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.

13 February, 2017

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett


1. This directly continues from the last novel, The Colour of Magic — people and their luggage falling off the edge of the discworld is the opening scene here, and the closing scene there. It’s a direct continuation of the story as the first novel, with the same characters and many of the same writing tactics. However, this novel is different enough in a few, key ways, that it deserves its own set of notes. This was first published three years after that first novel, and Pratchett has progressed as a writer, but he’s still not perfect.
It was a still night, tinted with the promise of dawn. A crescent moon was just setting. Ankh-Morpork, largest city in the lands around the Circle Sea, slept.

That statement is not really true. On the one hand, those parts of the city which normally concerned themselves with, for example, selling vegetables, shoeing horses, carving exquisite small jade ornaments, changing money and making tables, on the whole, slept. Unless they had insomnia. Or had got up in the night, as it might be, to go to the lavatory. On the other hand, many of the less law-abiding citizens were wide awake and, for instance, climbing through windows that didn’t belong to them, slitting throats, mugging one another, listening to loud music in smoky cellars and generally having a lot more fun. But most of the animals were asleep, except for the rats. And the bats, too, of course. As far as the insects were concerned…

The point is that descriptive writing is very rarely entirely accurate and during the reign of Olaf Quimby II as Patrician of Ankh some legislation was passed in a determined attempt to put a stop to this sort of thing and introduce some honesty into reporting. Thus, if a legend said of a notable hero that “all men spoke of his prowess” any bard who valued his life would add hastily “except for a couple of people in his home village who thought he was a liar, and quite a lot of other people who had never really heard of him.” Poetic simile was strictly limited to statements like “his mighty steed was as fleet as the wind on a fairly calm day, say about Force Three,” and any loose talk about a beloved having a face that launched a thousand ships would have to be backed by evidence that the object of desire did indeed look like a bottle of champagne.

Quimby was eventually killed by a disgruntled poet during an experiment conducted in the palace grounds to prove the disputed accuracy of the proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and in his memory it was amended to include the phrase “only if the sword is very small and the pen is very sharp.”
2. The biggest change is that this novel contains a central plot piece that relates to all the parts — the Octavo’s efforts to delay its use and the red star. However, it’s little more that a framing arc, and the novel is still split up into four short stories: the Octavo versus the wizards, the druids and the introduction of Cohen, Death’s realm, and the Red Star’s coming. But even the introduction of a framing narrative improves the readability of the novel on the whole. This book holds together better than the last, even if the druid computers and Death’s realm sections seem to run long. And those two middle sections feeling overlong gives me some idea of where The Colour of Magic got the pacing wrong:
—The first novel had alright pacing within the four short stories that composed the book. But the pacing of the whole was inconsistent because, without a strong central plot, the stories could not refer back to one, could not build one, could only progress their little part, and not the whole book. The result was a bit of a mess, but enjoyable in its parts. It was a fix-up novel.
—Here, the two middle portions feel like they run long. It’s because these portions don’t dwell on the framing narrative as much as the first and last portions. Pratchett sets me up to care about the red star shortly before largely ignoring it for the middle two portions of the book. So as these two portions get longer and longer while I read them, I start to wonder why they’re there. Of course, this is a satire, and those portions are simply small vignettes, and they’re poking fun at computer haves and have-nots, or Bridge players. But they were so loosely related to the framing narrative that they seem to meander the novel. That’s a big reason why the plot appears tacked on to me.
—However, the first and last portions, which set up and resolve the framing narrative, really start to show the way forward for Pratchett. Instead of adding in a plot to frame his hilarious, small scenes, building the scenes because of a central plot works better: usually seems to force parts of a novel to connect to other parts.
It looked like the sort of book described in library catalogues as "slightly foxed", although it would be more honest to admit that it looked as though it had been badgered, wolved and possibly beared as well.


