Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Blog Fantastic 017: The Colour of Magic review

It was the King Colour, of which all the lesser colours are merely partial and wishy-washy reflections. It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchanted itself.

But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.

Running the risk of sounding like a snobbish expert of all things Discworld, I have to admit that upon rereading The Colour of Magic for the third time, it stands out far more than it used to compared to the rest of the novels (that’s right, all five novels of the series I’ve read so far). It’s structured differently. It’s composed of four novellas or extended chapters (I guess you could also call them parts or sections). Most of the novels in the series aren’t organized in parts or chapters which means that the story isn’t organized that way either. The Colour of Magic reads more like short story collection in which each all the stories flow from one to the other as opposed to a novel which encapsulates one continued story for its entire length.

I was a bit surprised to realize that Pratchett’s influences were more obvious to me than they’ve ever been before. Part of it is that the first two times I read this was during my teens. The other part is that I recently finished reading Swords Against Death byThe Colour of Magic isn’t one continuous story per se, it’s more of a collection of never-serialized stories. Four distinct stories that follow from one to the other which, when read in sequential order, work rather well as a novel. The fact that all four parts focus on a particular story or a long joke (made up, of course, of several smaller and medium size jokes) serves to make me believe I didn’t imagine the influence from Fritz Leiber. I think it’s interesting that Pratchett, the writer being influenced, is better than Leiber, the one influencing Pratchett. It’s not really a fair comment to make because Pratchett has far many more influences than just Leiber and unlike Leiber he’s not afraid to actually put his world building to good use, by which I mean Pratchett doesn’t just throw fancy word combinations onto the page. Octarine means something and some does hubward and so does the designation of “the disc” mean the world.

Fritz Leiber who’s was a big influence for the first and second stories in this collection thought he wasn’t the only influence, that’s for sure. For starters, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (Bravd and the Brown Weasel) appear as characters in the book in the first few pages. The wonderful city of Anhk-Morpork is clearly based on Lankhmar. Heck, it’s right there in the name! The way the book is organized also shows signs of the influence from Leiber.

It’s a bit obvious to say but being the first book in the series, The Colour of Magic is responsible for introducing several staple elements of the series. To name just a few, the planet itself is introduced: it’s flat, held up by four elephants riding on the back of Great A’Tuin, the space turtle. Discworld, the planet, is a very unique location in fantasy and it works very well. It’s one of my favourite fantasy locations of all time (and it would make a great statuette to have in ones living room). Pratchett also introduces the magical importance of the number eight along with the eighth colour of the light spectrum, octarine (which the title references). Anhk-Morpork, Rincewind, Twoflower and the Luggage are also introduced. I love all of these characters, the Luggage especially. They’re all so familiar (maybe not the Luggage) but maintain a specific, how would you say, flavour or essence all their own. Pratchett instantly makes these characters both unique and relatable in a matter of pages. It’s made all the more surprising when you stop and consider how ridiculous these ideas are. Let’s take my favourite (LUGGAGE), made up of a rare tree called sapient pearwood, it has hundreds of tiny legs, has quite the attitude, and is seemingly impervious to all sorts of natural and magical injury.

World-building is actually the one thing that makes this book work. It’s not just fantasy hijinks and magic jokes. For the uninitiated, The Colour of Magic tells four stories involving three mains characters. Rincewind is a washout wizard who’s hired as a tour guide to Twoflower, and ­in-sewer-ants clerk who is on holiday. Twoflower is the first tourist ever on Discworld and it works really well as an introduction because some of the sights he sees and the places he visits are explained to him by Rincewind which, by extension, is also explained to the reader. Accompanied by Twoflower’s Luggage, a sentient wooden chest with an attitude and many endearing qualities (he, it’s, no I’m pretty sure it’s he, is one of my favourite Discworld characters) they go on several fun adventures. In the first story, they meet up, many introductions are made, and half of Anhk-Morpork is burned to the ground. In the second story they meet up with a caricature of a barbarian hero are unintentional captured by an ancient god and defeat it. In the third story the characters get into a bit of a misunderstanding with the Dragonriders of Pern and the whole book ends with Rincewind and Twoflower getting into all sorts of trouble on the Edge which inevitably leads them to travel beyond the Edge of the Disc.

I quite like the idea that everything Pratchett throws into his fictional world seems to work so well together. Discworld isn’t your typical pseudo-medieval setting with magic thrown in, though there certainly is quite a bit of that. There are also modern ideas that come into play in hilarious ways. Pratchett introduces a lot of these elements in the first book making Discworld a series, a location and a universe in which things are ever changing. The overall constants remain the same, but immediately in the first story the concepts of tourism, insurance and economics are introduced. We also learn that as a failed wizard, Rincewind’s always toyed with the idea that there exists something else other than magic. He’s thinking of science but he obviously wouldn’t know that since he’s never encountered science before. He gets to, though, as Twoflower has a few contraptions form his home continent that would quality as a cross between magic and science. He has objects like a pocket watch and a camera, both going by different names, which Rincewind gets to use throughout the novel. The reader is made to understand that all these things were completely unknown to the population of Ankh-Morpork before the arrival of Twoflower.

The Colour of Magic isn’t the typical Discworld novel, at least not if I compare the five books I’ve read from the series. It’s got a bit of a strange structure and it’s nowhere close to the funniest book in the series, it’s hands down the best place to start reading. Perhaps unsurprisingly it serves as an excellent introduction to a couple of the most well-known Discworld characters as well as some of the most popular locations, like the twin city of Ankh-Morpork. More importantly, The Colour of Magic is the first time that terminology unique to the series such as octarine, the Discworld compass: Hubwards (towards the Hub or the center of the Disc), Rimwards (towards the Rim), Turnwise (the direction in which the Disc turns) and Widdershins (the opposite of Turnwise). In order to truly enjoy all that Discworld has to offer, you also have to be a pretty well-read fantasy reader. The more fantasy novels you’ve read prior to reading one of the many Discworld novels, the better the reading experience will be. That’s something I’ve only realized the third time reading it which means you don’t need to have read hundreds or even dozens of fantasy novels before it to enjoy the great fun that Pratchett’s having at everyone else’s expense.

Note on the Cover:
Josh Kirby’s cover to The Colour of Magic is pretty interesting. It’s not my favourite Discworld cover by any means but I do like how he was able to capture the energy of the book inside. This cover is also notable for putting the best character in the center (Luggage!) but the rest of the characters are a bit lost in the mix. Twoflower happens to have four eyes because Kirby catch on that Pratchett’s description of him was meant to convey that Twoflower wears glasses. It’s ok, I didn’t catch on the first tie either. I like how the cover shows a scene from the book. I love it when artists do that but good covers don’t always have to represent something from the story to be good.

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