LOW COMEDY AND HIGH ROMANCE
There is much more to Terry Pratchett than just a hyperactive sense of humour, says Charles Spencer.
Terry Pratchett is Britain’s best-selling living novelist and, a feat of which he appears equally proud, the most shoplifted author at Waterstone’s bookshops. What’s remarkable about him is that he is also first-rate, and in a better-ordered world he would be acclaimed as a great writer rather than a merely successful one. . . . the Discworld novels combine outlandish fantasy with sharp, fascinatingly distorted reflections on our own more mundane world. Better still, Pratchett has two secret weapons up his sleeve – a terrific sense of humour, and a most appealing personality. . . . the narrative also surges forward at a brisk pace, and you become increasingly enthralled by the constant flow of ideas and the writer’s delightfully idiosyncratic tone of voice. . . . It is an adventure romp that combines low comedy and high romance with beguiling ruminations on the nature of time and the things that make us human.
This is the best Pratchett I’ve read to date, and I’m not being entirely frivolous when I suggest that it ought to be a strong contender for the Booker Prize. Charles Spencer in The Sunday Telegraph
Terry Pratchett is one of the great inventors of secondary – or imaginary or alternative – worlds. His Discworld, a flat disc supported by four elephants standing on a giant turtle swimming through space, derives precisely from an ancient Hindu cosmic myth. It is inhabited by witches, wizards trolls, rats, yetis, vampires, golems, dwarves, human beings – and much besides. Thief of Time, the 26th in the series, is a cosmic myth based on modern science. The Auditors – faceless entities with a fatal desire to tidy up the Universe, are encouraging Jeremy Clockmaker in Ankh-Morpork to make a glass clock so perfect that it will stop time for ever.
The Monks of History, who spin the time warps and wefts of the Procrastinators, send an apprentice, Lobsang Ludd, and the ancient Sweeper, Lu-Tze, to prevent this. Death, who has developed a sympathy for humans from long association, encourages his granddaughter Susan to interfere and calls the retired Four Horsemen to ride at the end of time. The Fifth Horseman – who left before they became famous – turns out to be Ronnie Soak the milkman . . . read his last name backwards.
The science in Thief of Time works: Jeremy and Lobsang are the twin children of Wen and a personified Time, and they are also the twins of Einstein’s relativity puzzle and the particles and anti-particles of quantum mechanics. The Auditors are working towards entropy.
Pratchett’s Death is created out of his sense of the importance of storytelling. He appears in the shape humans have invented for him – skeleton, black robe, scythe. His presence allows the humans in the Discworld to die, peacefully or horribly, in ways bearable to the reader because Death’s courteous post-mortem greeting makes both a comic finale and a briefly acceptable – fictive – image of something after the end. Pratchett’s Death knows he is a human invention – like, War, Pestilence, Famine, the Soul-Cake Duck, the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy. But he is also death: people do come to ends.
A new character in this tale is Lady LeJean, a human the Auditors have constructed to commission the clock, with a lovely face based on the Lady with a Ferret by Leonard of Quirm. She is called Myra LeJean because she is the Auditors, who are Legion – and legion is the dame of demons, of course. But the sole Auditor in the single body begins to be troubled by emotions, by orifices, by the space in the cavity behind the mouth and eyes – by becoming human. She is tempted by chocolate and acquires a pet cat. She begins to resemble Death.
Part of Pratchett’s genius is in the way he can stand, eternally surprised and benignly amused, outside being human and report back to us on the almost unimaginable unlikelihood of our existence, with our preoccupations like pink yoghurt or chocolate creams or different sizes of screws. It is because he can stand outside that he renders an alternative version of our world with such imaginative solidity and density. You can imagine the inside of the mouth of the inhuman being trapped in Lady LeJean’s too, too solid phantom flesh. You can (briefly) see what it was like for Nanny Ogg, as midwife, to deliver the children of Time, who kept spinning in and out of visibility in a kind of whirlwind. You can see the Auditors uprooting the paving stones of Ankh-Morpork and reducing them to molecules because complexity and chaos annoy them.