3. These characters engage when I’m reading them. There are some new characters, and some changes to the characters from the last novel.
—Pratchett still uses some characters to play with fantasy tropes. Cohen, a new character, contrasts nicely with Hrun, the barbarian hero of the last novel. Where in the last novel, Pratchett pushed the barbarian hero cliché to extremes, here he flips the trope, sort of. What happens when the hero grows old? This echoes Beowulf in some ways, but instead of the old, unbeaten king palsy shaking and pissing himself in the corner, Cohen still badasses with the best of them. However, he’s lost all his teeth and sometimes his back or knees give out in the middle of a fight. He’s more Conan than Hrothgar, but it’s Pratchett, so he’s playing with both traditional characters simultaneously. Much of the humor in the second section comes from Cohen, this octegenarian barbarian hero — proving it’s not what Pratchett does, but how he does it.
—But he also begins to use characters to provide discussions on more foundational issues of humanity and reality. Instead of Rincewind and Twoflower’s relationship being used only to lambast tourism, here it’s a cynical, insightful look a couple of layers deeper into the tourist psychology and life philosophy. Instead of just saying, “tourists do stupid stuff,” he’s saying, “tourists do stupid stuff out of ignorance, and a really stupid tourist is one who attempts to persist in their ignorance, though ignorance is sometimes essential in extreme situations.” He uses Rincewind’s cynicism to explore why tourists are both breathtakingly beautiful thinkers, and abysmally idiotic ignoramuses. He shows why ignorance can be bliss, and why it can be deadly. This begins to show Pratchett’s genius.
Twoflower didn't just look at the world through rose-tinted spectacles, Rincewind knew—he looked at it through a rose-tinted brain, too, and heard it through rose-tinted ears.

+++

'I expect everything will turn out all right in the end,' said Twoflower.
Rincewind looked at him. remarks like that always threw him.
'Do you really believe that?' he said. 'I mean, really?'
'Well, things generally do work out satisfactorily, when you come to think about it.'
'If you think the total disruption of my life for the last year is satisfactory then you might be right. I've lost count of the times I've nearly been killed--'
'Twenty-seven,' said Twoflower.
'What?'
'Twenty-seven times,' said Twoflower helpfully. 'I worked it out. But you never actually have.'
'What? Worked it out?' said Rincewind, who was beginning to have the familiar feeling that the conversation had been mugged.

+++

It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate beauty, he just appreciates it in his own way. I mean, if a poet sees a daffodil he stares at it and writes a long poem about it, but Twoflower wanders off to find a book on botany.


4. This story starts to build past the just poke holes, Blazing Saddles tactic used in the last novel: here Pratchett begins to rebuild fantasy in his own way. But he only starts to—he only hints at the ways he will rebuild in the future.
—For instance, he uses Rincewind and Twoflower’s relationship to get deeper into the cultural consciousness. Or, instead of playing Cohen up merely for laughs, he uses it to point out a glaring hole in fantasy literature: an old Conan doesn’t exist. Conan is always on the come up, never on top. But Conan does so much so well that he attains the top at the end of each volume. He must give it all up between novels, but it’s Conan, so he must give it all up by choice. What kind of person would continually fight for power, wealth, and prestige just to always give it up? What reasons could there be for these actions? It’s probably wanderlust and a fear of commitment that keeps driving him away. What would this hero trope actually look like when examined fully, with real human motivations and thinking? Especially after he has turned old. This doesn’t just poke holes, it starts to use the hole poking to illuminate the way humans work.
—Simultaneously, Pratchett starts to pull more literary allusions into the tale. He recognizes that Cohen sets up the same catch-22 Beowulf riffs on: what do you do with the unbeatable warrior and perfect leader when he’s old, incontinent, and useless—but still respected? When succession is based on a sword and the old king’s useless, some young punk should come along and chop his head off to get at the crown. But when the king’s respected enough to command a large following of loyal warriors, nobody is willing or able to get into the patriarch with the pointy end. Which poses problems when he stops being able to make decisions. In some ways, Pratchett uses Cohen to explain Hrothgar, to give an alternate take. After all, Hrothgar seems to lead his men to the small lake to confront Grendel’s mother. Sure, Beowulf is the one who dives in and takes out Grendel’s mother, but Hrothgar is still warrior enough to lead his men out in all his armor. Pratchett notices this and uses Cohen to poke holes in the usual Hrothgar interpretation of a palsied old man pissing himself in the mead hall.
—Through taking this trope seriously and looking at it realistically, Pratchett uses Cohen to both bring this Beowulf idea to the fore, and smack fantasy in the face for ignoring the end of life. If literature is mostly about death and love, then fantasy has been letting it down. In other words, Pratchett’s just starting to rebuild what he’s having so much fun tearing apart. This is an exciting leg up over the last novel, and hints at Pratchett’s genius.
Ankh-Morpork! Pearl of cities! This is not a completely accurate description, of course—it was not round and shiny—but even its worst enemies would agree that if you had to liken Ankh-Morpork to anything, then it might as well be a piece of rubbish covered with the diseased secretions of a dying mollusc.

