Friday, March 7, 2014

Light Makes Narrative Imperfections Shine

Can a book break the accepted rules of narrative convention and still be a great read? For instance, take Terry Pratchett's The Color of Magic, the first installment in his venerable Discworld series. Yes, the title stumbled at numerous points. A terrible tendency to rely on the old deus ex machina fallacy to resolve conflicts. A cliffhanger so awful it'll make your eyes roll more than the balls at a bowling alley. A protagonist more irritating than sandpaper-lined skivvies. Don't get me wrong. The Color of Magic proved fun enough, but no one would mistake it for a wonderful book. However, its sequel, The Light Fantastic, takes all of those storytelling foibles and makes them into a tale worth talking about.

When we last encountered the cowardly wizard Rincewind, he'd fled Unseen University after opening a forbidden tome called the Octavo. That seemingly innocent act caused one of the eight incantations left behind by the Creator of the Universe to take up residence in his mind. He'd made his escape posing as a guide for a tourist named Twoflower, met Twoflower's man-eating, ambulatory wooden chest named (appropriately enough) Luggage, and plunged off the edge of the world during a misadventure that's best not recounted in detail. (Everyone knows that Discworld is flat and borne through the depths of space on the backs of four ginormous pachyderms who, in turn, stand on the shell of Great A'Tuin, the cosmic turtle.) But Rincewind isn't falling to his doom, oh no. Instead, reality will reshape itself to save the doomed wizard, because he still has an important job to do: He needs to save Discworld from destruction.

See all those storytelling imperfections listed in the first paragraph? They're almost all still there in The Light Fantastic. The cliffhanger has mercifully vanished, but Rincewind is as annoying as ever and the intro could serve as an example of how not to rescue a hero -- or so it seems at first glance. Pratchett shrewdly negotiates these pitfalls by either embracing or undermining them. Instead of shying away from the audacity of having the seven remaining spells in the Octavo reknit existence itself for the sake of a single failed wizard, Pratchett makes it central to the plot. Seems those spells possess more sentience and subtle scheming than is good for them (or anyone else, for that matter). Rincewind remains an abominable coward throughout most of the proceedings, but like all good protagonists, the novel's events prompt a change in him by the final chapter. In fact, the bootstrap courage he displays in the face of impossible odds makes for a downright thrilling last act. Is The Light Fantastic a great read? I'll leave that one for the pundits to argue. But I do know this: It represents a great leap forward in Pratchett's craft.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Marco Abis; Hat Tip: Nathaniel Lee)

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