20 July, 2017

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

1. This novel gets Pratchett explicitly into post-modern philosophies. He’s again talking about belief, like in Pyramids, and gods. Here he comes down opposite to the idea that “seeing is believing”. In this chicken and egg debate, Pratchett has perceived his answer:
Belief is one of the most powerful organic forces in the multiverse. It may not be able to move mountains, exactly. But it can create someone who can.

People get exactly the wrong idea about belief. They think it works back to front. They think the sequence is, first object, then belief. In fact, it works the other way.
This thought predates Errol Morris’ great philosophical text, Believing is Seeing, and post-dates both Jesus’s comments to his mother in John 11, and the third path of enlightenment in Buddhism. This idea also echoes what Neil Gaiman was writing during this same time period in his comic book The Sandman.

—But these other examples of similar thoughts do not detract from Pratchett’s point here, they merely show that he is not alone in rejecting the idea that seeing leads to believing. The opposite is largely the theme here—though Pratchett also works with alien invasions, corporate consumer culture, identity politics, and a loner integrating into a society:
—This last one sees Death, as Bill Door, trying to understand humans more by living like one. He has beliefs about humans when the novel begins, but he doesn’t understand them fully. And the opportunity to live among them, like them, as one of them, brings him a measure of understanding that carries parts of the novel.
—The wizards don’t believe upon seeing, as a rule. On one hand, they recognize many options of what a single action can mean—which plays out here in the alien invasion and corporate consumerism themes. On the other, this means they’re constantly bickering about everything, and at times the reader knows what the action means and knows their responses are dangerous—which allows for many jokes.
—The identity politics are played up for jokes as dead rights: zombies, werewolves, boogeymen, vampires, etc. But, because this is Pratchett, he also points out positives of identity politics. In a way, this fight for common rights by the dead shows “believing is seeing” in action.
—In other words, these ideas, themes, narrative tropes—they try to come together and create a novel whose simple, three word theme is examined in multiple areas, leading to a consistent thrust for the novel’s point. However, it’s so multifaceted for such a short novel, that the book comes off as more exploration and rumination than a tight, logical path.
It was the living who ignored the strange and wonderful, because life was too full of the boring and mundane.

2. And that explorative aspect seems closely related to the structure here—which is a straightforward narrative compared to some of his other books, but with many little cul-de-sacs of scenes that delay the thrust of the whole. Like in Moving Pictures, and most of the prior Discworld books, the story wanders between growing from a firm foundation, and pausing to play up some jokes. Where Pratchett is best, the two are indistinguishable—he holds himself back from some jokes to keep the plot moving, while using some jokes to pause the plot and let the reader process some important ideas. In Moving Pictures and here, the story runs away from him and he seems to write plot developments that disagree with his basic philosophical premise.
—I think it is impossible to write anything devoid of meaning—words are designed to convey meaning, after all. However, it’s now a popular approach to try and write stories without morals, or points: just a story and let the reader make up their own minds. But usually, the plot tips the author’s hand. For instance, if a character is a materialist, and they cannot overcome the bad stuff that keeps happening to them, maybe I’ll understand the author as stating that materialism ruins lives. Or if the character always tells the truth and it ends up causing the death of friends, like in some World War II narratives, I’ll see the author as making an argument for lies where they protect one’s friends. In this way, Pratchett’s structures sometimes undercut his larger ideas. It doesn’t so much strike me as lazy writing, as it seems he can’t resist good jokes, even if they subvert his own themes. And he’s about subversion, so it makes sense.

—But another way to look at this nebulous point I’m trying to firm up is that this novel is stuffed full of ideas, and there are too many for the story. I’m not trying to write rules for stories: three to five balls in the air for any short story, one major theme and three minor themes in any novel, etc. Those are ridiculous and create predestined, formulaic writing that makes authors indistinguishable from each other. What I am saying is that this novel has a lot of ideas, and some of them get lost behind others. Dibbler and the snowglobes, the wizards and the shopping carts, or the mall as a monster—this would carry anybody else’s novel. I like that Pratchett bites off too much sometimes, it means that his novels are often worth re-reading. But at the same time, sometimes he bites off too much and can’t handle it all—like both here and Moving Pictures.
Wizards don't believe in gods in the same way that most people don't find it necessary to believe in, say, tables. They know they're there, they know they're there for a purpose, they'd probably agree that they have a place in a well-organised universe, but they wouldn't see the point of believing, of going around saying "O great table, without whom we are as naught." Anyway, either the gods are there whether you believe in them or not, or exist only as a function of the belief, so either way you might as well ignore the whole business and, as it were, eat off your knees.

3. All that said, this is an enjoyable book to read. That’s something Pratchett has never lost sight of: the jokes are solid, the character creation is good, descriptions often come at you sideways, and this all results from solid writing. I might quibble with the story telling from time to time, but the writing is wonderful.
Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber and, in some cases, backbone.

4. I probably will not return to this book often. I’ve started to realize some of the inconsistency of Pratchett’s series. And though it’s a good book, it’s not great. Though it makes some points I agree with and some I don't, playing both out on a hilarious, engaging stage, I don’t resonate with this novel like I did with Guards! Guards! In some ways, this is probably nearing the end of Pratchett’s first phase, the early, experimental Pratchett. And his later stuff seems more mature and direct. More confident. I look forward to that, though I’m still glad I read this.
Inside Every Living Person is a Dead Person Waiting to Get Out

06 June, 2017

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

1. This novel deals with Holy Wood, or the creation of the movie industry on discworld. Obviously, Holy Wood is an analogy of Hollywood, and the references do not end there. The topic covered is the beginning, with silent movies and big studios and stars, and doesn’t progress much past that point. And that’s maybe some of where Pratchett potentially loses readers: nobody watches Nosferatu or Metropolis anymore. General knowledge of the silent film era is low. But I think Pratchett links it to all other popular art forms in the early days: poetry, plays, novels, opera, etc. It’s all heady potential and learning as you go. And this theme applies to all sorts of stages in life—new job, new house, new friends, new relationship, new interest. Pratchett strips down this topic people don’t know or care about from our own world to the point where it’s applicable to everybody, and that’s a real strength in a satirist. For instance, I don’t know much about symbolic medieval theology in the Catholic Church, but I sure enjoy reading The Divine Comedy.
The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it's as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no-one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all yourself from the clues.

2. But the real theme here is the dangers inherent in this potential, in getting carried away and forgetting about consequences. It’s a hot topic today, how violence in media does or does not encourage violence outside of media. And Pratchett dives in with all his attendant humor, excellent character creation, and descriptive wit. It’s not that potential is bad, inherently, it’s that people focusing on it can get so carried away and taken advantage of. One must pay attention to requirements of reality, otherwise you could lose everything—here made explicit by the fabric of reality unraveling, a check on the pro-column of setting this on discworld. It’s a warning tale, as things get away from the characters and take them to places they didn’t expect, and can’t handle.
It was dawning on the wizards that they were outside the University, at night and without permission, for the first time in decades. A certain suppressed excitement crackled from man to man. Any watch trained in reading body language would have been prepared to bet that, after the click, someone was going to suggest that they might as well go somewhere and have a few drinks, and then someone else would fancy a meal, and then there was always room for a few more drinks, and then it would be 5 a.m. and the city guards would be respectfully knocking on the University gates and asking if the Archchancellor would care to step down to the cells to identify some alleged wizards who were singing an obscene song in six-part harmony, and perhaps he would also care to bring some money to pay for all the damage. Because inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.

3. In the same way, it feels like the story gets away from Pratchett a bit at the end, like he doesn’t know quite how to close the curtain and run the credits. Maybe this is intentional, in order to draw the reader into similar states of mind as the characters. Maybe it’s a critique on what cinema has become. But it’s still a niggling disappointment that this wonderful beginning devolves into a bit of a mess, and I feel the story could’ve written the ending better. Particularly because other endings are so strong: like Guards! Guards! and Eric.
This is space. It's sometimes called the final frontier. (Except that of course you can't have a final frontier, because there'd be nothing for it to be a frontier to, but as frontiers go, it's pretty penultimate.)

4. In all, this is the first time Pratchett explicitly deals with something from earth in discworld. And I’m looking forward to his treatment of Rock and Roll in Soul Music, and his treatment of News Media in The Truth. I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, but as a cinema nerd who’s spent time exploring the era in history and cinema, I’m in love with this book. It’s not the greatest Pratchett I’ve read, but it’s one I’ll return to again, and suggest to other film buffs as a starting place for them.
The Necrotelicomnicon was written by a Klatchian necromancer known to the world as Achmed the Mad, although he preferred to be called Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches. It is said that the book was written in one day after Achmed drank too much of the strange thick Klatchian coffee which doesn't just sober you up, but takes you through sobriety and out the other side, so that you glimpse the real universe beyond the clouds of warm self-delusion that sapient life usually generates around itself to stop it turning into a nutcake. Little is known about his life prior to this event, because the page headed 'About The Author' spontaneously combusted shortly after his death. However, a section headed 'Other Books By the Same Author' indicates that his previous published work was Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches's Book of Humorous Cat Stories, which might explain a lot.
Being trampled almost to death by a preoccupied troll is almost the ideal cure for a person confused about what is real and what isn’t. Reality is something walking heavily up your spine.

29 May, 2017

Faust Eric by Terry Pratchett

1. This book returns to the format of the first two in the series: four interconnected short stories. It’s better as a novel than those early ones—Pratchett has learned a lot about telling a good story since then—but it’s still underwhelming. That’s not to say I did not like the book—some moments are extremely memorable. But it’s not one I’ll return to often.
Just erotic. Nothing kinky. It's the difference between using a feather and using a chicken.

2. My biggest problem is still with the format. These four stories explore different themes and situations.
—The first wish is to rule the world, and the story takes place in an age of exploration, South American analogy. Quetzalcoatl and Ponce de Leon are parodied. It’s about the nature of gods and belief.
—The second wish is the most beautiful woman in all of history. This story takes place during the discworld equivalent of the Trojan war. Homer is parodied—Helen as an aging mother with a mustache, a Trojan Horse when the men come out of the anus of the animal, etc. This is about believing history and artistic license.
—The third is to live forever, and the story takes place in the discworld’s pre-history. This is mostly an extended joke on the literal meaning of living forever and was a short section. The point being that new experiences are denied the immortal.
—The fourth story is in hell, which is a giant bureaucracy with some distinct, Dantean levels. This portion parodies Faust most directly by acting as a sort of behind the scenes peek at the whole story. The backstory of Faust.
—Again, we have a character on a journey with little else in the way of continuity between these four stories. Rincewind simply snaps his fingers and they teleport through time and space. That’s not much of continuity, I think. And this lack of continuity means that the story should probably be read in four sittings, rather than all at once. Maybe it would be better that way.
“But I read where she was the most beautiful—”

“Ah, well,” said the sergeant. “If you’re going to go around reading—”

“The thing is,” said Rincewind quickly, “it’s what they call dramatic necessity. No one’s going to be interested in a war fought over a, a quite pleasant lady, moderately attractive in a good light. Are they?”

Eric was nearly in tears. “But it said her face launched a thousand ships—”

“That’s what you call metaphor,” said Rincewind.

“Lying,” the sergeant explained, kindly.

3. But the real positive from this book is the theme: this parody of history and metaphysics from our world, played up by simply looking at it all from a slightly different angle. This is where the humor of this book sits. Yes, the characters and situations and descriptions and dialogue and worldbuilding are all funny. But the humor in Pratchett’s speculations about these historical and metaphysical things is really the highlight. For instance, hell isn’t a pit of fire or other people here, it’s a bureaucracy. The way this idea plays out is hilarious.
Rincewind trudged back up the beach. “The trouble is,” he said, “is that things never get better, they just stay the same, only more so.”

4. So that’s Faust Eric, a parody of Faust that’s not actually about Faust. It’s disjointed but it shows an emphasis on parodying our own world that is endearing. This was my first time reading it and I’m not sure I’ll go back to it again. I might, as I study the periods and topics discussed, re-read portions of it, but the structure really lets it down.

The consensus seemed to be that if really large numbers of men were sent to storm the mountain, then enough might survive the rocks to take the citadel. This is essentially the basis of all military thinking.
No enemies had ever taken Ankh-Morpork. Well technically they had, quite often; the city welcomed free-spending barbarian invaders, but somehow the puzzled raiders found, after a few days, that they didn't own their horses any more, and within a couple of months they were just another minority group with its own graffiti and food shops.