+++

'We’ve never needed one before!’
‘I think perhaps you have needed one, you just haven’t used one.'


5. Again, the writing keeps the reader on their toes in a way that’s engaging, but still not the ribbon cutter of a literary groundbreaking. He surprises. He literally interprets figures of speech. He applies human characteristics to inanimate objects and ideas. He plays with the sounds of language. He writes well for what it is, rather than trying to force his writing or make a specific type of writing work for his comedic voice, he does what he does and perfects it to his taste. Which is all any of us can ever do.
He got down easily by dropping uncontrollably from branch to branch until he landed on his head in a pile of pine needles, where he lay gasping for breath and wishing he'd been a better person.

+++

He always held that panic was the best means of survival; back in the olden days, his theory went, people faced with hungry saber-toothed tigers could be divided very simply into those who panicked and those who stood there saying “What a magnificent brute!” and “Here, pussy.”
6. The theme of this novel is just fantasy, really, though lightly touching on cultural representations of genders within fantasy—Pratchett’s pointing out and torpedoing the tropes and standardized aspects of the genre. Like Pratchett talked about in speeches and interviews, the fantasy world of Lieber and Le Guin largely contribute to the same cultural understanding of fantasy, and he’s having a blast providing insights to its tropes and speculating on their effects. However, that’s not to say that only fantasy readers would understand this book: the tropes he chooses are some of the most well known—dragons whizzing around spouting flames, wizards shouting and issuing sparkly lights from their fingertips, unbeatable barbarian heroes being interested only in gold and women, half naked virgins sacrificed on rocks for ancient rites, witches who live in gingerbread houses and fly around on broomsticks. These are tropes that are well known both to fantasy fans and other people. So, though he limits his potential reach here by mostly discussing fantasy, he takes the broadest swing at fantasy that he can, and in so doing, broadens his audience.
—However, this fantasy referencing holds this book away from many readers: it's just about fantasy, and if you don't care about Conan, or dragons, or wizards, then some of these jokes fall flat—and with the jokes in the driver's seat, this book's not going to get very far without them. For instance, Cohen actually marrying the damsel he saves is funny within genre. On one hand, Conan's damsels are treated as merely sexual objects, not characters or people—they get rescued, they kiss Conan, then the book ends while implying more is about to happen, and at the start of the next book they're nowhere to be found. By the genre standards, Cohen should have a month-long, passion filled tryst with Bethan, then move on. But Cohen marries her. On the other hand, Bethan is not the demure, squeamish, and fainting damsel that Conan usually finds. She is full of gusto and fire. She laments keeping herself pure for so long without getting the reward of being the virgin human sacrifice—an observation played up for jokes by Pratchett, but indicative of her personality. She is intelligent, cunning, hardworking, and loyal. She helps Cohen maintain his aging body with a no-nonsense and forceful attitude, like every ER nurse ever.
—But the point stands: if somebody is entirely unfamiliar with these tropes that Pratchett riffs off of, this book will pass them by. This book is for fantasy fans. If you're not one, you're going to have to do a lot of extra work to pull Pratchett's critiques of cultural representations out of here. And that's the biggest problem this book has.

"Dead?" said Rincewind. In the debating chamber of his mind a dozen emotions got to their feet and started shouting. Relief was in full spate when Shock cut in on a point of order and then Bewilderment, Terror and Loss started a fight which was ended only when Shame slunk in from next door to see what all the row was about.

+++

The other skeletal hand held small cubes of cheese and pineapple on a stick. WELL? said Death, in a voice with all the warmth and color of an iceberg. He caught the wizards’ gaze, and glanced down at the stick. I WAS AT A PARTY, he added, a shade reproachfully.


