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Books of 2006, part one

February 25th, 2007 (10:43 pm)

I’ve occasionally threatened a books post. I began writing this, finally, on New Year's Eve, and have returned to it from time to time. The turn of the year seemed an opportune moment to recall some of my reading of 2006. I’d managed to read a little more fiction than usual last year, which isn’t saying all that much.

These aren't, of course, really books of 2006 in the conventional sense, as they've almost all been around for years - a couple of centuries and more in the case of The Castle of Otranto - but this is a personal journal after all.

I've decided to deliver my reviews in instalments. I wrote about Pratchett first, before going to see the stage version of Feet of Clay, and have left my text unchanged.

Terry Pratchett and I have, in general, not got on. I remember vaguely hearing about the early books in the 1980s, and the impression I had from reviews was that there were some imaginative rehashes of old ideas from mythology and fantasy writing, but nothing special. During the 1990s, encouraged by the number of friends who liked Pratchett’s work, I read The Colour of Magic, and was disappointed. As vescoyia later explained to me, if I recall her correctly, it’s very much a parody of fantasy literature, and I am not familiar with the context. I’ve since tried a few Pratchetts more recently - Small Gods, thanks to emily_shore, and one of the witch books at least - but was unable to finish them, mainly because I didn’t take to the sense of humour. I like the development of ‘hackneyed situations’, as Philip Pullman calls them in the context of his Sally Lockhart novels, as much as anybody - after all, Doctor Who is full of them in its own way. Yet somehow I found Pratchett a bit too self-satisfied.

Last May, after I’d aired similar views at a party, rustica tossed Night Watch at me from one of her many triple-banked (or so it seems) bookshelves. I am pleased to report that I actually finished this one. I still find all the paraphernalia such as Death unfunny, and the silly names do very little for me; but the problem of a man who is trapped in his own past, at a crucial point in his own career, is treated convincingly. I don’t like Pratchett’s mock demotic speech for the inhabitants of Ankh-Morpork, which somehow suggests to me that this is an author who is dishonest to his readers. All storytellers are, in one way or another, and the reader enters into a bargain with them; but I have trouble striking this bargain, because I don’t think that the writer in this case has thought everything through as much as he ought.

Nevertheless amid the characteristics which I didn’t like in Pratchett’s style, there is something about Sam Vimes which is very appealing. He seems to be the only human being in the midst of a chaotic and misconceived parody. Pratchett’s characters are mostly caricatures but Sam has a bit more to him. He’s convincing as a manager of men, as someone who can offer incentives to the lazy and corrupt to change their ways, and as a moral beacon in a cynical universe. His confronting a mob (IIRC - the book itself is long since returned to rustica) with cup of tea in hand might have smacked (like a lot of Pratchett) of the off-the-peg eccentricity I associate with Doctor Who apocrypha, such as Nicholas Briggs’s tea-waving Doctor from the AudioVisual series. Yet Vimes is written with warmth. He’s not the only Pratchett character, of the few I’ve encountered, to be written this way, but he’s the one where I think Pratchett seems least embarrassed by doing so.

I’m aware that I’m shuffling nervously into the lions’ den here, and to some extent this is the frustration of someone who sees that all the Pratchett-admirers out there, of whom there are many in SocT and my friends list in general, are enjoying themselves, and doesn‘t see the joke. Perhaps Pratchett suffers so that I can excuse the excesses of RTD’s Doctor Who. Then again, as the last Lady Nimue said, no-one has to like everything.


Posted by: Naraht (emily_shore)
Posted at: February 26th, 2007 08:52 am (UTC)

I suspect that Night Watch was probably the best Pratchett for you to read, as it's the least Discworldian of the lot... it's always struck me as being a sci fi/fantasy novel that just happens to have been set in the context of the satirical world that Pratchett has created over about thirty novels. But he has become so comfortable with it by this point that for most of the book he just lets it rest in the background, rather than making a point of it as he does in most of the other books. To be honest this was one of the reasons why I liked Night Watch *less*, but to each their own...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 26th, 2007 09:15 am (UTC)

ISTR megamole telling me that there were many long-term Pratchett fans who disliked Night Watch for the reasons you've outlined.

Still, I have Guards, Guards on my floor, and since writing the above (and seeing Feet of Clay) I've bought a copy of Night Watch for myself, so my curiosity has been aroused, at least.

Posted by: Kargicq (kargicq)
Posted at: February 26th, 2007 09:02 pm (UTC)

I enjoyed the first few Discworld books precisely because of the parodies (which aren't very subtle). I told myself that I gave up the series because I felt Pratchett was getting very predictable, but I think in retrospect it was a case of jumping off a bandwagon. (I'm glad I'm not a teenager today: Tolkien and Rowling are both mainstream in teen culture and that would have deterred me!)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 26th, 2007 09:20 pm (UTC)

I'm annoyed both by the clunkingness of the parody and the fact I'm not very familiar with what is being parodied. I suspect that Pratchett works for some people, on one level at least, as a crash course in the cliches of fantasy fiction; but there is a feeling of being left out.

Tolkien was mainstream at my school, at least among the upper streams, which is why I didn't read The Lord of the Rings until I was 22...

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: February 26th, 2007 10:06 pm (UTC)

I confess I haven't read any Pratchett for some time, but when I was in my mid-to-late teens, he was one of my favourite authors. I think I've read all bar one of the first twenty-five or so Discworld books.

I'm not a great reader of fantasy (aside from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I can't think of any 'serious' fantasy that I have read), so it's not the genre-pastiche that appeals to me. Perhaps it's the central idea of Discworld as a domain with natural laws that run on common sense rather than logic, and the possibilities unfolding from that that appeals to me. That and the satire/mockery of the real world through the allegorical nature of Discworld.

Then again, the last time I read Pratchett (a re-reading of Interesting Times about eighteen months ago), that satire seemed a little unsophisticated and ill-informed. The book is a satire on both authoritarianism and violent revolution, in a country clearly based on medieval China, with a hint of Czarist Russia. I remember there was one bit about the reason for the Great Wall running around it, supposedly to keep out invaders, but actually to keep the citizenry in, because invaders could just use ladders. Very clever, except that the real Chinese Great Wall wasn't to keep out invaders per se, but to keep out their horses, which in the steppes of central Asia are tremendously powerful.

I think perhaps with Pratchett there's a sense of the breadth of his knowledge exceeding his depth, so he's funny as long as you don't know much about what he's mocking. Then again, as with all humour, if you just don't find it funny, you don't it funny and it's that simple.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 26th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC)

I think your last paragraph puts it very well; there have been many times in the Pratchett books that I've tried where I don't have enough confidence in his knowledge of the subject he's satirizing to be able to enjoy his humour. I would be wary of trusting him as an educator.

I admit that part of the reason I enjoyed the stage adaptation of Feet of Clay was that I could see enough of where the jokes were coming from. My study of books about horror films (without, I admit, seeing very many of them) when I was twelve or thirteen makes me familiar with the golem, and Dragon Herald is amusing because I know of the English herald, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant.