The Colour of Magic review

The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the point where I go directly to hell: do not pass go, do not collect $200: I was not a fan of this book, The Colour of Magic, first in the Discworld series, by the now-deceased Sir Terry Pratchett.

Wait wait wait stop. I can hear you all lighting your torches. It’s okay. I’m going to explain myself.

First of all, as with any series I start to review, I have to explain the context in which I’m reading it, or the baggage I bring to it. In the 21st century it is very hard to start a series without having some foreknowledge to said series because of the saturation of the Internet into our everyday lives. We cannot come into something wholly virgin to it anymore, and in some ways that’s very sad.

But somehow with the Discworld series I managed to, although I’m not 100% sure how. The only real experience I had with it was watching a series of video reviews by a reviewer with the tab SFDebris on The Hogfather TV movie. His love for the series, Prachett, and that novel in particular was enough to garner my interest in it as well: anything that gets another person interested enough to make intellectual analysis is likely worth at least looking at. So i decided to try my hand at the Discworld series, starting with the first book, The Colour of Magic.

And here’s where things get sticky, because I think even Pratchett fans are aware that this first offering wasn’t very good, but refuse to say so. Instead, every last one of them that I spoke to after reading this said the same thing: “Well, you don’t have to start at the beginning with Discworld. You can really start anywhere. You should start with Mort” or “You should start with Hogfather” or “You should start with Guards! Guards!” In fact, there are so many different ways to start reading this sprawling epic, that it features one of the most complex charts how advice on how to do so to be found on the entire internet:

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Just gaze into that, and remember that people are often perplexed by where to start on Doctor Who or X-men, franchises that are largely exceptionally easy to get into. And this is (apparently) the 2.0 version of this reading guide! It boggles the mind how complex and inter-woven this is.

And I reject it whole-heartedly.

In defiance of such things, I’m reading the books in the order in which they were published, because I think that’s actually important. Context, is important. I think people who have read all the books and now go back and read The Colour of Magic are blinded by the fact that they love the world, Pratchett’s writing, and Rincewind so much that they ignore the fact that it’s kind of a mess. And when you point that out to them, they shrug and pass the blame on to you: “Well, you shouldn’t have read that one first anyway.”

This ignores the fact that the cover proclaims it as “The First Discworld Novel.” I have no idea where I got the impression I should read this one first. I’m just dense I guess.

Anyway, with a setup like that, you all must imagine I hate this novel. I don’t. It’s perfectly serviceable, and (to my reading) acts mainly as a political satire, with divides on how to think about the placement of the world and the Agatean Empire, which has become a complex and necessary situation because a naive but rich tourist from that world, Twoflower, has come to the main land in which the series is set. Most of the humor comes from the fact that Twoflower has no idea how rich he is and thus offers to pay Rincewind and many others considerable amounts of money for things that should be cheap. Basically it becomes the story of the bumbling but kind-hearted tourist.

It’s Borat, okay? This novel is Borat for fantasy. Except instead of coming from an imaginary land to one more familiar to us as in that film, Twoflower comes from an imaginary land to an imaginary land, and that’s where things break down.

From a narrative perspective, there are two very good reasons to have a character who is naive or in some way uneducated as to their situation in a work of fiction: The first is to explain things to the audience. Think of Rouge in the first few minutes of the X-Men movie. She doesn’t know what’s going on, so Wolverine has to explain to her that the claws hurt when they come out, they he heals, what mutants are, all that stuff, and in doing so they explain it to the audience. Rouge has the intelligence of the average movie-goer going into these conversations, and when she is educated so are they. Now everyone is up to speed, isn’t that nice?

The other reason to have a character naive to their surroundings is to provide commentary on those surroundings. This is usually the opposite situation of the Rouge-X-Men dynamic, it’s more the dymanic of Stranger in a Strange Land. In this novel, a man who was raised on Mars and has no functional knowledge of how human society works comes to Earth and learns about it, and as such provides a mirror to how silly and archaic some of our customs and ideas are.

Notice what these two break down to: it’s either a normal person coming into a strange world and exploring it, or it’s a stranger coming into a normal world and exploring it. One provides needed exposition and explanation, the other provides commentary and self-exploration.

In The Colour of Magic, both types are used simultaneously. Twoflower is a stranger coming from a strange land that comments on the differences between his world and this new one he’s come into, but at the same time neither world is our world, so he is also the naive person coming into a strange land. As such when he explains that things are “different” where he comes from it doesn’t really give us anything, as things are also different where he is from. Different from us I mean. The effect is having no point-of-reference, nobody for the audience to associate with. There is no base “normal” (no person with the intelligence and knowledge of the average reader in mind, as with Rouge above) that can learn about this world at the same rate the reader does. Everyone has knowledge the reader does not and everyone acts like it.

This book was intended to be a satire of course. It was intended to do for fantasy what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns: using tropes to mock the silliness of the genre. And it does do that very well. The only problem is that it exists primarily to service that satire or that joke, not primarily to tell a compelling story. In the same way Stranger in a Strange Land or The Forever War are stories first and political messages second, this story is a satirical joke first and a story second. It misses the mark and I think, I think, fans of the Discworld series know that. I think that’s why I get told to read other books first, ignoring the fact that even in the list above, this is one of the recommended starting points.

All that said, I liked the joke enough to give it 3/5 stars, and while I’m not eagerly awaiting my reading of the next installment, I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t at least interested.

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