REVIEW: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

REVIEW SUMMARY: Someone please tell me this series gets better!

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The misadventures of incompetent magician Rincewind who acts as a guide for the rich-but-naïve tourist named Twoflower.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: “The Lure of the Wyrm” was the strongest story; well-conceived world.

CONS: Not as funny as expected; uneven stories, some of which hovered near mediocrity.

BOTTOM LINE: Considering the expectations fueled by the series hype, this was a letdown.


Terry Pratchett’s long-running Discworld series of novels (now up to, what, about thirty-something books?) has to be one of the most talked-about and loved series. It was, I thought, to my great misfortune that I hadn’t read any of his books. I attempted to rectify this back in 2005 with a read of The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents – a book I enjoyed very much – but I still hadn’t read the Discworld-proper novels. Recently prodded by JP’s impromptu Great Pratchett Reading Project, I finally got a chance to remedy the situation. With hopes set extraordinarily high I eagerly dove into the first book, The Color of Magic.

What a letdown.

The book itself is divided into four novellas given continuity by appearance of the characters of Rincewind, a dropout magician who knows only one spell (which he never uses) and Twoflower, a naïve tourist to whom Rincewind acts as guide. In the first story, “The Color of Magic”, Rincewind meets two barbarians, Bravd and Weasel (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), and tells them story of how he recently met Twoflower and how both were witness to the destruction of the mighty city Ankh-Morpork. In “The Sending of Eight”, Rincewind and Twoflower are joined by a barbarian named Hrun and encounter tree elves and a monstrous beast named Bel-Shamharoth. In “The Lure of the Wyrm” (the strongest of the four stories) they battle with dragons in a magic-infused upside-down mountain. In “Close to the Edge”, magician and tourist have an adventure near the edge of the world that ultimately involves space flight.

There are other recurring characters in these stories. The most notable is Twoflower’s living Luggage, a trunk with many feet that is not afraid to bite looting hands. Death is also a recurring (and humorous) character but somehow Rincewind always seems to elude his fatal grasp. Other characters come and go but they are not as memorable.

What are the problems with the book? Simply put, the stories were uneven and the writing not nearly as funny as I had expected. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for this type of read, but it took most of the first story before I got into the feel of the book, and that was a second attempt after a false start. Also, this has been billed as one of the funniest series of all time. I was willing to forego my usual distaste for fantasy to give it a go. Where were the laugh-out-loud moments? I wondered. I can only hope that subsequent books in the series are funnier, if I can muster up enough resolve to go at this again.

There were high points, to be sure. “The Lure of the Wyrm” was very enjoyable. But I can’t ignore that the other stories were less so – some to the point of mediocrity. Once I got the hang of the dry humor, it seemed to work better, however, as I said, it could have been funnier. Somehow I felt that it should have been funnier considering the hype surrounding the series. Also a plus: the world-building part (the astronomy and magical qualities of the Discworld) was well-conceived.

I have to believe that all that brouhaha over these books is somehow warranted. Maybe the dozens of other books are more representative of the series reputation?

17 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett”

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance to authors of an ongoing series. Book one might be weak, but by the time you hit book four or five you’re either gathering fans or looking for a new hobby.

    Many now-famous authors saw several books in print before anyone really noticed (dare I mention JK Rowling?)

    The important thing is whether the books improve with each release.

  2. COM was not written as the first of a series, and it shows. Pratchett was skewering the epic fantasy genre with it, rather than laying the foundations of a world explicitly.

    Light Fantastic and Equal Rites, in my opinion, suffer from the same problem and you may not like them for similar reasons.

    Starting with Mort, though, the novels get markedly better as novels.

  3. Woohoo, someone who agrees with me. I read the first two books in the series, and stopped dead. They are very short and only moderately entertaining.

  4. yeah … I’m a huge Discworld fan, but I don’t like TCOM. Luckily for me, I started reading the series with Feet of Clay and Small Gods, which are much better. I notice Paul already mentioned this, but a lot of the humour in The Color of Magic is based on how much the reader knows about other fantasy authors. If you’re familiar with Anne McCaffrey, then, the dragon part is even funnier than otherwise. And it’s the same for other parts of the book, so if you’re a big fantasy reader, it’s fun to see “oh, that’s the part where he satirizes this author, and here he’s doing the other.” But since you have a “usual distaste for fantasy” I guess it’d be harder to enjoy the book.

  5. I would have to agree with Lai and Paul. I love Pratchett’s work and honestly these are some of his earliest works. He is going for more satire than anything else, and I am not sure if the “hype” is what made this experience bad for you. I know that his recent stuff has been incredibly entertaining for me (Thud, Going Postal, and Night Watch.)

    Plus you are already a “fantasy h8a” so that may explain your displeasure even more. Maybe you need more fiber in your diet :D

  6. The first few books (as an eariler comment noted, they are not really novels) are nowhere near as polished as the later books. Someone mentioned Mort, the fourth in the series as the real jumping off point for the Discworld as a series, rather than background for some “Bored Of tTe Rings” style parody. I aagree, in priciple, but would place the real transition from parody to humorous fantasy and some satire at book 5, Sourcery, or book 6, Wyrd Sisters.