7. In conclusion, this second half of the story is better than the first half, but it still has its problems with pacing. Pratchett’s getting closer to deep cultural critique, closer to characters that transcend their trope play and provide insight to the way humans work, closer to rebuilding fantasy in a post-modern world, and closer to a central plot driving the whole novel. But he’s still not quite there yet: there's only half a plot, the jokes are entrenched in the driver's seat, and it's so focused on fantasy that it's really only for fandom. The humor carries this novel past most of these problems, and the read is enjoyable. But I definitely wouldn’t start here—for one thing, it’s the second half of the first novel, which is really a fix-up novel. Despite being a second half, it stands on its own legs because a central plot wasn’t important to the last novel, where one is important in at least half of this one. However, it’s not Pratchett’s best, and most of the rest of them are standalone stories that can be read without any prior knowledge of the Discworld Series.
The forest of Skund was indeed enchanted, which was nothing unusual on the Disc, and was also the only forest in the whole universe to be called — in the local language — Your Finger You Fool, which was the literal meaning of the word Skund.

The reason for this is regrettably all too common. When the first explorers from the warm lands around the Circle Sea travelled into the chilly hinterland they filled in the blank spaces on their maps by grabbing the nearest native, pointing at some distant landmark, speaking very clearly in a loud voice, and writing down whatever the bemused man told them. Thus were immortalised in generations of atlases such geographical oddities as Just A Mountain, I Don't Know, What? and, of course, Your Finger You Fool.

Rainclouds clustered around the bald heights of Mt. Oolskunrahod ('Who is this Fool who does Not Know what a Mountain is') and the Luggage settled itself more comfortably under a dripping tree, which tried unsuccessfully to strike up a conversation.

10 February, 2017

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett


0. I’ve read a few Discworld novels, but decided recently to read them all, rereading some along the way. I respect Pratchett over most other authors in my lifetime, and I want to read his novels to see if that’s still something I think; to see why, exactly; because I’m busier at work than ever and Pratchett is funny. Also, when asked who we will still be talking about in one hundred years, a medieval literature professor I had in college, named Richard Fehrenbacher, stated without hesitation that we’ll still be talking about Pratchett. I agreed with him at the time, and I still do. So, as I move into reading through all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, I hope to discover more proof for why this is. Before getting into specifics, let me explain why I think Discworld is one of the most important groups of novels of our time.
—The Discworld novels are fantasy books, but the novels satirize culture today, as well as fantasy literature. In 2005 Pratchett stated:
“Now, how did I start out? It was to have fun with some of the cliches. It was as simple as that.”
And on one level, that’s really a lot of what there is to Pratchett, and it actually is as simple as that. But there is more to him, and he had already explained what he means by ‘fun with cliches’ in 1985, during his speech at Novacon 15. This speech was given between the publishing of the first and second Discworld novels. He begins by laying out the basic premise of both his work and his speech:
“I want to talk about magic, how magic is portrayed in fantasy, how fantasy literature has in fact contributed to a very distinct image of magic, and perhaps most importantly how the Western world in general has come to accept a very precise and extremely suspect image of magic users.”
In other words, magic and fantasy novels have become standardized. The novels of Fritz Leiber and Ursula Le Guin contribute to the same world. Not just in their use of tropes—you know, dragons, barbarian heroes, witches, exotic environments, questing to save the world, magical objects, etc—but also in their use of them. Pratchett continues his speech by laying out his basic task with those standardized tropes:
“But a couple of years ago I wrote a book called The Colour of Magic. It had some boffo laughs. It was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. It was also my tribute to twenty-five years of fantasy reading, which started when I was thirteen and read Lord of the Rings in 25 hours.”
And that tribute/comedic-sendup interplay is what’s most important here, that’s what makes Pratchett so astounding. He writes what I define as the post-modern tribute, in 1983. I think it’s a tactic definitional for many artists and writers. For instance, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson do this now in cinema: they make movies that critique culture and deal with specific genres—comedically sending up the tropes of those genres, while at the same time crafting a loving homage to them and a good example of them. Pratchett predates these directors’ first movies by nine years and thirteen years, respectively. He’s doing the same thing, though more couched in comedy, much earlier.
—And Blazing Saddles itself? Well, it only makes fun of—it doesn’t simultaneously craft the loving, actually good Western that Tarantino made. It just pokes holes. Pratchett and Anderson and Tarantino actively attempt to change the genre, build it up, make it better, point out the power that is it’s raison d’etre—where Blazing Saddles just tears down.
—But what sets Pratchett a cut above is his breadth and depth of cultural criticism. He’s as wide reaching as discussing serious topics like religion, politics, and money; while also discussing frivolous ones such as taste, rock music, and fantasy. All in the same novel, all at the same time. If you want a snapshot of late twentieth century culture, I would point you to Pratchett without qualification.


