Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Fantasy (page 1 of 2)

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon

Imagine popping out for an afternoon stroll. You leave your loving husband to do his little family tree hobby, and wander around looking at interesting plants. You get closer and closer to some big rocks, and notice one of them with a hole down the middle seems to be buzzing. Screaming. You topple through the gap and find yourself 200 years in the past, dazed and confused and staring down the barrel of your husband’s ancestor’s pistol. That’s what happens to Claire Beauchamp in the first hundred pages of Outlander – and there are still seven hundred pages to go!

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Outlander is a time travel-historical romance, previously published as Cross-Stitch. Diana Gabaldon sat down about thirty years ago to have a go at writing a novel “for practice” – y’know, just for fun – and this is the result. Her test run has been published in 38 different languages, sold over 25 million copies around the world, and it’s been adapted into a highly-acclaimed television series.

It’s a CHUNKY book, as I alluded to just a second ago – 868 pages in my edition. In retrospect, it would have made a good lockdown read (so if we have to live through another once-in-a-century pandemic, be sure to put Outlander on your nightstand). As it turned out, I ended up reading it while I was laid up with a rotten cold, so I suppose the experience was mostly the same.

Back to the story: our girl Claire was an army nurse, and was happily beginning her post-war life with hobby genealogist Frank Randall in 1946 when she tumbled through the wormhole. Post-tumble, she’s in 1743 Scotland, and has to think double-quick to escape the clutches of Frank’s great-great-great-great-(great-great??) grandfather Captain Jack Randall. Luckily, a Scottish clansman, the dashing Jamie Fraser, rides in to the rescue and knocks the bad guy out so she can scarper.

Now, the logic of Outlander gets a bit convoluted, but to boil it down to its bare bones: Claire is English, but the clansmen trust her, and she ends up having to marry one of them (Jamie being the obvious choice) because the English Captain can’t arrest a Scot (even a Scot by marriage) on their ancestral lands.

Poor Claire ends up caught between two lovers and timelines. At first, she’ll do anything to get back to her own time and to Frank, but the longer she spends with her husband-by-convenience, the hotter she gets for him and the more at-home she feels in her new era. Jamie keeps being all dashing and rescuing her from hard scrapes, plus he’s pretty good at the obligatory marriage consummation, so you can understand her trouble.

The plot of Outlander is episodic, very Quixote-esque. It’s one damn thing after another, and a lot of traipsing from place to place to escape whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into. They still manage to make time for plenty of sex, though, naturally. It’s not a closed door romance, but the door isn’t wide-open either – it certainly wasn’t as steamy as I was expecting.

What concerned me was the romanticised violence. There’s a lot of “men beat their wives because they love them” kind of stuff, worked up to be some kind of passionate declaration of devotion (ew), and a lot of violence as vengeance for slights – real or perceived – against a woman’s honour (double ew). So, if that’s something that bothers you, you might want to give Outlander a miss.

The gay characters also made me raise my eyebrows a bit. Gabaldon doesn’t offer particularly positive queer representation. The only gays are villains, and there’s more than one instance (including one particularly extended and graphic instance) of queer men raping straight men. That said, given that it’s a historical romance set in the 18th century and written in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the presence of gays at all is unusual and commendable to some extent.

Oh, and there’s a few instances of casual ableism and racism, too. I know, I know, Outlander is “of its time”, but you know what? We’re reading it in 2021 and we should at least acknowledge that we know (or should know) better now.

The only other heads-up I’ll give is that the story takes some very strange turns in the last hundred pages or so. There’s a lot of religion, a bit of witch magic, and I think some kind of twisted not-at-all-recommended form of self-administered amateur exposure therapy? Nevertheless, Gabaldon manages to wrap everything up in a way that feels satisfying but definitely paves an inviting path for the sequel.

Ah, the sequel! And the one after that! And the one after that! There have been nine of ten planned Outlander books published now (most recently, Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone in 2021), as well as several novellas, short stories, and a whole other series (the Lord John books) telling accompanying stories. It’s now one of the best-selling book series of all time. Not bad for a book written for practice about a girl who takes a walk, eh?

My favourite Amazon reviews of Outlander:

  • “I forced myself to read on for several days (I typically can devour a book in less time!) and finally quit when I finally admitted I had made a mistake in buying a sex novel based on a ridiculous story line.” – ARS
  • “Stupid drivel. She obviously wanted to write spank-erotica but needed context, so came up with waaaaaay too much to go with the spanking. God, and the wolf. I stopped reading it at that point. Wanted to stop earlier, but so many friends just loooooved it. Why you gonna write about some horrible wolf you gotta kill? Cause you WANT to write about killing wolves. I don’t wanna read that. Why’s your mind all twisted up with wolf-icide, crazy Gabaldon?” – Hannah Flake
  • “Alice in Wonderland (Alice through the Looking Glass), and The Wizard of Oz both had the protagonist experiencing something that put them in a different time/location. The primary difference in the two older versions is the lack of pornography.” – G. McLeod
  • “I’ve never bothered writing a really bad review before, but this book compelled me. I was told that this is a good series for Game of Thrones lovers. Um, NOPE. This is a good book for women who read books with Fabio on the cover, have a strong stomach, and have a lot of patience.” – alex a

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Last year, a little book called Piranesi bowled me over and won my heart. I felt compelled to seek out author Susanna Clarke’s only other novel, a comparatively hefty tome (four times the length, 1000+ pages!) published 16 years prior. Clarke started work on Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell back in 1992, and worked on it for ten full years before submitting it for publication. So, as I’m sure you can tell already, this book is an undertaking. Just finishing it feels like a triumph! I can only provide a potted summary, though, less this review become almost as long as the book…

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(And by the way, there are some gorgeous illustrations in my edition, contributed by Portia Rosenberg – I highly recommend seeking out a copy that includes them!)

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is an alternative history, set in early 19th century England (think Napoleonic war era). As Clarke tells it, magic once ran rife through the British Isles, but has since disappeared entirely… only to suddenly return to two particular men, Jonathan Strange and (you guessed it!) Mr Norrell.

These two are a magical Odd Couple. Jonathan Strange is young, adventurous, and impulsive. Mr Norrell is a cantankerous bookworm, a fusspot of the highest order.

Clarke’s mastery of storytelling is on display right from the get-go. The first chapter of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is exquisitely crafted: word built, exposition clear (but not patronising to the reader), and the hook baited. You can’t help but dive in! The Learned Society of York’s “theoretical magicians” (i.e., old white men who study the history of magic, even though they can’t perform it) is stunned to learn that Mr Norrell – curator of the world’s largest personal library of magic books and books about magic (they’re different) – can actually perform it. Norrell compels them to disband their silly gabfest club, and goes about quietly studying and practicing magic all on his own.

Strange, on the other hand, decides on a whim to simply Be A Magician. He doesn’t know jack about magic or its history, but when has that ever stopped a rich white guy? He travels to meet Norrell (who is now living in London), and blags his way into becoming his student. The two clash – frequently, and how – over the proper conduct of magic, the importance of the legendary Raven King, the employ of fairies, and just about everything else. They battle along for a while, learning from each other and trying not to kill each other, until the conflict becomes too much and they part ways.

Jonathan Strange heads off abroad to help out the troops by magicking up roads and favourable weather conditions, completely on the fly (in fact, heads up, the Napoleonic wars play a much bigger role in the narrative than you might expect), while Norrell stays in London and publishes a lot of stuffy books and papers about the Proper application of English magic. Astoundingly, people actually want to read them, and England ends up divided into “Norrellites” and “Strangites”.

Reminder: I’m skipping over a LOT. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is over a thousand pages long. A LOT happens. The pacing fluctuates throughout. Sometimes, it was so compelling I felt like I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Sometimes, it dragged so much that I wondered whether I would ever finish it. That said, I attribute the latter feelings to my own impatience (after everything that 2021 has thrown at my brain), rather than any fault in Clarke’s storytelling.

We get Norrell’s side of the story in the first volume, Jonathan Strange’s in the second, and the third ties it all together with a focus on the Raven King. Jonathan Strange becomes involved in increasingly dark and dangerous experiments, to try and counteract some of the personal tragedies that have befallen him, and Norrell gets a few boots up the bum to remind him to get his nose out of a book every once in a while. Most importantly, the true nature of the book’s villain is revealed, one of the greatest mysteries I’ve ever encountered in contemporary literature: The Man With The Thistle-Down Hair.

Clarke offers a Tolkien-esque level of detail in her speculative history (though she’s far less dull in the telling of it). In fact, she once said that she re-read Lord Of The Rings when she first had the idea for Jonathan Strange And Mr Norell, so the parallel seems natural. She pulls from every literary tradition you can imagine without becoming overwhelmed: the Gothic novel, the comedy of manners, the fantastic, the dramatic… She even gets her David Foster Wallace on and includes 200+ footnotes, each offering some gem of insight into her magical world.

What really sets it apart, though, is the wry humour. It’s like a blend of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with a contemporary comic sensibility. By way of example:

It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

Naturally, given the book’s length and breadth, it’s a book about many things. It’s a scathing critique of bureaucracy, for one. It’s a book about “Englishness”, and the divide between North and South. It’s about the thin line that separates madness and reason. It’s about the “silencing” of underrepresented groups, and the capacity for social change.

That said, Clarke doesn’t rely on the sheer volume of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell to invoke all of this. It just so happened that this particular story had such a level of detail and traversed such a world that it required a lot of pages to tell. This isn’t one of those books where you can point to a hundred pages here, or a hundred pages there, and say: “oh, she didn’t really need that, you can skim it or skip it”.

Prior to the publication of Piranesi, Clarke had mentioned in a couple of interviews that she started work on a sequel, focusing on a few of the minor characters. It would seem that progress has stalled (even halted), due to her experience of chronic fatigue syndrome. Her illness, she says, has made the effort to research and write a comparable book is “insurmountable”. I, for one, don’t need a sequel and would rather she save her energy for other endeavours. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is a remarkable book, one that says everything it needs to (though it would undoubtedly take many readings to truly hear it all).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell:

  • “To all the Jane Austen fans out there, I advise you to avoid this book as assiduously as you would avoid the society of Mr. Collins.” – 24karats
  • “Boring. Goes nowhere. And takes you forever to get there.” – Jake B.
  • “Normally, I wouldn’t bother to review a book I hadn’t finished, but thought that, for someone reading through these reviews before purchasing the book, I will gladly mail you my copy. Hell, I will even pay the postage if it means getting rid of it. I tried putting it out with my recyclables, but they said they don’t take human waste material.” – S. OLEARY

Lanny – Max Porter

Did you ever pick up a book in spite of yourself? I was never really all that drawn to read Lanny – despite the endless glowing recommendations from fellow readers and Keeper Upperers – until I heard Max Porter give a reading at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The organisers called Lanny “a tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama”, and even though I was skeptical, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up a copy.

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Lanny was first published in 2019, the follow-up to Porter’s cult success Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. As in his previous novel, myth and modern life come together through the eyes of children. The titular character, Lanny, is an every-child, with all the oddity and gnomic wisdom we expect from these miniature humans.

Lanny is a remarkably short novel, quick to power through and with lots of white space, but it seems to contain multitudes: magic, suspense, horror, joy, and wonder. Porter really pushes the boundaries between prose and poetry, but it’s hardly one of those highly-literary Experimental Novels that make you feel like you’ve just dropped far too much acid to understand. It’s compulsively readable, and even the dullest among us will be able to pick up what Porter is putting down.

The story is told in three sections. The first switches between four narrators. We’ve got Dead Papa Toothwort, a spirit of some kind who watches and listens to a small English village. Then, there’s Lanny’s dad, an office worker in London. And there’s Lanny’s mum, a crime writer with ambivalent feelings about their suburban life (there’s no ambivalence about her love for her son, though). And, finally, there’s Pete, a local eccentric who was once a famous artist; Lanny’s Mum seeks him out, and he starts giving Lanny art lessons.

Through these grown-up eyes, Lanny emerges: idiosyncratic, silly, and sometimes wise beyond his years. He builds things, talks to trees, and baffles just about every grown-up he encounters. His relationship with Pete, the artist, deepens quickly. Pete was actually my favourite narrator, and my favourite character overall.

“I can usually see a way to understand terrible things; Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber of hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.”

Pete (Page 68)

Lanny reveals in conversation with Pete that the mysterious Dead Papa Toothwort is a local myth, a man made entirely of ivy. The rhyme goes: “Say your prayers and be good too, or Dead Papa Toothwort is coming for you,”. Lanny could have been told without Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective, but it adds a layer to our understanding of what Porter is trying to do with the story. Lanny isn’t just about one mildly interesting kid; it’s about England, and small town politics, and perspective.

Toothwort allows the reader to “ride the smells” of the town (including Jenny’s lasagne, and Derek’s hot-pot-for-one – yes, your mouth may water a little). The snatches of conversation he draws from the town are formatted differently to the rest of the narrative, curling across the pages in at-first-glance nonsensical italics. The topics are just what you’d expect from small-town conversation: dog walks, cancer scares, mini-breaks, local gossip… And Toothwort’s commentary on it all serves to remind us just how small, and simultaneously how large, our lives are.

The second section is told in snippets of internal dialogue. (Spoilers ahoy!) Lanny goes missing, and the whole town (mostly) joins in the search for him (eventually). Many of the insights come from Lanny’s distraught mother; Porter will really do a number on you, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, with the way he lays out her terror and guilt. Then there’s Lanny’s father, who doesn’t feel as close to the child, and the sneaky little voice in his head who wonders if they’re not all better off with the kid gone.

Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective interjects occasionally, but he takes a back-seat to Pete, who is accused of abducting and/or assaulting the child. The village shows its true colours in the witch hunt; Pete is beaten (and my heart broke for him more than it did for Lanny, if I’m honest), but he maintains his innocence and his determination to help Lanny’s parents find the boy. He’s made a scapegoat, purely for the fact that he chose to colour outside the lines when he chose how he wanted to live his life, but he holds his head up high and fuck the lot of them (I told you he was my favourite!).

The third section gets a little a lot weird. The best way I could describe it is a series of feverish dream-like explanations of what has happened to Lanny, and what his parents and Pete make of it. I suppose, given that I’m already elbow-deep in spoilers, I’m obligated to tell you that Lanny is found safe and (relatively) well, having been fed and watered by Dead Papa Toothwort on his adventure… but beyond that, I’m really not sure how to describe the ending to you. You’ll just have to read Lanny for yourself.

Lanny is a short book, as I said, but it’s “about” so many things. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. For me, it was about an innocent man harangued and almost hanged by a small town, but maybe you’ll find in it a book about nature, a book about a child’s sense of wonder, a book about parental obligation and fear, a book about a town ghost, a morality tale, an environmental allegory, a hybrid fairytale, a freewheeling fantasy. I’m not sure I could recommend Lanny blindly, because it’s so weird, but I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to others who have read it (that’s a hint to tell me what you think in the comments, by the way!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lanny:

  • “Probably didn’t like the book” – Amazon Customer
  • “Just because you can change the orientation of your font doesn’t mean you’re doing something creative or cutting edge. Mush like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the author is so obsessed with how amazing and creative they are, they fail to tell a fundamentally sound story. Inside cover says $24 for a book that can’t break 20,000 words. There seems to be a trend in the vein of Pirate Utopia where an established author shovels overpriced garbage and tricks loyal readers into buying their hot trash.” – LJ
  • “Having trampled “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Mr. Porter now turns his oh-so-clever combination of full-on thesaurus assault, “whimsy,” and “never use seven words when forty-nine words would do just as well” on the Green Man legend. Yeah… no, Max. No.” – L. Chaney
  • “Very odd book. Doesn’t take long to read would be its only plus.” – Miss Sara Claire Mason

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

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The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown, but the trope itself has existed far longer. Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the king and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind: we all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

I had a devil of a time finding a copy of The Colour Of Magic in my usual secondhand bookstore haunts. Most Terry Pratchett books are like hen’s teeth, even though he was pretty prolific (he wrote and contributed to over 70 books over the course of his life). It would seem that he’s, well, rather popular. I ended up finding this copy at a probably-illegal lonely market stall, run from the side of the road in Newtown. A hippie bloke was selling off what appeared to be his entire personal library, bless his cotton socks. I didn’t realise until I got home and opened the book that this edition also includes the sequel, The Light Fantastic – it doesn’t mention it on the cover at all. Weird, eh?

