It’s now over a year since the death of what could be England’s greatest writer and in that time his work has been elevated to the level it deserves (probably making Sky kick themselves for dropping the series before they got to the eventual football entry). Well all of his books aside from one. One that even Neil Gaiman doesn’t rate too highly that being ………………………..
The Colour of Magic is the first in the seminal Discworld series from Terry Pratchett though you wouldn’t think of it by the way people talk about it. Perhaps the reason for this is that looking back now it is, slightly different. The book reads a little less like a fantasy take on modern day and more like a fun parody of classic fantasy and to stress, when I say classic fantasy I mean less ‘War of the Rings’ and more Arnold Schwarzenegger in a loin cloth. We begin with two people who are for copyright purposes not Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser as they don’t so much fiddle while Rome burns as drink and place bets on which part of the city is exploding now. Maybe because this isn’t Rome but Ankh Morpork a city much like medieval London yet somehow worse. From said city we see two figures fleeing the flame and wreckage, Rincewind the worst Wizard in recorded history and Twoflower the worlds first tourist. They of course had a hand in this but this isn’t the end of their story not by a long shot.
The Colour of Magic is sold as a road trip through a magical world that just so happens to be carried atop four giant elephants who are in turn perched atop a giant turtle. There isn’t much of through line as they claim to be fleeing said disaster in order to take Twoflower back home but in truth this fact is easy to overlook as it’s never mentioned again. Instead they crash in on unspeakable elder gods, visit mountains upside down and full of dragons before falling off the planet altogether in a colossal mix up over being hide and seek champions and beings cosmonauts. This isn’t a book with one idea but at least eight. That could be why it’s not looked back quite so fondly but if you are new to the series or a lover of old school sword and sorcery I urge you to give it a go mainly because each of those eight stories are quite good on their own. Whether due to an unfocused writer or a deliberate homage the colour of magic reads like a new collection of the Fafhrd or Conan just with a bit more twinkle in the eye and a bit sharper tongue.
Rincewind is a wizard in name only, kicked out of university for being a bit shit even before he took a peek in the creators grimoire and ended up with one of the most powerful spells of all time lodged in his brain. However it’s the character of Twoflower who drives the story forward leaving Rincewind like a player character stuck on a level where he has to babysit a clueless npc who is just as likely to walk off a cliff as follow him through a doorway. It’s interesting to see how little he has changed from the first entry, possibly why he got fewer and fewer apperances as the series went on until he was a background character and little else. Though part of me thinks that would be what he wanted all along.
Twoflower himself however plays somewhat like a bumbling version of Captain America from ‘1602’ from the a fore mentioned Neil Gaiman. For those who don’t know, in that comic Captain ‘Steve’ America is sent back in time for some reason by a power mad David Tennant who has managed to take over the united states and warp it into a bitter, twisted, fascist reflection of what it once was. Rather than living out his time basking in the natural beauty of the pre-united states he manages to magically kick start the “age of Marvels” giving us Javier and his class of ‘witch breed’ or Sir Richard Reed and his ship ‘the Fantastick‘. For a fantasy adventure Twoflower is a lot less magical about his interference entering a straight up medieval world and soon the people of the town are discussing inn-sewer-ants or realising that you can have four eyes not through magic or demonic heritage but through putting little slabs of glass over them in order to help you see better. Heck due to his arrival a whole new guild springs into life over night as fantasy literature comes face to face with the british GCSE standby of ‘Travel and Tourism’. Now some of these modern takes are so revolutionary that even the artist didn’t catch on. Though in fairness it’s not always easy for the reader either as you feel like one of those poems where an alien tries to describe Earth.
For those who skipped these early books to dive into the “good stuff” you will find that Ankh Morpork isn’t that different from the one you know though there are things here and there that will probably ruffle your feathers. Things like the Patrician a cold calculating enigmatic figure from the later books here given a love of fine food and a waist line to match. Heck here he does things like consult people over what he doesn’t know and even what he should thus do next, something that the later character would never do. You could argue that while the early books are an exaggeration of fantasy literature that the Discworld books became an exaggeration of themselves.
I’m not going to hold this up as the best of the series, or my favourite but it doesn’t take itself as seriously as some, revels in the fantastical more than others seem to dare and that’s what you need sometimes from a genre a little to obsessed with grim, gritty and realistic and the occasional evil overlord.