1. This first Discworld novel is a strong start, but also shows places where Pratchett can improve as a writer. This first novel focuses on simply playing with tropes and critiquing culture. And the tropes play runs away with the whole. When he brought up Blazing Saddles in 1985, he obviously meant it for this book—this book almost exclusively pokes holes. He does not craft a superb plot, everything isn’t intricately connected together, and the gags run the show towards inconsistent pacing. They don’t ruin the show, but they obscure Pratchett’s genius too often. The novel is split up into four novellas, all connected by characters. It comes off like a fix-up novel, but each novella seems to attempt a different topic without finding a cohesive uniting element. The first burns down urban fantasy, the second dismantles wizards, the third makes fun of dragons and barbarian heroes, the fourth pushes exotic locales and customs over the edge. This novel ends on a cliffhanger, or three waterfall-fallers, and is picked up in media res in the next. But what this novel forgets to do is craft a good plot with solid pacing. Portions run long, other bits fly by too fast. He gets better, this I already know. But if you weren’t one of the five hundred and six who bought this first book in 1983, you’ve already been influenced by a lot of similar things that came later, and it’s hard to see just how groundbreaking and exciting this was.


2. Throughout the novel, he clearly critiques the tourism culture of the late twentieth century. The Luggage is a sapient, silent box with legs—and the tourist, Twoflower, never quite knows where it is, but it follows him around. Twoflower’s ignorance and naivety get him into terrible scrapes and stupid situations. Pratchett is consistently insightful, and this novel’s theme questions tourism and tourists. It shows the positives and negatives both. And often, both are funny.


3. But the novel’s theme is also in questioning the tropes of fantasy literature. RPG games like Dungeons & Dragons don’t get a pass—nothing does in Pratchett’s novels. They’re served up to show how ridiculous they are. But he also shows the strengths of why they are popular: at the most basic level, he populates this fantasy world with believable people, people we know and love, beside the ridiculously overblown fantasy characters from the rest of the genre. Bravd and Weasel may be Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, yet Rincewind and Twoflower are normal people who probably work the next cubicle over. And the combination is often funny, insightful, and biting.


4. But because the novel mainly plays these tropes up for laughs, it doesn’t click, it doesn’t sing. This isn’t close to the greatest novel ever written. It’s great for what it is, but if you’re not interested in wry humor about tourists, insurance, or fantasy, this isn’t the novel for you. I don’t suggest you start exploring Discworld here, though some of the worldbuilding done here does help contextualize later novels, it's not needed as most of the later novels are standalone. It’s disjointed, but funny. It’s wandering, but poignant. It’s delightfully realistic, but fantastic beyond the usual fantasy genre.


5. One of two parts where this book really sings is in playing with some of the tropes when it comes to worldbuilding. The Thieves Guild and Assassin’s Guild are the primary crime-fighting guilds in the city. They’re a bureaucratic arm of the city and, in exchange for a certain level of licensed crime, fight “with the full force of injustice” to keep the crime for themselves. Because they have skin in the game, they root out other players in order to keep their monopoly. Some of this is explained in more detail in later novels, but the seeds are laid here. And what wonderful seeds they are. He builds this world through brief mentions, followed up by specific scenes of examples, or explanations to the usefully ignorant character, the tourist Twoflower.


