Analysis: The Color of Magic
April 29th, 2022 4:26 PM
Book: The Color of Magic (Discworld One, Rincewind One) by Terry Pratchett
Recommendation: For those who are looking to get a good primer for Pratchett’s Discworld universe, though I would add the caveat that it appears that later entries in the series have somewhat more unified, tied-together narratives.
The 1983 satirical fantasy novel The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett was quite an experience. It was an experience of many firsts. This novel marked Pratchett’s first trek into the Discworld, and it also marked the first appearance of some of the series’ hallmark characters, like Great A’tuin, Rincewind the shifty wizard, and Twoflower the lovable tourist. And, of course, Pratchett’s depiction of Death. Had it not been for Pratchett’s Mort, which I read prior to this one, this might’ve been the first time a novel in the fantasy genre had me smiling and outright laughing with such frequency. Despite all that novelty, the work also read somewhat like Pratchett’s first novel. There was a level of disjointedness to it, a rambling sort of narrative that struggled to find a unifying thread.
This review may contain spoilers past this point.
The premise is that we’ve got a shifty, incompetent wizard named Rincewind, and he is charged with protecting a visiting tourist, Twoflower, who is rich because his homeland produces gold in abundance. Meanwhile, the Gods are playing a game, and at its centerpiece are Rincewind and Twoflower. After convincing a landlord to set a gargantuan fire (which does, through no intention of the landlord who started it, major damage to Ankh-Morpork, the city in which the novel begins), Twoflower flees alongside Rincewind. Twoflower ends up in a temple facing off with an otherworldly being and Rincewind ends up inside a tree filled with odd creatures called dryads. They meet Hrun the Barbarian, who’s a pretty enjoyable parody of all the most popular barbarians you know and love (for example, he only agrees to go with and protect Twoflower and Rincewind because Twoflower has a magical picture box that can produce photos of Hrun for Hrun to admire). They end up in an upside-down mountain. At some point they end up in an airplane from our world. Then they’re in the ocean, sans Hrun, and they wash all the way to the edge of the Discworld, which, if you haven’t guessed by its name, is actually flat. They are subsequently captured and taken, and they are intended to become sacrifices to a god (Fate). At last, they both end up falling over the edge of the Discworld.
I would hazard that, whether you’re reading this tale word for word or you’re reading a thirty-thousand-foot summary like the one I’ve given above, the story remains equally disjointed. Reading through it, there are often moments where, because of the fantastical nature of the world and its outright, prominent silliness, we end up with less-than-realistic transitions between settings. Throughout the novel, I felt that Pratchett was simultaneously not taking the work seriously while also taking it very seriously. I know that balance well. It’s the territory of beloved children’s authors like Roald Dahl, and indeed, The Colour of Magic often felt very Dahlian. The plotting (or, I guess, lack thereof) would be my biggest qualm about this story, but everything else was enjoyable. The characters were funny and felt genuine; the settings were fantastical and filled with imaginative cultures and creatures; the prose itself was solid enough, and even had a few moments of excellent beauty. There was one line in particular that struck me, in which Pratchett described sunbeams:
“Sunbeams from the myriad entrances around the walls crisscrossed the dusty gloom like amber rods in which a million golden insects had been preserved.”
That’s beautiful, mesmerizing, and truly stunning imagery. As a writer, I took a lot from this experience. I paid careful attention to Pratchett’s balance of character and plot. I think the novel is saved from its less-than-stellar plotting by its fun characters. There’s such a light tone to the whole novel that it essentially carries you along, and perhaps that was the intention all along: that we, the readers, would feel equally dragged through the haphazard Discworld alongside Rincewind and Twoflower. The prose, as mentioned above, shined in many places, though throughout most of the novel, it was merely serviceable. That’s a great reminder for myself and other authors: not every line we pen needs to be some magnificent metaphor or scintillating simile; sometimes, its okay to simply get the story written and wait for those instances of true beauty to show up organically instead of trying to wring them out of ourselves.
There’s something so light and fun and conversational about Pratchett’s work. It’s insanely digestible—there is no barrier to entering the Discworld and having a great time (except, I guess, for the Circumfence, if you’re coming from that direction). Another piece this novel highlighted for me as a writer is the nature and influence that tone has on a story. It’s no easy feat to string together as many coherent words as Pratchett has in this novel alone (and, of course, the man wrote so many more novels after this one). Simply because I know how challenging it is to realize a novel in its entirety, I know that Pratchett had to have taken this whole thing seriously to some degree. At the same time, you can feel through the writing when the author is having fun, when the author is letting his personality flow through his fingertips and into the story, and that tone—that lightness—seeps from every word here. Tone is a powerful thing. I liken it to being stuck in a room with somebody who’s in a certain mood. If you’ve ever been in a room with somebody who’s grumpy, depressed, or otherwise morose, you’ll likely feel a temptation to resonate with that person, and so you, in turn, feel a little bit sadder (or maybe a lot sadder) than you would otherwise. If you’ve ever been stuck in a room with a cheerful person, you’ve likely felt the energy flowing off of them. Books are an author’s way of sharing themselves and their personalities. Indeed, reading any one of Pratchett’s novels shows you that it might be quite entertaining—and, when you consider how alarmingly crazy and convoluted some of his plot devices are, possibly life-threatening—to have been stuck in a room with him.
One final thing, among probably many others, that I took from this novel: an author’s first work doesn’t have to be his best one. The Color of Magic was good fun, but I’ve read at least one of Pratchett’s other novels, and I enjoyed Mort quite a bit more. I know that many, many of his novels are very much beloved. I’m quite sure that Pratchett grew with each novel, and that’s endearing and motivating for me.