14 May, 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

1. Now we’re talking! This book shows everything that I love about Discworld, in one novel—and it’s a unique one to boot. The biggest step out of the normal for Pratchett is that this puts all the pieces of the earlier novels together in a confident way. Most notably, it features the multiple primary perspectives of Sourcery, and the ensemble cast structure of Wyrd Sisters. Where the prior seven novels had multiple characters, five were run through the lens of a central character: Rincewind, Mort, Eskarina, or Pteppic. Sourcery had multiple primary perspectives, but its own set of problems with pacing and story. Wyrd Sisters had an ensemble cast, but was so heavily focused on the eponymous three characters that they essentially functioned as the Rincewind to the rest of the characters—the base from which the tone and illumination was built from. Guards! Guards! is an ensemble novel, with multiple stories coming together to form a whole better than its parts. Multiple prime perspectives combine to explore a central theme and story to its conclusion. Where most of the rest struggled to be novels in places, this is a complex novel and pulls it off. Vimes and Carrot and Lupine Wonse and the Patrician play off each other so well, and have such different perspectives on life, that the whole thing impresses me in the craft. This is four stories in one, tied together by an overarching plot. Perhaps the city, Ankh-Morporkh, is the main character of Pratchett’s series as a whole, and this is the first book where he really digs into life in that city, with all the ups and downs, from multiple perspectives. The differences between the perspectives illuminate the city in a way that this architecture student had been looking for. The story itself involves all four characters and requires all four.
I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.

2. So I think that’s the main theme here: cities and how people live in them.
—Carrot is the recent immigrant, eyes still full of the bright lights and beauty of it all. He believes in the city’s inherent goodness and follows its laws so that he can be a benefit to the society. He is the optimist.
—The Patrician runs the city by making sure all the elements balance out. For instance, rather than trying to eradicate crime, he creates guilds for the criminals, and allots them a certain amount of crime every year. He’s hands off most of the time, but subtle with the way he influences things. He is the practical man.
—Captain Vimes is part cynic, part incompetent. He also experiences the most change throughout the novel. He’s an officer of the Night Watch, which Carrot joins, but aware of his position as top of the trash bag. He’s riding out his term, really. His job has lost its luster, as has his uniform. He’s the pessimist.
—Lupine Wonse is the head of a secret organization intending to change the basic structure of the city because it was better back in the day. He’s the nostalgically bitter old man and busybody who thinks he knows how to run things better.
—These four characters encapsulate views of the city. They put categories to the stages of city living, to the thoughts of city dwellers. They have been useful in my life, here in a small city in the Inland Northwest. I recognize these characters in people I meet, and vice-versa. It’s a startlingly discerning portrait of a city, through the eyes of four archetypes of city dwellers.
If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn't as cynical as real life.

3. Pratchett doesn’t let the jokes run away with the story at all. Don’t get me wrong, there are many funny points here. Yet the funny isn’t the point the way it is in earlier novels. This is less slapstick and more wry wit. In other words, the jokes here illuminate and explore the theme, rather than the other way around. It’s more darkly humorous. It’s more ironic and cerebral instead of in your face and unexpected. Where he used to throw two crazy characters together and watch what happened until he ran out of funny ideas, here he throws them together and watches what happens until they wander away from the point of the novel—and this is a big improvement. He certainly uses jokes still, but he also uses them for a point, and that point is his exploration of city-ness. Urbanity. Whatever the hip architecture kids call it now.
Down there—he said—are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no.

4. At its base, the story is a detective novel. This fundamental plot and driving force benefits the novel by making it go forward in a way that’s not too distracting, but still engages. This is a hard thing to say, and I think that prior sentence said it wrong. I will take two examples: The Odyssey by Homer, and A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars is an engaging story that goes from conflict to conflict quickly and carries the reader along through cliff-hangers, murders, exploration, and fight scenes. The Odyssey has all the same pieces—exploration, cliff-hangers, murders, and fight scenes—yet is more focused on the theme of hospitality and how people react to this long war that just got over. A Princess of Mars is pulp fiction—there for the entertainment almost exclusively—while The Odyssey is literature based on a pulpy plot line—the pulp stuff drives the book forward in a way that engages, but doesn’t distract me from the theme. This Pratchett novel, Guards! Guards!, is more like The Odyssey than A Princess of Mars. It’s a book that rewards digging past the surface layer, but still relies on that surface to push the characters around, to pull the plot along, to engage the reader but not distract them, to pace the book appropriately. It’s a brilliantly pulled off tactic.
These weren't encouraged in the city, since the heft and throw of a longbow's arrow could send it through an innocent bystander a hundred yards away instead of the innocent bystander at whom it was aimed.

5. In closing, the prior seven novels—I use that term loosely—struggled to find the right balance between humor, story, characters, and ideas. Here, at last, Pratchett is confident with the experimentation in his earlier works. The books before this one were partially misses and partial misses, but this one shows a confident Pratchett incorporating all of the earlier novels’ successes, perfectly balancing the result of his learning. This one is an absolute hit. His confidence comes out as much in the flawless pacing as in the integration of multiple perspectives, as much in his humor as in his characters. This was the book that got me into Pratchett originally, and it’s my favorite that I’ve reviewed here so far. It’s a great place to start in on Pratchett.
It was the usual Ankh-Morpork mob in times of crisis; half of them were here to complain, a quarter of them were here to watch the other half, and the remainder were here to rob, importune or sell hot-dogs to the rest.

07 May, 2017

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

1. Egypt—hot, in a river valley, introverted, and mixing gods and rulers. Djelibeybi—same. This satire, set in sandy climes, studies the power-behind-the-throne concept. And it focuses on this theme tightly.
—First, there is Dios, the pharaoh's right hand man. He stands in for the permanent employees and hangers on in a democratic society’s ruling classes (though this society is not specifically democratic, cue jokes by Pratchett about other countries trying to export and monetize democracy, but being too caught up in arguing about how to do this in order to actually do this). For instance, America gets John F Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy basically comes along as a package deal. On the other end of Margaret Thatcher’s information tube sit a bunch of permanent government employees deciding what she sees and how it’s spun. Raymond Poincaré goes to war in 1914, and Joseph Joffre handles the military side of things. These three examples point out that though the people choose some things, they don’t choose everything when it comes to their governments. Pratchett explores this with Dios, a Richard Neville kingmaker mixed with that one secretary who is the only person who actually knows everything happening.
—Second, the nature of belief is the biggest secondary theme here. The people chose Dios over their new pharaoh, because they know Dios and why would he lie to them? The gods need to be believed in to have any power. The tyranny of tradition itself plays center stage to a large portion of this novel—the most prominent example of which is the ridiculous stuff Pteppic has to carry to meet his people (which echoes his assassin’s getup from early in the book, not letting even Ankh-Morporkh get away from his criticism of tradition and belief). And through this examination of blind belief, the power-behind-the-throne is dethroned. We believe what powerful people tell us. Pratchett wonders whether we should or not.
—To be fair, many people consider belief to be the main theme of the novel, with the power-behind-the-throne as a supporting theme. I see it the other way, but clearly see that it could go both ways. And both themes intertangle to the point that they are largely indistinguishable and Pratchett’s point comes out of both themes: think for yourself.
—The plot exhumes the theme of thinking for yourself through Ptraci taking power and making the positive changes at the end. In this way, everything is tightly focused and supporting each other. Brilliant writing.
The trouble with life was that you didn’t get a chance to practice before doing it for real.

2. However, the novel does wander off a little bit here and there. For instance, this is the first time Pratchett’s attempted to be sexy. Not really sexy, mind you, (the quote below is as sexy as it gets) but he wants to get a little more heat in there, and he does it in a funny way. Ptraci essentially treats sexual positions like a skateboarder treats their tricks: desiring to do them all and willing to talk about any of them casually, at any time, in any company. But this is a part of Pratchett already: in Sourcery, Cohen’s daughter is the woman who would be over-sexualized in any other novel. But Pratchett makes her a character instead. So yeah, she’s sexy, but she’s her own woman stuck in her own struggle between her parental influence and childhood, and her desires to be a hairdresser. Here, Ptraci desires usefulness, but isn’t allowed it because of her training as a concubine. This tendency in Pratchett shows that he treats characters as people. They may be the desire of many men, but women are still people and they are shown as such throughout the novel.
So this was it. You lost your kingdom, and then it was worth more because it was a tax haven, and you took a seat on the board, whatever that was, and that made it all right.

Ptraci defused the situation by grabbing Alfonz’s arm as he was serving the pheasant.

“The Congress of The Friendly Dog and the Two Small Biscuits!” she exclaimed, examining the intricate tattoo. “You hardly ever see that these days. Isn’t it well done? You can even make out the yogurt.”

Alfonz froze, and then blushed. Watching the glow spread across the great scarred head was like watching sunrise over a mountain range.

“What’s the one on your other arm?”

Alfonz, who looked as though his past jobs had included being a battering ram, murmured something and, very shyly, showed her his forearm.

“‘S’not really suitable for ladies,” he whispered.

Ptraci brushed aside the wiry hair like a keen explorer, while Chidder stared at her with his mouth hanging open.

“Oh, I know that one,” she said dismissively. “That’s out of 130 Days of Pseudopolis. It’s physically impossible.” She let go of the arm, and turned back to her meal. After a moment she looked up at Teppic and Chidder.

“Don’t mind me,” she said brightly. “Do go on.”

“Alfonz, please go and put a proper shirt on,” said Chidder, hoarsely.

Alfonz backed away, staring at his arm.

“Er. What was I, er, saying?” said Chidder. “Sorry. Lost the thread. Er. Have some more wine, Tep?”

Ptraci didn’t just derail the train of thought, she ripped up the rails, burned the stations and melted the bridges for scrap. And so the dinner trailed off...

3. But the novel shows some of his early-novel tendencies that pull back from the quality of the book. Again, this is a journey where the story wanders a bit. Some of the scenes don’t add much to the characters or plot. They bring in interesting discussions, as Pratchett is wont to do, but distract from the novel as novel here. Not disastrously, of course, because his writing saves it.
Djelibeybi really was a small self-centred kingdom. Even its plagues were half-hearted. All self-respecting river kingdoms have vast supernatural plagues, but the best the Old Kingdom had been able to achieve in the last hundred years was the Plague of the Frog*.
*It was quite a big frog, however, and got into the air ducts and kept everyone awake for weeks.

4. Pratchett’s writing is still spectacular. He’s hilarious, in more than just one way. He’s not riding a single joke or style of humor, he’s engaging a wide variety of humor and pulls all of them off.
"Therefore I will have dinner sent in," said the priest. "It will be roast chicken."

"I hate chicken."

Dios smiled. "No sire. On Wednesdays the King always enjoys chicken, sire."

5. The characters here are engaging in ways that are typically engaging: conflicted humans with good and bad habits. Most novelists employ this tactic to make their characters interesting and give the writer something to resolve. But here, the question is whether the characters are resolved at the end. I don’t know for sure. Certainly, Ptraci resolves nicely. But the main character is kind of left to wander a bit at the end.
These men are philosophers, he thought. They had told him so. So their brains must be so big that they have room for ideas that no-one else would consider for five seconds.

6. In short: a good Discworld novel, but not a great one. It’s closer to great than Sourcery was, and along the same lines as a quest novel. So, it’s a step forward towards better, but not quite great yet. I hadn’t read this one before and was happy to get into it as much as I did. I kind of wish more was done with the smuggler, but it wasn’t satirized as much as Pratchett’s typical. It’s kind of in there as a foregone conclusion that all importers are actually smugglers, without going into much more depth than that. In all, good book.
Mere animals couldn’t possibly manage to act like this. You need to be a human being to be really stupid.

30 March, 2017

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

1. This novel is Terry Pratchett’s William Shakespearean tale—meaning that it heavily references Shakespeare, as well as themes, plots, and characters from his works. The themes of destiny, fate, tragedy, power, family, love, death, and supernatural occurrences come up throughout the book. Present are plots about succession, usurpation, a play-within-a-play, romance, and tragedy. The three witches from MacBeth are the eponymous main characters, while the fool from King Lear gets major billing as well. In some ways, most of the characters play on Shakespearean types.
—But this is more Pratchett’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead than his version of an Elizabethan play. In this way, a main theme of the novel is pointing out the differences between the mindset and life of people in Elizabethan times and in the present day. Pratchett pulls this off with his usual hilarity:
“She never sent the castle to sleep”, said Granny, “that’s just an old wife’s tale. She just stirred up time a little. It’s not as hard as people think, everyone does it all the time. It’s like rubber, is time, you can stretch it to suit yourself.”

