The Colour of Magic is where it all started. There are 41 Discworld novels, four popular science books, many graphic novels, at least two board games, and a couple of films. The books have at least seven overarching storylines and the best fictional university I’ve ever read. Pratchett’s characters are acutely well-observed, his plots are absurd and delightful, and I am carefully rationing the books because I know there are a finite number. Despite this, I had somehow never read the first book. Thankfully, 20 Books of Summer prompted me to pull it off my shelves, and I’m delighted that I did.
Like the first book of many series, The Colour of Magic does not represent the best of the Discworld. Everyone’s favourite character, Death, is very much off his game in this book – he has not evolved into the surprisingly warm-hearted anthromorphic personification that he becomes later. The links that are present between the different storylines (e.g. the Witches, or the Unseen University) aren’t really present, because of course so much of the world has not really been developed yet. I also don’t think Pratchett had quite figured out his voice. There is only one footnote (long, hilarious footnotes become a staple of Pratchett’s later work), and there is a late detour into the real world, which is quite jarring when you don’t expect it.
There are also lazy science fiction/fantasy tropes that Pratchett generally stayed away from in the later books. For instance, there is a mostly naked woman warrior named Liessa, whose nudity doesn’t seem to be for any particular purpose. The lack of armour would seem to pose certain safety concerns to any woman who is a professional warlord. Pratchett’s female characters in the Discworld novels are generally wonderful – as varied, interesting (or sometimes boring!), and appropriately dressed for the weather as women tend to be in real life. Liessa feels like a rare misstep, and there are a few other characters who are similarly stereotyped. To be fair, Pratchett wrote this in 1983, before these types had been recycled quite as much as they have been at this point – even though they feel tired, they were probably pretty fresh at the time.
This novel seems like a direct response to Dungeons and Dragons, which would have been less than ten years old at the time of publication and had not yet become the (moderately) mainstream activity that it is today. There is a recurring theme in the novel of the gods playing dice with the plot of these characters. Some of the characters, especially Hrun the Barbarian, are very lighthearted satires of the kinds that crop up in DnD, which I enjoyed tremendously. I don’t know if this aspect of the novel would be appealing to someone who hadn’t played DnD, but it is a lot of fun if you have. (As Hrun cracked open a cursed altar with a magic talking sword just to see what was inside, I had vivid memories of the DM for my group looking at us in utter bewilderment, saying “but why would you walk into such an obvious trap?”).
Despite the fact that this wasn’t as good as the later novels, I’m still really glad that I read it. It contains a lot of interesting lore about the way that the Discworld works, and the universe in which it takes place, which is alluded to but never spelt out in later books. It’s also a fantastic introduction to the city of Ankh-Morpork, which is the setting for the majority of the novels. Sure, it’s a bit pulpy in places*, but even before Pratchett was the accomplished observer of human nature that he became, he was still a very funny and engaging writer. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to the Discworld, but if you already love it there as much as I do, consider picking this one up too.
*I will go to my grave insisting that the later Discworld novels are Proper Literature with a lot to say about human nature, and should therefore be studied in schools.
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