There is always a little bit more in the good scenes than you expect. It is typical of Pratchett that he gets attached even to characters he set out disliking or wanting to dislike. His villains become human and acquire fates we care about. Lady LeJean is a tragi-comic invention. The reader has the feeling – which cannot be faked – that the writer is living in his imaginary world and enjoying it without effort, and that there is always more to be discovered where that came from. It is the opposite of entropy.
Pratchett’s inventiveness and wisdom make him more important than J.K.Rowling or Philip Pullman. Rowling is derivative – part of the pleasure of reading her is the recognition of reworked motifs from fairy tale and school story. Pullman is ambitious and often beautiful, but like C.S.Lewis (whom he is writing against), he has designs on his readers. He is a romantic and forces spiritual importance on us. Pratchett, though he steals from everywhere and transfigures what he steals, is not derivative. He is too strong; and he is a realist. He is tough, like his own Miss Susan, who bashes bogey-men with pokers but knows that both bogeymen and Death exist. He understands courage and mendacity and terror and insignificance but he makes them into solid, pleasurable stories.
What Pratchett writes is a kind of eclectic parody. His world is pieced together from many other worlds, most of the secondary already – he uses, and twists, the conventions of the Tolkien and Earthsea quests, the martial arts mythology, Shakespeare and The Phantom of the Opera. I have found a nod to Jeeves in this book, and a learned knowledge of St Augustine in Small Gods. What he is doing is akin to the Post-Modern knowing fiction that says we are all made up of patches and quotations of other forms, other stories. But it is also the opposite of that papery rustling: he has the real energy of the primary storyteller. A.S.Byatt in The Times
In Thief of Time in the great stinking metropolis of Ankh Morpork, an obsessed clockmaker receives an unusual commission from an excessively beautiful woman whose feet do not touch the ground; strict school-teacher Susan finds herself summoned by her grandfather, Death, to do him a favour; the monks who manage the even distribution of Time find themselves with a recalcitrant novice; and dairyman Ronnie Soak muses on his glory days, when he was the Fifth Rider of the Apocalypse, the one who left before they got famous.
Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time confronts Discworld and a variety of its defenders with an insidious menace; never before has the phrase “The End of History” had quite so sinister a sound. As always, the sometimes startlingly surrealistically original, sometimes comfortingly groan-worthy, jokes are underlain by some intensely complex ideas and tight plotting. Susan makes a reappearance as one of Pratchett’s more interesting heroines; the sinister Lady LeJean is one of Pratchett’s most interesting villains, particularly once we learn the answer to the mystery about her.
There is an attractive darkness to much of the humour here – Pratchett is often at his best when at his darkest. Roz Kaveney in Amazon.co.uk
By now we all know that Terry Pratchett is capable of taking any theme or setting, transplanting it into his Discworld milieu, and producing another work of wit and substance for that long-running series that never palls, in its infinite variety. A Discworld novel never disappoints. But Thief of Time is a particular delight, …. Faced with the grotesqueries of everyday life at the dawn of the 21st century, I sometimes think Terry Pratchett is a hidden Master of the Universe, on to all its tricksy ways. He just takes things a little farther, to come up with fiction even stranger than truth. Faren Miller, in Locus
This is the second Discworld novel in six months, but it shows no sign of being a rushed job. It reads with all the polished fluency and sure-footed pacing that have become Pratchett’s hallmarks over the years. If there are fewer laugh-aloud gags, he still maintains the rush of sheer delight that makes his work so addictive and keeps his fans so loyal. And perhaps because the theme is so apocalyptic, Thief of Time throws into sharp relief the kind of exasperated liberalism that underpins much of Pratchett’s humour. Many of his central characters are both resigned to and maddened by an intuitive affection for humankind, with its infuriating ability to dash the highest hopes and to confound the worst fears. A bit like new Labour, really. Peter Ingham in The Times