Magrat was about to say: That’s not right, time is time, every second lasts a second, that’s its job. The she recalled weeks that had flown past and afternoons that had lasted forever. Some minutes had lasted hours, some hours had gone past so quickly she hadn’t been aware they’d gone past at all.

“But that’s just people’s perception, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes”, said Granny, “of course it is, it all is, what difference does that make?”
That’s a wonderful post-modern statement followed by a brilliant joke about it, set in Shakespearean times—this is fertile ground that others have gone over for many years. Yet, Pratchett finds points of agreement between the Elizabethans and us that help to understand their mindset, though the book is still firmly rooted in Pratchett’s contemporary philosophical emphases—for all of its fantasy window dressing. In other words, some of the themes of Shakespeare show up, but they’re all discussed by a variety of characters on the intellectual timeline from Elizabethan to today. Rather than feeling like a history of these themes, this book discusses this variety of viewpoints fairly and even-handedly. And the discussion is fascinating.
—But the main theme is witches. In his 1985 speech, “Why Gandalf Never Married”, Pratchett talks about how witches are perceived:
I'm talking here about the general tendency. There certainly isn't such a thing as a female wizard. Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world. in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise. Strangely enough, that's also the case in this world. You don't have to believe in magic to notice that. Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.

[...]Of course I hardly need mention the true fairytale witches, as malevolent a bunch of crones as you could imagine. It was probably living in those gingerbread cottages. No wonder witches were always portrayed as toothless — it was living in a 90,000 calorie house that did it. You'd hear a noise in the night and it'd be the local kids, eating the doorknob. According to my eight-year-old daughter's book on Wizards, a nicely-illustrated little paperback available at any good bookshop, "wizards undid the harm caused by evil witches". There it is again, the recurrent message: female magic is cheap and nasty. But why is all this? Is there anything in the real world that is reflected in fantasy?

The curious thing is that the Western world at least has no very great magical tradition. You can look in vain for any genuine wizards, or for witches for that matter. I know a large number of people who think of themselves as witches, pagans or magicians, and the more realistic of them will admit that while they like to think that they are following a tradition laid down in the well-known Dawn of Time they really picked it all up from books and, yes, fantasy stories. I have come to believe that fantasy fiction in all its forms has no basis in anything in the real world. I believe that witches and wizards get their ideas from their reading matter or, before that, from folklore. Fiction invents reality.
And there it is, spelled out for his fans, the main theme of Equal Rites, and also the main theme here—though in a different way. Yes, he’s advocating for equal rights, but not as centrally or hamfistedly as in Equal Rites. He rebuilds fantasy in order to rebuild reality’s conception of it: he attempts to make a new reality about witches—he advocates for a new perception of witches as useful, boots-on-the-ground magic. And while witches do admit capabilities for sparkly lights magic, they treat it more along the lines of what Simon talks about in Equal Rites: magic that doesn’t need to be used because easier ways to do things exist. Headology, as Granny Weatherwax calls psychological warfare, is much less effort and more widely applicable than magic. As evidence, we see both: the mundane placebo effects of positive thinking, right action, and doing good despite traditions to the contrary; as well as powerful magic necessary to travel across time fifteen years into the future. But the focus intentionally stays on the day-to-day because of his wider project here. Instead of what he did in Equal Rites, by doing this recasting more fairly to a wide variety of viewpoints, Pratchett firmly roots this novel in rebuilding fantasy—and hopefully reality as well. He still gets his point across, but not in as preachy a way.
She walked quickly through the darkness with the frank stride of someone who was at least certain that the forest, on this damp and windy night, contained strange and terrible things and she was it.

2. The characters are starting to fall in line too. Instead of Granny’s overbearing nature driving portions of the novel, like it did in Equal Rites, here she serves the story as a character. She does some amazing things that influence the plot heavily, but she still serves the plot here. For instance, in moving people fifteen years into the future, she advances the plot, but not in a way that only allows Pratchett to make more jokes with Granny. The time-leap is mostly for the plot itself. Yet this doesn’t make Granny any less interesting. Rather, it allows Pratchett to not mine his characters for as much content as he has in the past—I’m still interested in Granny at the end, rather than being slightly relieved that Rincewind goes away at the end of Sourcery. This is important to remember: well developed and explored characters help a story be understandable and memorable by readers, but when they are placed in service to the plot, it may be easier to retain interest in those characters, which let’s the reader still have some wonder left at the end of a book. This is the growth of Pratchett as a storyteller over his first books in the Discworld series.
This book was written using 100% recycled words.

3. The flipside of having the plot drive the novel is that the themes may jump around and end up shallow, the characters may be lost in service to the story. It’s a balancing act between plot and depth that needs to fit the novel as a whole. The question is whether Pratchett’s balance is more appropriate here or in his first couple of books, where the jokes run everything, or where the characters control it all, or where the themes take over—excluding Mort, of course. And I think this balance here shows storytelling strength, as I’ve hinted at above. He balances plot, characters, themes, and jokes evenly. Sure, in a delightful scene he’ll draw it out a bit to keep the jokes flowing, or he’ll skip through quick scenes to get the plot moving—but there are enough of both of these types of moments throughout the novel to make it seem balanced well. He doesn’t give preference to one over the others, in the whole.
Humans had built a world inside the world, which reflected it in pretty much the same way as a drop of water reflected the landscape. And yet ... and yet ...

Inside this little world they had taken pains to put all the things you might think they would want to escape from—hatred, fear, tyranny, and so forth. Death was intrigued. They thought they wanted to be taken out of themselves, and every art humans dreamt up took them further in. He was fascinated.

4. A temptation would be to adopt more of the poetry and cadence of Shakespeare, but Pratchett hasn’t here. He continues to write in his own way. It’s not all iambs, pentameters, and groundbreaking spelling. He doesn’t lose himself in his project, in other words. He is still Pratchett writing for us today. And that helps him communicate with his readers on one level, instead of narrowing his audience to Shakespeare nerds only.
I reckon responsible behavior is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.

