it is, I completely failed to see it. What the reader gets is Death on vacation (again), with the diminishing returns you would expect after the same thing happened in Mort and Reaper Man. Susan struggles with the responsibility of her task, before Death rides to the rescue again in the final act.
If it worked, you would feel for both Susan and Death coping with loss in different ways. But it’s just not explored enough or in sufficient depth. By the time Susan returns to her boarding school at the end of the novel and cries herself to sleep, we should be in bits. Instead we think back to The Band with Rocks In and what could have been.
Perhaps the decision to start the novel with the infamous line “It was a dark and stormy night”, a legendary herald for bad fiction, was a poor one.
In its defence, it is readable. Pratchett has such a mastery over plot that it’s difficult not to career through his novels. But it’s an incredible missed opportunity and frustrating after Men at Arms revealed a new and interesting direction for his writing. I’ve been critical of Pratchett’s writing of young characters, with both Eske and the boarders at the Assassin’s Guild sounding like adults. Susan is much better – her precociousness and the no-nonsense literal thinking she got from her grandfather make her a promising character. She was brilliant in the same way that a diamond is brilliant, all edges and chilliness.
It’s not as bad as something like Sourcery, which was a complete mess, but it’s easily his most disappointing to date because he can write much better than this, and especially about such a potentially rich subject.
There’s very much a ‘what’s next?’ air to Pratchett’s fiction right now, where he is (bravely and to his credit) trying new things and themes in order to see where he is taken next by the narrative. It fails here, but next time, he turns his attention back to the protagonist that was there when the Discworld began. Rincewind is back – will he reinvigorate the series?