6. The other part where it really sings is in playing with some of the tropes when it comes to characters. I say ‘some’ because he adheres to enough of the tropes to still make this a fantasy novel, but he looks at enough of them with fresh eyes that it’s also its own thing.
—The ignorant Twoflower exemplifies this: most ignorant characters fight to be knowledgable. That’s usually how the author talks to the reader and explains his world. But Twoflower fights to maintain his ignorance, and that makes a world of difference when compared to a Jason Bourne character. I’m not a big fan of the amnesiac or ignorant character used to explain things to the reader, but here it’s played up for laughs, and that makes it work for me as a worldbuilding tactic and a character trait.
—Rincewind is a wizard. A failed wizard. He can’t use a single spell. Rincewind bemoans excitement and longs for boredom. He runs away from danger. This isn’t the typical conception of a powerful, confident magus. This isn’t Gandalf.
—At the same time, Pratchett uses the tropes of barbarian heroes by pushing the pre-existing ones to their limits, instead of flipping them:
No, what he didn't like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.
This quote illustrates how some of Pratchett’s work here even starts to make fun of post-modern, gritty, realism—what the comics genre was about to embrace in the 1980s, and what some cinema and literature had already gotten to. This is where Pratchett’s genius comes through, and his importance as an early example of these traits that were to take over in the 1990s and continue even today.


7. His writing itself is fine. It’s not the best I’ve read, but he allows himself a few moments to play with language the same ways he plays with tropes, and those moments are gold. Often, he takes phrases literally for humorous effect:
Some pirates achieved immortality by great deeds of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.
At other points, he applies human rational and emotional traits to inanimate objects and ideas. This relating of two things that aren’t often related works wonderfully and shows his usual insight:
Rincewind tried to force the memory out of his mind, but it was rather enjoying itself there, terrorizing the other occupants and kicking over the furniture.
He also tends towards surprise, by stating something new that he hadn’t hinted at earlier, in a nonchalant way:
‘We've strayed into a zone with a high magical index,' he said. 'Don't ask me how. Once upon a time a really powerful magic field must have been generated here, and we're feeling the after-effects.'
‘Precisely,' said a passing bush.
These four traits of his writing are where it really shines. And that’s perhaps the most unifying thing in this novel—that nothing is sacred and everything is to be played with. Even language. Especially language.


8. So in all, this first novel is one I’ve read a couple of times, but I never feel like I need to go back to it because it lacks a focus that helps it remain memorable. I wouldn’t suggest it as a first novel, but fans of Pratchett do like it. It doesn’t show the genius of Pratchett often enough, and it isn’t quite as funny as later books because it takes the fantasy tropes angle too seriously, but it’s a worthwhile read and I enjoy reading it every time I do. It discerns what makes tourists so odd and somewhat endearing, and does a great job making fun of fantasy, but doesn’t quite pay enough homage to really get to a level of satire higher than Blazing Saddles. The 2008 film adaptation of this novel does a better job of telling this plot than the book did.

