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Books: Color of Magic

After reading a book about death, a book about fraud and a book about the history of mathematics, I figured I was due a little summer reading. So I asked a friend for a recommendation, and he suggested Terry Pratchett. And I replied with a "maybe, maybe," with no intention of taking his advice.

The truth is that I have always been a wary of Pratchett and his whole "Discworld" series, despite the fact that I had never read any of the books. Back in the day I had been a huge Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fan, but I made the mistake of rereading that book a few years ago and found the humor (or, rather, "the humour") entirely too obvious for my adult tastes. I therefore concluded that I would not enjoy Pratchett, since I believed "Discworld" to be little more than an amalgamation of Hitchhiker's Guide and Piers Anthony's excruciating, pun-ridden Xanth novels.

But the next time I saw this aforementioned friend he handed me The Color of Magic, and since I had yet to scare up any other summer reading I decided to give it a whirl. To my surprise, I found it to be exactly the book I'd been seeking: light, inventive, and (most of the time) funny in all the right ways.

The Color of Magic is the first book about Discworld, a world so-named because it's, well, a disc -- which sits atop four gargantuan elephants, which stand atop a galactic-sized turtle, who trundles through the universe toward some unknown destination. (Yes, I know: you're already wincing and thinking, as I did, that all this sounds dreadfully absurdist.) The setting is Standard Fantasy -- swords and sorcery and everything in between -- and the stories revolve around Rincewind, a failed wizard who knows but one spell, and Twoflower, a visitor from a far-away nation on a site-seeing excursion around the world. In following their misadventures, we become tourists ourselves, seeing all the lunacy that Discworld has to offer.

The humor is pretty even-keeled -- Pratchett can't seem to resist the British predilection for puns, but he keeps them to a minimum. What sets The Color of Magic apart from other parodies is the author's seemingly endless font of ideas. Despite the fact that Discworld is a hodge-podge of themes and archetypes cribbed from the fantasy genre, Pratchett tweaks them enough to make them fresh, interesting, and often quite amusing. Take "Hrun the Barbarian," for example. While trapped deep in a dungeon, Twoflower asks Hrun what he thinks will happen next:

   "Oh," [Hrun] said, "I expect in a minute the door will be flung back and I'll be dragged off to some sort of temple arena where I'll fight maybe a couple of giant spiders and an eight-foot slave from the jungles of Klatch and then I'll rescue some kind of a princess from the altar and then kill off a few guards or whatever and then this girl will show me the secret passage out of the place and we'll liberate a couple of horses and escape with the treasure." Hrun leaned his head back on his hands and looked at the ceiling, whistling tunelessly.
   "All that?" said Twoflower.
   "Usually."
See? Funny. This whole story, in fact, is a skillful parody of an H. P. Lovecraft story -- something I wouldn't have thought possible.

Anyhow, yeah: if you've steering clear of the Discworld series for the reasons I mentioned above -- or if you're just in the mood of a fun little something to devour over bus rides -- do what I did and give The Color of Magic a whirl. It ain't John Irving, but hey: immediately after finishing Magic I went to my library's website and reserved the next book in the series. That oughtta tell you something right there.

Posted on July 22, 2002 to Books