The Colour Of Magic is a comic fantasy novel, the first in Pratchett’s Discworld series, published in 1983. The first print run of the British edition produced just 506 copies; I can only imagine the panic at the printers when they realised just how many more they’d need, because it achieved instant popularity. All I knew about the book going in, though, was that a friend of mine from university loved Pratchett, and his shelves were stuffed with books from this series. We’ve since lost touch, but if he’s out there and he stumbles upon this little blog, I hope he’s happy I finally got around to picking up his favourite 😉

The blurb opens with the tagline: “The funniest and most unorthodox fantasy in this or any other galaxy”, which sounded like a very deliberate and unsubtle dig at Douglas Adams. Indeed, The Colour Of Magic read very much like fantasy’s answer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and they’d probably make good companion reads if you’re into that kind of thing. This book, and the whole series after it, is set in a world that takes the form of a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the back of a giant turtle (the Great A’Tuin), floating through space. The inhabitants of the Discworld include wizards, dwarves, soldiers, beggars, vampires, witches, and all other manner of ghosties and ghoulies. The blurb hastened to reassure me, the reader, that the series can be read in any order, but it’s really best to start at the beginning, and enjoy them in the chronology that Pratchett originally intended. And so, I did…!



The Colour Of Magic follows the adventures of a failed wizard, and a wealthy (but rather naive) tourist, as they travel together through the Discworld. The story is split into “sections”, rather than chapters, so it reads almost like a group of short stories or novellas, as opposed to continuous novel-length prose. In the first, Rincewind (the wizard) is paid handsomely to guide Twoflower (the tourist) around the biggest city in the realm, his home of Ankh-Morpork. My first literal lol came when Rincewind described Twoflower thus:

“Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour shouting ‘All Gods are bastards’.”

The Colour of Magic

Initially, Rincewind accepts payment for his services in advance and tries to do a runner, but the leader of Ankh-Morpork stops him. The leadership team fears that if Twoflower gets lost or dies on his watch, the resulting PR disaster would cause his rich and vengeful hometown to invade. Of course, Twoflower is promptly kidnapped by a gang of thieves, and, with his leader’s warnings ringing in his ears, Rincewind has to stage a rescue, so their adventures begin…

Oh, and Twoflower has with him The Luggage, an apparently-indestructible enchanted sentient(!) chest. It’s the R2-D2 to their Luke and C3PO, really.



An important note: my reluctance to read fantasy novels mostly stems from my fear of not being able to keep all the names of people and places straight (as I said in my review of A Game Of Thrones). There were a few murky moments in The Colour Of Magic, but on the whole I realise now, writing it, that my summary will sound a lot more confusing than the book itself. So, if you’re of the same mind, take heart – any confusion you’re currently feeling can be attributed right back to me, because Pratchett did a very good job of making everything clear. The only thing I would highlight as a potential issue is that the whole book reads like it’s on fast forward, and you need to be prepared to jump from place to place and crisis to crisis very quickly. In fact, The Colour Of Magic is pretty much one long series of quick accidents that rocket Twoflower and Rincewind around the Discworld, so that Pratchett can show off his universe as quickly as possible. As long as you’re prepared to keep pace, you’ll be just fine.

Anyway, back to the story: along the way, they’re joined by a large, violent, and mostly-monosyllabic barbarian named Hrun, who carries a magical sword. He doesn’t hang around long, though. They visit the upside-down mountain of Wyrmberg, home of the dragon riders, and Hrun catches the eye of the potential-heiress Liessa. He’s roped into marrying her so that she may ascend to the throne, and Rincewind and Twoflower carry on without him. They don’t even stick around for the bachelor party!

Before long, disaster strikes again: they’re taken to the edge of the Discworld by ocean currents (every Flat Earther’s worst nightmare!), and nearly topple over the edge. They’re caught by the Circumfence (definitely Pratchett’s cleverest pun in the whole book), a huge net that was installed to catch anything that washed off the Discworld. A sea troll finds them and takes them in, before promptly handing them over to the Krullians. This new group is seeking to discover the sex of the Great A’Tuin (the turtle on whose back the whole Discworld rests, remember?). They’re very concerned about the possibility of the Great A’Tuin running into another giant space turtle, naturally, so they want to assess what the reaction of the turtle might be based on its sex (if it’s a boy turtle and it runs into another boy turtle, for instance, they might fight, spelling certain doom for everyone in the Discworld).