04 February, 2017

The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin


1. Jemisin's writing has improved. She still lets young-old Hoa tell you the second part of this tale. Where the last novel was split into three main families of chapters, woven together intricately, this one is split into two chapter groups, mostly alternating: Hoa addressing Essun in the second person, telling her what she did; and somebody telling the reader about Nassun in the third person—which I assume is Hoa speaking to Essun about Nassun, but don’t know for certain.
—Like in the last novel, there are brief interludes where Hoa adopts the first person to explain what he did and where, while Essun is either incapacitated or elsewhere.
—The second person Essun chapters exhibit a different voice than the third person sections show—I mean in word choices and sentence structures rather than in the point of view. For instance, this chosen-at-random, third person passage from a Nassun chapter:
She ignores him. The chain is welded to a loop at the end of the shaft. She fingers it and thinks hard, now that the strange man’s appearance has broken her deadlock. (Her hand’s shaking, though. She takes a deep breath, trying to get hold of her own fear. Somewhere off in the trees, there is a gurgling groan, and a scream of fury.) She knows Jija has some of his stoneknapping tools in his pack, but the harpoon is steel.
As you can see, we’ve got a variety of verbs and sentence structures. This is writing I like, and this is just a random section the book fell open to. There are a couple of to be verbs, but a couple help the reader feel familiar, or comfortable. However, the second person sections have a much higher percentage of to be verbs. Here is another chosen-at-random section, this time from an Essun chapter:
You’re keeping well back because the room smells of mildew and body odor and because you think you see something moving in the water along with her shed hair. Tonkee may have needed to wear filth as a part of her commless disguise, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t actual filth. ‘A moon,’ you say. It’s a strange word, brief and round; you’re not sure how much to stretch out the oo sound in the middle.
A third of the verbs are to be here, and some of the others are the common do/does or has/have. Let's take another at-random passage from an Essun chapter:
You’re in line to pick up your household’s share for the week when you hear the first whisper. It’s not directed at you, and it’s not meant to be overheard, but you hear it anyway because the speaker is agitated and forgets to be quiet.
Fifty-fifty between to be verbs and not to be verbs in this passage. Comparing random third and second person passages, I see Jemisin writing in two quite different voices—one relying on the to be verb, the other involving the rest of the dictionary more often. This creates a strange reaction for me: having read the last novel, I know Essun already, I already care about her and her story; yet I enjoy reading Nassun’s story more here, despite not really caring about Nassun herself until the very last eight words of the novel. Nassun's chapters provide more variety.
—But Jemisin breaks up the to be monopoly of Essun's chapters by using the familiar verbs to ground some experimental writing showing: Essun's mental break, Essun in the process of undoing everything she knows, Essun trying desperately to collate as much as possible faster than possible, Essun coming to grips with mistakes she hadn’t known she had made. For instance:
The smoky quartz. The amethyst, your old friend, plodding after you from Tirimo. The kunzite. The jade.
oh
The agate. The jasper, the opal, the citrine . . .
You open your mouth to scream and do not hear yourself.
The ruby the spodumene THE AQUAMARINE THE PERIDOT THE
“It’s too much!” You don’t know if you’re screaming the words in your mind or out loud. “Too much!”
Jemisin uses italics, capitals, paragraph breaks, and bold letters (I think I remember those being in here somewhere) with these fractured, jumping sentences in order to convey the sheer change in Essun—much like CJ Cherryh uses the same tactic for the same reasons and goals in Tripoint. Here it’s a bit odd because it’s Hoa telling this story, while Essun is the one fractured mentally. Why does the way Hoa tells it fracture as well? He is still mentally intact. But it doesn’t bother me any. It communicates well.
—My biggest gripe with the last novel was word choices—a mix of colloquial and formal that just didn’t work for me. Here, it almost always works because she seems to tone down both the colloquial and the formal. There are no discordant mixes, outside of two lines I can remember—the first line of the novel, “Hm. No. I’m telling this wrong.” And the title of the penultimate chapter, “you get ready to rumble”, which makes me think that maybe Jemisin did intend the hockey pun in the last book’s title. Though there seem to be more uses of these internal, self-referencing terms unique to this novel—comm, still, orogeny, stonelore, et cetera. I’m fine with technobabble, or in this case magicobabble, but Jemisin uses it so often that when I took an unavoidable break from this book for a couple of weeks, there were a couple of terms and names I didn’t remember when I had gotten back to it.


2. And that’s the biggest thing to say here: this novel does not stand on its own. It’s a sequel, but I think sequels are opportunities, not excuses. What I mean is this: I read The Fifth Season last year, in May. Now, eight and a half months later, some of this language is just lost on me. Sure, she has an appendix in the back, but that’s a rare enough thing that I didn’t even suspect that there would be one back there, then felt stupid for being minutely frustrated through most of the novel. This isn’t a sequel in that nothing happens and it just sets up for the next book — though there is some of that here, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment: every chapter has something happening that progresses the story or builds the characters. Nassun is a new character, Essun is changing, Antimony and Hoa and Ykka are important and changing. Just because Essun is transforming and learning doesn’t mean it’s a dull read. I prefer this type of book to a montage. I was engaged throughout. But it is a book that you have to have read the first one to understand, and that's a weakness.