5. And that’s Wyrd Sisters, a fantastic book that balances a lot of aspects of storytelling skillfully. It’s difficult to not look at the progression of Pratchett across his first novels. He seems to be trying a few different tactics and balances in storytelling in the first few books: the opening pair focus on the jokes and satire, the third tries to tell a character-driven story, the fourth balances things pretty well, the fifth puts the story too much in the front, while this sixth novel goes back to the balance Mort established and does it again. I hope he continues writing like this. And, because I like Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard quite a bit, I was delighted to read this for the first time. (Sorry about the lengthy quotes from Pratchett himself, but he said what he was interested in so well that I wanted to share his words too.)
Destiny is important, see, but people go wrong when they think it controls them. It's the other way around.

19 March, 2017

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

1. This titular pun gives a good sense of where Pratchett heads with the novel: if this were a movie, this would be the big, dumb, fun, action-comedy. This is a chase, this is a revenge story eight years in the making, this is powers growing exponentially. There's a harem, a magic carpet, some wizard fights, a rich caliph, a beautiful girl, a climactic battle in multiple parts, and the whole thing is an extended chase scene—this novel shows Pratchett demolishing pulp fiction, while simultaneously building up a good example of a pulp-based novel. It often references the Song of Solomon, One Thousand and One Nights, Kubla Khan, and Middle Eastern myth and tradition.
The truth isn't easily pinned to a page. In the bathtub of history the truth is harder to hold than the soap and much more difficult to find.

2. In terms of a theme, this novel initially seems to be Pratchett returning to primarily lampooning fantasy tropes. But he continually plays on the action-adventure themes apparent in a lot of pulp fiction, so I believe his main theme is pulp.
—Supporting evidence is all over the place. Like in the way Pratchett uses deus ex machina plot resolutions—instead of simple escapes from tight spots by unforeshadowed powers, there’s always a twist to the escape: the carpet we half-expect because of the trope is unintentionally mounted upside down, the luggage is acting like a jilted lover when he stumbles upon and ends a wizard fight, the proto-hero is attempting to stop the Ice Giants when they stop because of the gods, all Rincewind has for the climactic battle is cynical compassion and a sock with a half-brick in it, etc. In one sense, this tactic shows Pratchett taking pulp and moving it one step closer to a rational reality—at least as rational as Discworld ever gets—showing him remaking the tropes as his own. While in another sense, they also point out the ridiculous in pulp plot resolutions. And those intertwined senses make Pratchett worthy of reading.
—On the other hand, there is no strong, central hero character, which pulp almost requires. So perhaps my conclusion on the theme is stretching things a bit. Maybe there isn’t a strong central theme outside of the base theme of the whole series—playing with the tropes of fantasy. Or perhaps this is the pulp novel that simply exists without a strong, violent lead—like Reservoir Dogs, the heist film without the heist. I like this idea.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said.

“No harm in that. I’ve never known what to do,” said Rincewind with hollow cheerfulness. “Been completely at a loss my whole life.” He hesitated. “I think it’s called being human, or something.”

3. As for characters, Rincewind seems to exist for jokes, mostly. But also to stay out of the way of more interesting characters and provide a cynical, running commentary on them. Though the commentary is endearing, the Rincewind thing is starting to grow stale, and I felt a bit of relief that Rincewind ended up in the Dungeon Dimensions at the end, presumably unable to return.
—I think Coin was a real miss by Pratchett. His character arc reveals itself through others’ views of him and what others see him doing. We never see Coin and his father fighting, but we hear about it. We never get a sense of who Coin really is until the end, when Rincewind unlocks him. This could have been an insightful story about living up to the expectations of our parents versus finding our own path, about believing what our parents taught instead of thinking things through for ourselves, about a conflicted character trying to honor his father and also follow his conscious while coming of age—but the story is too caught up in action-adventure to delve into that and it’s all dropped on the reader at the end, with minimal exploration earlier in the novel.
Perhaps it would be simpler if you just did what you're told and didn't try to understand things.
—That said, Nijel as the hero-in-training, and Conina as the repressed, heroine hairdresser—are both wonderful characters. They’re full of internal conflicts and goals that they are constantly falling short of, while allowing their own strengths in other places to shine. It’s a tactic he has used well in the past, including with Rincewind, and one I hope he uses more often in the future of this series.
It's vital to remember who you really are. It's very important. It isn't a good idea to rely on other people or things to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.

4. As a novel, this is better than the first two books in the series, but not as good as Mort. Plot-wise, it’s got a strong central theme—all of the parts relate back to the Sourcery war ongoing, but the scenes jump around in a series of short stories like the first two did. It’s a better novel because the short stories are all clearly related to the plot, and the characters carry-over, but it still left me not as enthusiastic about this novel as I am about Mort. Perhaps this attempt at synthesizing a novel with those earlier works results from the quick pace of publishing—this is his third novel published in seventeen months. Maybe my belief that the theme is pulp fiction comes from this jumping around. Any way you rationalize it though, this is not as good of a novel as Pratchett can write. It’s funny, but not his best.
As they say in Discworld, we are trying to unravel the Mighty Infinite using a language which was designed to tell one another where the fresh fruit was.

5. And that’s about all I want to say about Sourcery. It’s a good novel, and I’d give it to a D&D player in a hearbeat because the plot echoes so many games that I’ve played. But that plot wears thin, the characters are inconsistent, and an ultimate theme may still be lacking. All of that’s okay in the end though: the jokes are good, as are the insights, and really, why are we still reading Pratchett if not for those aspects? By examining such a niche market so carefully in such a particular time, he reveals things about the world he lives in that other, more serious authors regularly miss.
It is a well-known established fact throughout the many-dimensional worlds of the multiverse that most really great discoveries are owed to one brief moment of inspiration. There's a lot of spadework first, of course, but what clinches the whole thing is the sight of, say, a falling apple or a boiling kettle or the water slipping over the edge of the bath. Something goes click inside the observer's head and then everything falls into place. The shape of DNA, it is popularly said, owes its discovery to the chance sight of a spiral staircase when the scientist=s mind was just at the right receptive temperature. Had he used the elevator, the whole science of genetics might have been a good deal different.

This is thought of as somehow wonderful. It isn't. It is tragic. Little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time traveling through the densest matter in the same way that a neutrino passes through a candyfloss haystack, and most of them miss.

Even worse, most of the ones that hit the exact cerebral target, hit the wrong one.

For example, the weird dream about a lead doughnut on a mile-high gantry, which in the right mind would have been the catalyst for the invention of repressed-gravitational electricity generation (a cheap and inexhaustible and totally non-polluting form of power which the world in question had been seeking for centuries, and for the lack of which it was plunged into a terrible and pointless war) was in fact had by a small and bewildered duck.

By another stroke of bad luck, the sight of a herd of wild horses galloping through a field of wild hyacinths would have led a struggling composer to write the famous Flying God Suite, bringing succor and balm to the souls of millions, had he not been at home in bed with shingles. The inspiration thereby fell to a nearby frog, who was not in much of a position to make a startling contributing to the field of tone poetry.

Many civilizations have recognized this shocking waste and tried various methods to prevent it, most of them involving enjoyable but illegal attempts to tune the mind into the right wavelength by the use of exotic herbage or yeast products. It never works properly.

16 March, 2017

Mort by Terry Pratchett

1. This post marks my 100th post about literature. It's fitting that this 100th post is about Mort, which may be the first Discworld novel I can fully get behind as a novel. This is a fantastic place to start in on his books. But these notes help me explore and catalogue my thoughts on books, and as I think through one idea, another comes up until I reach the end. So, let me see what comes up here.
“Albert grunted. "Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?"
Mort thought for a moment.
"No," he said eventually, "what?"
There was silence.
Then Albert straightened up and said, "Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve 'em right.”

2. Mort is the first in this series that doesn’t put the jokes in charge. The plot and characters clearly drive this novel because they are consistent throughout, because the characters go through interesting changes that realistically result from the worldbuilding and plot, and because the themes are portrayed and explained through the plot and characters. The first two books were collections of loosely related short stories, the third was driven by its theme. This is an actual novel, with a story to tell and everything—and it reads better because of it.
—Partly because it’s what we expect from a novel, sure. But we expect that from a novel because it works. In other words, a contract with the reader is laid out in the opening pages, and the author lives up to that contract throughout the rest of the book, allowing the reader to really dig into the themes and characters without being distracted by switching gears between stories, or having to suspend more disbelief in the middle of the thing. This is one reason why novels are so effective and popular as a format.
Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.

3. Now, that’s not to say this novel isn’t funny. It’s to say that this novel has found the ordinate place for its humor: to satirise culture and discern situations. And this isn’t just my personal preference: the way Pratchett writes the succeeding novels seems to put humor in the same place, showing his preference or his realization about this strategy’s effectiveness. This was my observation and belief as a reader, and then I found this 2004 interview of Pratchett saying the same thing:
Discworld began as an antidote to fantasy. In fact, it was interesting to find out, at the first ever Discworld convention—which was about eight or ten years ago, I don’t know—ninety percent of the people who attended did not think of themselves as fantasy readers, although they read Discworld. In the early 1980s there was a lot of fantasy which in many respects was a copy of Tolkien. And I thought, ‘There were certainly cliches here: so much fun could be had.’ Discworld was, I suppose, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for fantasy. I take my life in my hands by saying that, but that’s probably as good a way as I could put it. Discworld is written by a better writer now. I’ve been doing it for twenty-one years and Mort is actually the first Discworld book that I’m quite pleased about. But if I wrote it now, I’d write it better.
So there you have it: one of his readers who is always thinking about writing thinks that the jokes here are properly placed in the construction of the novel, and Pratchett himself thinks the same thing. Jokes are fantastic, that’s a part of why I read Pratchett. But the best jokes reflect culture in order to impact it—to show us the ridiculous that we take for granted. They last longer when they are the catalyst to make us think about things. And by putting the plot first, then building the jokes off of it, building the jokes to support it, the plot gives a context to the jokes that helps their purpose. For instance:
“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever," he said. "Have you thought of going into teaching?”
I’m all for teachers and think they hold one of the most important positions in our society, but this is a solid joke. And without the context of the whole novel, the plot and characters and other jokes, it’s just a solid joke—little more effective and memorable than a knock-knock or chicken crossing the road. Within the context, this adds another wrinkle to his larger discussion of jobs and employment, the main theme of this novel. This joke shows one more way in which the world views professions and personal marketability. Yes, it’s played for laughs. But it also informs. And with the context of the plot, this informativeness surfaces more easily for the reader.
4. The theme of this novel is clearly employment. Before you say, “ugh,” and wander off, hear me out. Pratchett takes a stab at explaining how jobs and humans interact. Namely, he posits that jobs change us as people, but we also influence them simultaneously. It’s funny and sad when Mort can’t find an employer, and all the advice he gets from his father keeps prospective employers away. We can relate to that. And by taking the only offer he gets, he bites off way more than he anticipates. We can relate to that too. And by having his own personality and ideas, he chafes with management. We can relate to that too. But by placing this whole theme in a fantasy context with a job that doesn’t relate to us at all—harvesting souls—the whole theme manages to miss what makes our day-to-day experience so mundane. This exemplifies why speculative fiction can be so useful. Tell me I’m to read a book about a man at a job, and unless the job is something crazy exciting I’m not going to read the book, even if it’s as satirical and funny as Pratchett is. But put it outside of our experience while still lampooning and rephrasing that experience, and this novel really works. This is why I read science fiction and fantasy—for the ideas and reflections of our cultural norms. Speculative fiction makes it easier to digest a theme this close to home.
"And what's that?"

5. However, the pacing is a little odd in places. There are times when it feels like the novel moves too fast for the import of the moment, and times when moments drag on for unapparent reasons. The timing that feels most correct is the opening and the ending—Mort’s first experiences as Death’s apprentice, and their fight at the end. Otherwise, some of the middle portions seem to run long—like when Mort visits the tavern—or short—like when Albert returns to the Unseen University. At the tavern, the drink Mort quaffs doesn’t add much to the story, it reinforces his arc of assuming the aspect of death, but doesn't really add anything new to it. And Albert’s return is set up in the worldbuilding to be more important and influential than it turns out to be. The former feels like an idea where Pratchett ran out of steam; the latter like Pratchett was just getting going when he stopped—a whole Discworld novel could’ve been written about Albert’s return, instead we get a short vignette. That said, I fully admit that this is niggling. Nine times out of ten, the scene fits perfectly.
But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.

6. So there we have it: the first Discworld book that fully embraces being a novel. Everything supports the plot and themes, with well developed characters, and interesting insight into an applicable theme. Of course, it’s still fantasy and funny, but that humor and satire is why I often suggest reading Pratchett to a wide variety of people. I would suggest you start here, in a book dealing with the familiar themes of death and love, but focused on the overarching theme of work. This is the highest placed Pratchett novel on The Big Read, and it’s easy to see that it should be highly placed in that particular popularity contest.

28 February, 2017

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

1. That pun at the end of his 1986 Novacon 15 speech about Equal Rites comes back here—really the whole speech does. The point of this novel is explicitly stated in that speech—and he was probably already at work on this novel, because The Light Fantastic was already on its way to the presses at the time. The premise is this:
"Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There's also a lot of stuff about man's natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule. I'd like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it.”
As this is only his third novel, he’s still fully entrenched in the Fantasy-Jokes-Drive-the-Novel mode of writing, so this book isn’t as explicitly about equal rights as it is about equal rites. But Sandman has me thinking that dreams are just as much a part of reality as physics, so equal rites are equal rights, sideways. This shows Pratchett clearly and directly rebuilding the fantasy that he has been tearing apart for jokes. It’s clear that this is the main theme of this novel, but he’s got a couple of sub-themes that deserve exhuming as well.
—First among these is the fantasy-clichés horse he’s still riding. He introduces witchcraft and witches, but as much as he argues for equal rites, he doesn’t give them a pass free pass: witches get lampooned as effectively as wizards and barbarian heroes have been in the last two novels.
—Second is the rural-urban interchange: this idea that the rural people don’t fit in urbanity, and vice-versa. He mostly just explores this theme for jokes, but at the same time, the jokes are discerning and point out the basic similarities of humans everywhere. For instance, Granny Weatherwax is as confused in the million-inhabitant Ankh-Morporkh as the Arch-Chancellor would be in the Ramtop Mountains—and both are equally awkward when attempting to flirt with each other.
—The last theme he really digs into is the Ivory Tower, the intellectual mindset. Simon has these arguments that people can’t seem to remember, but they make sense when he’s making them. In other words, he’s pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and thinking about academic subjects in ways that are new and interesting. But he’s up against the traditional thought patterns of the university’s tenured lecturers. This is also played up for jokes by Pratchett. Having spent eight years in colleges and universities, this theme provided some of my favorite jokes throughout the novel.
“I look at it all like this,” he said. “Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about all the little details of life. But now,” he brightened up, “while I’m still confused and uncertain it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.”

Treatle nodded. “I hadn’t looked at it like that,” he said, “but you’re absolutely right. He’s really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance. There’s so much about the universe we don’t know.” They both savored the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were ignorant of only ordinary things.”

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.
2. Pratchett’s character creation here is strong enough that it resonates through later books. But he also tries something new here:
—First, the familiar done well. Like Twoflower, Granny Weatherwax personifies an extreme. Her confidence and ignorance match in a realistic way—I know many people just as ignorant and confident as she. But it’s also endearing because it allows Pratchett’s jokes about people who are like Granny:
For the first time in her life Granny wondered whether there might be something important in all these books people were setting store by these days, although she was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy. Among the many things in the infinitely varied universe with which Granny did not hold was talking to dead people, who by all accounts had enough troubles of their own.
Granny is pushed to extremes by Pratchett, but it’s for laughs, not because he doesn’t trust the reader—it isn’t ham-fisted. Since the reader gets insight into the mind of this person that they already know, the character is fascinating. It’s a familiar tactic from the first two novels, yet more confidently written here.
She was also, by the standards of other people, lost. She would not see it like that. She knew where she was, it was just that everywhere else didn't.
—Second, Pratchett tries something new with Esk. Her headstrong, clear thinking, and curious personality contrasts his typically ridiculous characters: both to provide a rich field for jokes, and to give the reader a character relatable to themselves in more than one or two aspects. It’s not that the earlier characters were unrelatable: Twoflower was curious and Rincewind was cynical. But Esk is relatable across most of her personality. The key to her relatability is that she personifies what people think of themselves, what they wish they were. I don’t mean that Esk wish-fulfills power-fantasies like Conan or Gandalf—which is the typical fantasy tactic. I merely mean that she is what people wish they were, in their day-to-day lives. And that’s Pratchett playing with the trope of wish-fulfilment in fantasy, again. In another new way.
“That's one form of magic, of course."

"What, just knowing things?"

"Knowing things that other people don't know.”

3. The plot here occupies the center of the book: Esk’s journey from the Ramtops to Unseen University in Ankh-Morporkh. However, the plot meanders all over the world and ends up being split between the journey and the University. The first fifty-one percent of the book deals with the journey, then the last forty-nine percent bases itself around the university. Like Star Wars Episodes V and VI, the book splits between these two stories and it works alright, but it’s also two stories, not one. It exists as two stories, with two continuous characters, but the second part adds in new secondary characters and is an awkward continuation of the former story in the way it separates itself through a new plot, some new characters, and new topics.
—Also, instead of letting the plot drive the novel, he crafts the story and jokes by throwing widely diverse characters together and sticking with them until they come to an understanding. The two witches—Granny Weatherwax as the bumpkin rural witch, and the more cosmopolitan Hilta Goatfounder—come at witchcraft in different ways. Their relationship allows a rich set of jokes that he uses to drive the plot for that portion of the novel. But these parts drag a little bit.
—So, this novel gets closer to great in the way it circles a single plotline—Esk getting admitted to the University. But Pratchett allows himself these moments and scenes to really revel in the situations that he’s set up between characters. It’s two plotlines awkwardly shoved together with similar themes and the loose, overarching thread of Esk trying to be the first female wizard.
For animals, the entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks.

4. This is Pratchett’s strongest Discworld novel yet, as a novel: he’s dealing with themes in an informative way, he’s rebuilding the fantasy he pulls apart, and he has an overarching plot line that informs all of the parts. This is a good novel. But it’s not great: the jokes are still in the driver’s seat, distracting the plot into inconsistent pacing. In the whole though, this novel works well. It’s written similarly to the last two novels, but this is a good book to start reading the series on, especially if you’re interested in the main theme. There may be better ones coming, but you have to start somewhere, and starting with something you're already interested in is a great tactic.