A wise man once said that the ending of a thing is better than the beginning, a cross-disciplinary sort of truism that cuts across matters of business, academics, the arts and life itself. Yet even though conclusions hold the higher place, the start of something still elicits a certain fascination -- especially when it comes to a multi-volume genre series. At least it did for me when I sat down with The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett's first entry in the inimitable Discworld books. Sure, I knew later installments had a reputation as something special, but how much of that uniqueness translated to the series' earliest iteration?
Even the least judgmental individual on Discworld (the dinnerplate-shaped planet carried through the vastness of space on the backs of four cosmic elephants who are, in their turn, borne by a turtle of star-swallowing size named the Great A'Tuin) would have to confess that Rincewind is a complete failure as a wizard. Booted out of Unseen University after sneaking a peek at a forbidden book, he exhibits not only perpetual cowardice, but also an inability to remember any spells. That is, of course, because the page he glanced at in the forbidden book happened to contain one of the eight basic spells comprising the fabric of reality itself, and it burrowed into his mind the moment he saw it. The mass of all that arcane knowledge simply crowds all other magic out of Rincewind's skull. So he contents himself by whiling away his days with drink in the Broken Drum, one of Ankh-Morpork's seedier pubs. At least he did until Twoflower the tourist came strolling into the establishment, scattering gold coins as though they'd gone out of style and looking for a guide. Seems Twofeather comes from the Counterweight Continent, a land so wealthy that many regard it as mythical. And Rincewind, well, he'd be a fool to ignore all that gold, wouldn't he? So one might think, except that pair will end up on a perilous tour indeed, one that takes them to the eldritch temple of a soul-munching demigod, the lands of bickering dragonriders who soar on semi-imaginary lizards, and the Rim of Discworld where the seas froth over the flat planet's edge into the endless void.
Although I had only a rough exposure to Discworld prior to reading Color, I knew enough to recognize it contained most of the series' trademarks. Baroque fantasy settings, nudge-and-a-wink satire of real-world subjects, ludicrous absurdism and over-the-top silliness -- all make appearances. Only they feel really rough. Though the action is fun, Pratchett resorted to (often literal) deus ex machina resolutions an awful lot, and Color ends with the second-worst cliffhanger I've ever read. Additionally, when the most noble and sympathetic character turns out to be a magical piece of luggage with an indomitable desire to follow its owner and a taste for the appendages of any who would harm him, you know the author has a likeability problem on his hands. Color is bright and fun, but ultimately a bit flat.
(Picture: CC 2009 by TopTechWriter.US; Hat Tip: Nathaniel Lee)