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Review of The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

By / June 23, 2011 / no comments

The Colour of Magic is a busy book both in terms of its plot, which is more a series of sequential short stories than a single coherent narrative, and in terms of what it’s trying to achieve. Of course it’s trying to be a good book, entertaining, often funny and slyly satirical, but it’s also the first novel in the acclaimed Discworld series and for many it is the Discworld’s Statue of Liberty, the first thing they see when encountering this new world. Lastly, it’s a parody of the fantasy genre; the book places particular emphasis on deconstructing the Sword and Sorcery subgenre and basically goes after anything that could be used for the basis of a tabletop campaign

As a novel, considered in isolation, The Colour of Magic is saved from mediocrity almost entirely by its sense of humour. Its sclerotic pacing, jumping from one adventure to another with little in between, disrupts any attempt at building tension or suspense or any overarching conflict (Though one is brought to the fore by the immediate sequel The Light Fantastic) and there is little character development to speak of. Both the main characters, the cowardly, incompetent and bitingly witty wizard Rincewind and the naïve, heartbreakingly innocent tourist Two Flower are quite interesting, but also rather two dimensional. Rincewind wants more than anything else a quiet life, in this way he is more than just vaguely reminiscent of Arthur Dent, and Twoflower wants what any tourist on the Disc wants; all the thrill of dangerous adventure presumably without the risk of injury or death (Though that’s not to be taken for granted). Naturally these two are brought together by the beauty of floating exchange rates; Twoflower is burdened down by an absurd amount of gold which is plentiful where he comes from. In the end though, however interesting, endearing and fun these two can be, they’re the same, somewhat two-dimensional characters they were at the beginning. Maybe there’s some solace to be had in Twoflower’s inviolable ingenuousness, some last drop of mirth to be squeezed from Rincewind’s bitter contempt for his companion. Invariably, however, static characters make for worse protagonists than dynamic ones.

Not all is lost though; each new adventure is in and of itself a delicious morsel and, more importantly, a chance for Pratchett to exercise his wit. And exercise he does, moving with ease from dry, understated quips to outrageous situations and caricatures, sly references to other works of every medium and genre, or subtle, unheralded puns he tries to slip by when no one’s looking (pay close attention to the words translated from Twoflower’s language). Of particular note is the snarky magical sword, the anthropomorphic Death who is a frequent minor character and later is the focus of several novels and the name given to the home of the gods, ‘Dunmanifestin.’ In fact, if I wanted to cast the book in the most positive light possible the entire review would be quotes presented accompanied by only the most skeletal context.

It is, perhaps, as an introduction to the series as a whole that the novel is at its best. The novel is admittedly less mature than his later works, and of lesser quality, but it’s also a much lighter fare. Not that any Discworld books are particularly heavy, but some of the later ones move in the direction of character driven dramas. As an introduction to the Disc itself it has no peer, introducing most of the world’s eccentricities that later novels build on and take for granted. Some of these, especially the fact that the Disc is rests on the backs four elephants standing on a giant turtle swimming through space are constant throughout the series while others, namely the magical properties of the number eight and the titular colour of magic (kind of greenish-purple) fall by the wayside as the series develops. The series changes, matures, even improves as time goes on, so perhaps you’d be better off starting with another novel (it should be noted that Discworld is in fact a half dozen or so series, each independent of each other but set on the same world) but The Colour of Magic is a fun, easy novel and a good introduction to Pratchett’s style. It is also the only real introduction to the series of novels within the Discworld series that follows Rincewind. This series quickly evolves from a serialised sendup of Fantasy to a far more interesting struggle for normality in world that just refuses to leave him alone.

The novel also works well as a sendup of the genre; that it works so well is ironic given that it spawned a wildly successful and often sincere Fantasy series. Parody and satire have long been the hallmark of the series and Pratchett has been more recently given to taking on other subjects like detective novels, political thrillers, travelogues, Asimov’s Robot series and just an enormous number of other subjects, but it began with his take on the absurdity of the fantasy genre. And the novel works very well in this regard. There’s Hrun the barbarian, a narcissistic and dim, though competent, caricature of Conan the Barbarian; Wyrmberg, home to a roost of imaginary dragons; and coterie of gods who appear to be playing a tabletop RPG with people as pieces (though some prefer Snakes and Ladders).

In the end, almost everything you need to know about the novel is in the cover. That magnificent, chaotic, cartoonishly exaggerated but still real cover drawn by the late Josh Kirby perfectly captures the spirit and the style of the novel.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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