Here we go again! In the newest appealing instalment of the Discworld series, Pratchett (The Truth) takes on religion, time and… kung-fu movies? The cast includes Death; Miss Susan, Death’s granddaughter; Jeremy Clockson, a clockmaker; Lobsang, a novice monk; and Lu-Tze, a sweeper at the temple of the History Monks. When a mysterious lady asks Jeremy to make a clock that is perfectly timed (even to the last tick), trouble begins: it seems that such a clock would have the power to stop time completely. There would be no yesterday, no tomorrow, no next minute; in fact, everything and everyone would stop in its tracks. It’s up to Miss Susan, Lobsang and Lu-Tze to figure out who in the end has decided to build the dangerous clock and how to stop him before the world crashes to a halt. Along the way we learn Rule One: “Do not act incautiously when confronting a little bald wrinkly smiling man,” which is a very good lesson to learn. We also find out that Lobsang has more in store for his future than to be an apprentice monk. The story includes a quick nod to James Bond flicks with Qu, the monk who supplies gadgets to Lu-Tze and Lobsang, and at the end of Time the four (no, make that five) horsemen of the Apocalypse get to ride out for a jaunt. You don’t need to catch all the in-jokes to enjoy the fun. Publishers Weekly (USA)
And how can readers resist a book in which the world is saved by the awesome power of chocolate?
Susan Salpini, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA in School Library Journal (USA)
Consistently clever and engagingly topical, this rollicking tale belongs in most libraries. Library Journal (USA)
Neither sixteenish Jeremy Clockson, clockmaking wunderkind of Ankh-Morpork, nor his exact contemporary Lobsang Ludd, a preternaturally good thief yanked from the streets to be a novice of the Monks of History, knows it, but they are closing in on immortality. In the meantime, Jeremy has been commissioned by a mysterious lady to build a glass clock that will keep time perfectly (by stopping it, which Jeremy, rapt in horological mania, doesn’t foresee and wouldn’t see as a problem). Lobsang is being trained to hone his time-slicing skills by Lu-Tze, the monastery’s 800-year-old master slicer and ranking sweeper, who notices that the youngster unwittingly knows already whatever he is taught. The two young men will meet, but not until time stops, the apocalypse arrives, and the four – no, make that five – horsemen ride out. Getting to that climax (and don’t worry, it’s really only a pause) requires timely slicing by Lobsang and Lu-Tze; delayed clock construction by Jeremy, thanks to the mysterious lady; the efforts of Death to rally his old comrades for the big ride; the guidance of Death’s granddaughter, Miss Susan, a formidable young schoolteacher; and plenty of ancillary foolery. This is Discworld, an adolescent Oz in which far fewer folks are immortal, but long life doesn’t entail decrepitude; magic works; and politics and culture are fluid, far off, and mostly for old guys. Spun out of words and wit, it is as light and curiously tasty as cotton candy. Ray Olson in Booklist (American Library Association)
The creation of the first truly accurate clock starts a race both for and against time, for if the clock is completed, time will stop. Death calls on his granddaughter to stop the plot of the Auditors, beings who wish to catalog everything but find humanity a bit too unpredictable. This twisted, humorous tale in the Discworld series is brought down to size by the use of five narrators, each tackling a major plot line, and by Harlan Ellison, supplying background information. This method works well, at times allowing for dialogue from two plot lines to intersect, suggesting a cast of dozens. This delightful production keeps the listener spellbound throughout its 12 hours. J.A.S. © AudioFile 2002, Portland, Maine– Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine –This text refers to the audio edition.
Although this is the 26th book in the Discworld series, it is as innovative and enthralling as the very first book in the series. This tale is full of twists and turns so sharp that you never see them coming until you are upon them. In short, Pratchett’s imagination is still running at full throttle, and the vibrancy of his writing has only improved over time. Auggie Moore, in Large Print Reviews
Background illustration © and by courtesy of Marc Simonetti