    Another factor to consider is that the first books are around 20 years old, dating from the time Pratchett was making the decision to quit his day job (as a press officer for a public untility) and write full time. I suspect that much of his early Discworld material was written on spec, and was aimed at some specific, paying market.

    Going back to the early books, I have found they are much more enjoyable as audiobooks, particularly the ISIS versions, read by Nigel Planer. If you can find these versions at your local library, I urge you to give one a try. Other than that, tey are available from audible.com, but for the usual (i.e. high) price of a physical copy of an audiobook.

    On the other hand, just read “Guards, Guards” and see if that works any better for you.

  7. John is just a fantasy h8a in general, but I will say the books get better. And I have to disagree somewhat with where that happens. I think The Light Fantastic is a much better book than Equal Rites, at least from the humor standpoint. The story is a bit more cohesive, but in LF, Pratchett has the humor firing on all cylinders. Bad puns, inventive and funny similes, and general humorous wordplay abound. But this sounds like a review, which I will write shortly.

    Plus, I’ll go buy John some Metamucil so he can have that with his lunch…

  8. I’m beaming so much at your use of bold text that I am impervious to your scorn and ridicule. But just in case…bring the Metamucil. :)

  9. Pratchett can be somewhat uneven. I mean, “Going Postal” and “Thud” were brilliant and recent books, but I went even a little ways back to “Pyramids,” and didn’t enjoy it at all. Some of them are really great, some are not.

  10. Paul is right on…Mort is where the true Discworld magic starts to shine through, though parts of Light Fantastic are sublimely hilarious. The quality increase is much like light in the Disc’s strong magical field: it moves slowly but steadily onward.

    The problem with the first six books is that they suffer from a little bit of repetition. The same Lovecraftian threats keep popping up and Rincewind is in 3 out of the 6, running through some rather episodic adventures.

    After that, Pratchett really gets rolling: Pyramids, Guards!Guards!, Moving Pictures, and Reaper Man are all excellent. GG is one of my all-time favorite books; it’s moving and bust-a-gut funny. And RM left me in tears by the end.

    Keep it up, John, Pratchett shall not let you down!

  11. The first two books are funny if you like D&D in-jokes, but they get better as the world develops. I think the later books aren’t as good, but the midrange stuff is hilarious. And there’s a passage in the next book that describes fantasy female warriors that is a must-read.

  12. It does get better. Pratchett didn’t find his voice until “Mort”, and didn’t reach mastery until “Guards Guards”.

    I’d skip books 1-3 altogether (and also “Pyramids”, a real stinker). Good starting points are “Mort”, “Guards Guards”, and “Wyrd Sisters”.

  13. Sorry John, but I reckon you kinda shot yourself in the foot when you said: “I was willing to forego my usual distaste for fantasy to give it a go…”

    The thing to remember about TCOM is that it was written waaaaay back at the start of the ’80s, when fantasy was still finding its feet, AD&D was still played with pencil & paper, there were no mega-selling computer games, no major fantasy blockbuster movies (unless you count the likes of Conan the Barbarian, and Krull, which I don’t) but what you did have was a sub-genre in its infancy, just beginning to get going with the likes of Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson’s early work, plus Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books etc. and with an awful lot of sword & sorcery to draw on as source material.

    Which is where TCOM hits the nail on the head: it’s a pastiche of all the classic sword & sorcery cliches – Ankh Morpork (which in the first couple of books is a very different location to the later Discworld novels) is Pratchett’s version of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, you have Rincewind, the world’s most incompetent wizard, who is the anti-hero of the likes of Elric and the other Eternal Champions, and then a whole bunch of other elements, like The Luggage which, iirc, came out of Pratchett’s own student roleplaying experiences. And so forth. But if you’re not into fantasy then these sort of references will probably pass you by. It would be a bit like reading ‘Bored of the Rings’ without knowing who the hell J.R.R. Tolkien was…

    And I still think it’s actually one of the highlights of the Discworld series – Pratchett went through a bit of a lazy period where he actually ended up pastiching his own pastiches at one point – although yes, several of the later novels are much funnier, and much better written and crafted, both.

    But then you’d expect a writer’s ability to develop and grow with time and practice, wouldn’t you?

    And the commenters above are quite right, Pratchett does find his voice much more strongly from Mort onwards, and once the whole franchise element kicks in then the Discworld as we know it really comes into its own. And personally, I think Night Watch is the best book he’s written to-date, but you really would have to have read the rest of the Guards novels to appreciate it properly…

  14. With Pratchett it is definately best to NOT start at the offical beginning. Now that you’ve read TCOM, skip ahead, right over the next three books. “The Discworld” is not just a series but literally a WORLD. In it there are the threads of characters lives, as they wander in and out, sometimes getting tangled up with each other as they intersect. Each of these threads can be followed faithfully, sequentially, or you can mentally insert “and stuff happens” and jump right in to any book with the understanding that you might not catch all of the in-jokes now. Don’t worry, later they’ll start to make sense.

    Here (http://www.lspace.org/books/reading-order-guides/) is a very good guide for following story/character arcs. I suggest the DEATH novels or the Watch novels as a good starting place to really enjoy the Discworld.

    Pratchett is funny stuff, but mainly I enjoy the books because they have moments of beauty and insight into humanity and the world that bring you to your knees and change how you see your own blue sphere floating in space :)

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