The Krullians are planning to launch a two-person capsule over the edge of the disc, and they decide to offer Rincewind and Twoflower to the God of Fate in sacrifice, to ensure the voyage’s success. In the end, however, Twoflower ends up joining the mission in the capsule, and Rincewind escapes… only to fall right over the edge, anyway.

The story quite neatly segues into the beginning of The Light Fantastic, so they can be read as a single novel, but I didn’t continue on with it – I’ve had enough fun for the moment! Nonetheless, I can definitely appreciate how well The Colour Of Magic sets up the Discworld series; Pratchett left a lot of interesting threads dangling, and I can understand the reader’s desperation to tug at them a little and see what happens. The series reached thirty-two installments, and sold over 20 million copies around the world, leading it to become one of the most popular and celebrated series in English literature. But what’s weird is that most die-hard Pratchett fans insist that The Colour Of Magic isn’t his finest work, and claim that it really undersells his talent. Perhaps I did myself a disservice by not reading on, but hey – there’s only so many hours in a day, and this gal has a whole list of great books to get through!

Pratchett said that The Colour Of Magic was “written in protest”, and he intended to satirise earlier fantasy novels. He loved fantasy, but found pre-1990s work contained “too many dark lords, too much lack of thought”. I’d say he was pretty successful in that endeavour; he made a lot of sharp jabs at cliches and tropes of the genre, like the stereotypical revealing outfits worn by female characters, the ridiculousness of attempting to ride a dragon, and – in a style quite reminiscent of Don Quixote – the unbelievable baseless “quests” of protagonists and their sidekicks. This has led some critics to argue that you really need to be a fan of fantasy to understand and fully appreciate The Colour Of Magic (while, in his later books, Pratchett satirised the real world, which was more accessible for readers outside the usual genre market). I would argue the opposite is true. I think The Colour Of Magic is perfect for people who are normally skeptical of fantasy, because it pokes fun of all the cliches that scare or annoy us. It’s like Pratchett is saying to us: “See? It’s not all bad!”.



Naturally, given its popularity, there’s a screen adaptation: a two-parter made for television that combines The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic. A few of the stars will be very familiar to fantasy fans, with Sean Austin (Samwise Gamgee from Lord Of The Rings) playing Twoflower, and Christopher Lee playing Death. Off-screen, the Discworld books have also been adapted into graphic novels and computer games, the perfect formats to capture a new generation of interested readers.

On the whole, I had much the same reaction to The Colour Of Magic as I did The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which is really not surprising given their similarities in form and tone. It was a fun little romp, a great read to take one’s mind off their troubles and the real world collapsing around our ears, a great moment of escapism with clever parody and satire thrown in to keep it sharp. I’d recommend you give this one a go if you’re not normally into fantasy and you want to give it a try without committing to a doorstop novel that will languish on your bedside table for months.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Colour Of Magic:

  • “When you need to laugh and enjoy the absurd. What better place than the back of a huge turtle? The elephants are also useful.” – Morris C. Johnson
  • “So much fun – it’s what you would get if Douglas Adams wrote Lord Of The Rings.” – Jeremy Parker
  • “I beseech thee. Please release the great Terry Pratchet so that he may delivery us from the stinking, fetid, over commercialized and over politicized, literature which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre has become. Please let Rincewind show the way to incompetent hero want-to-be thieves how to survive and escape. Please let the great Captain Sam show those who have aspirations of leading villages to become empires, how to lead people. Please let PreditaX show young teenage upstart witches with intelligence and wisdom years beyond them, the true colour of magic. Thank you for hearing my prayers.” – Reghu
  • “This book had words in it. Some, when in a particular order were very humorous.” – Chester J
  • “I ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT COLOR IT WAS!!!!!” – Lord Eagle Death Club
  • “Given that this book has spawned over three dozen sequels, I should have suspected it would be less Tolkien and more Piers Anthony. The stock review is that it’s what might happen if Douglas Adams had written fantasy. Except it’s not very funny, and not very good. Might I have enjoyed this had I read it as a teenager? Maybe. But I’m not. It starts out only slightly dumb, but gets worse with every page. And the ending is just terrible. Boring, unfunny, and utterly pointless. Seriously, seriously awful.” – Don.


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