3. I was initially disappointed at magic. I did not end up disappointed, but when it was first revealed I thought, “Oh boy, here comes the midichlorians moment. Tell me about the mystic secret inner workings of the mystic secret inner workings. Ugh.” Where the last book has this unique orogeny stuff, now there’s something under the orogeny? And it’s magic? Again? Ugh. Why?
—Pixar makes great films because you are only asked to suspend your disbelief once, in the first ten minutes, and then everything else follows. (Except Up, which has talking dogs randomly appear much later, but that’s why Up’s their worst film.) As an author, Jemisin already had me, I was already tracking and interested. Why throw me another bone? I didn’t want it. I wanted to learn more about the bones I already had. For instance, learning more about the stone eaters was great. Learning about Schaffa and the guardians more fascinated me. Learning more about the history of Jemisin’s world reminded me why I love these books so much. Learning that there’s also magic was a letdown.
—But the reason I am not annoyed by magic at the end is because she uses magic to show how it hides the truth or distracts from it; to allow Ykka and Nassun to be almost equal to Essun in their own ways; to show how orogeny is really just a way to keep people down, racially; to make Essun change. So yeah, it’s annoying and probably didn’t need to be there, but at least it does something useful while it's there, and helps progress some of Jemisin’s arguments. So, sure, it’s fine.
The way of the world isn’t the strong devouring the weak, but the weak deceiving and poisoning and whispering in the ears of the strong until they become weak, too.
4. So, reading back through the preceding three notes, I don’t really dig into why I love this sequel, despite it not having legs of its own. First and foremost, Jemisin creates some really good characters. And by allowing them all to interact so often and in such a variety of situations, I understand them well.
—Essun is explicitly explained by Hoa and Alabaster: desperate for love and affection, yet wary of it because of all the deaths she has caused with those she loves in the past. She’s scared and pissed at the same time. She’s hurting and longing to hurt. She’s a punk rocker in the sense of burning everything down, but can easily convince herself to help build, as long as it's different. She’s explained through actions, dialogue, and Hoa’s version of her interior monologue.
—Alabaster tries to keep Essun on task, and doesn’t quite know how to do that. So he tries love, anger, and everything in between. This is all shown in his actions. He’s dying, but he’s okay with that, and that solid acceptance of reality allows him to be a nice foil for Essun’s struggles. He’s shown almost exclusively through his actions, though he is stuck in one place for the whole book, legless.
—Hoa, Steel, and Antimony are all a revelation, a peek into the stone eaters’ culture that is fascinating and expands what was there before. They’re mysterious still, but they’re mysterious in a certain direction, and I want to know where it’s heading. Steel is the slick used car salesman who wants to lead things to his idea of a better place. Hoa is the one who needs love, and he is fiercely loyal when it is shown to him. Antimony is attracted to power, and she’ll help tirelessly if she knows there’s a reward at the end of it.
—Ykka understands people and how to use them or convince them to work towards her purpose. But she also resents some of her duties and is anxious about both her personal future, and the future of the community—and anxious about her own priorities between these two anxieties. These come out through both her actions and her words, but mostly her words.


5. Second, the world building, which I praised at length in my notes for the last book, is also strong here. It doesn’t lay such a broad foundation, but when it works best is when it expands what was already there to begin with, when it deepens the reader’s understanding of mysteries already in the world. Talking about the guardians, stone eaters, and history builds off of what was present in the first book, and I really appreciate a deeper look at this world.


6. That said, the focus of this book is more on the micro-experiences of Essun and Nassun changing, so it lacks the consistent micro-macro interplay that made the last novel so good. Where the theme of the last one is about this interplay between the culture, climate, and people—a call towards working together in understanding—the theme of this one is more about familial relationships. Essun, Ykka, and Nassun are all dealing with family issues. Essun needs to ignore Nassun in order to save the world, Ykka needs to prove to her family that parts of her family are useful, Nassun needs to kill her father in order to survive. But outside of these goals, Essun broods on all the death she has caused in her own family. Ykka kills Cutter in order to save the rest. Nassun kills a whole town in order to keep Schaffa safe. The point being that everything is a choice, and every choice has an upside and a downside. Every good act comes at a cost, and every bad act also comes at a cost. That’s what Jemisin argues here.
“No vote. Leave. Go join Rennanis if they’ll have you. But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people.”
7. In all, I am so excited for the third book to come out in August. It’s the top of my list for 2017, tied with Ann Leckie’s unannounced but heavily hinted at new project. Yes, this wasn’t the greatest book I’ve read, but it was a fascinating journey that ended in an appetite-whetting place. A place where Essun doesn’t know about the surprise stone fist that the reader knows about, a slippery slope heading towards a showdown between mother and daughter, and more space for Jemisin to explain this intricate world. I know this isn’t the best writing, but Jemisin improved her writing here, and I really appreciate that. I understand the story seems to meander before a sudden rush to the titular gate at the end, but it held my attention through the changes the world and characters were undergoing. This book travels a long way from start to finish, and almost nothing on that journey dampened my interest, excitement, or enthusiasm.