We’re back again for more Terry Pratchett Book Club, and this time we’ll do a little jig because we’re coming to the end of our first book! Which probably calls for a cake, or a party, but this is a book club, so we’ll read instead.
We’ve come to the final section of The Colour of Magic, “Close to the Edge”. In this moment, it’s meant rather literally…
The Arch-astronomer of Krull is speaking with Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos, asking if he is the greatest craftsman on the Disc. Dactylos is reticent to agree because every time he makes some grand work, he is paid but simultaneously punished—his eyes taken, a hand cut off, held in prison. The Arch-astronomer of Krull had him build a fish of bronze (a ship) to traverse the cosmos in exchange for letting him keep his life, but he lied, and kills him with an arrow to the chest. The people of Krull are preparing for a launch and need sacrifices. In the meantime, Rincewind and Twoflower are stuck on a boat that’s about to sail off the edge of the world.
They are rescued by Tethis, a sea troll—their boat has hit the Circumfence, and the troll is taking them to his home. Once there, they are given some vul nut wine and Tethis explains that the Circumfence is owned by the Kingdom of Krull, which catches things in this net that are about to fall off the rim of the world; when they do, the kingdom keeps those things, including the people, which they turn into slaves. Tethis himself is also their slave and must now bring Rincewind and Twoflower to them as well. Rincewind insists that he’d rather go over the edge of the world than be a slave, but Tethis shows him the edge, and he abruptly reconsiders. Twoflower is fascinated, however, and wants to know more about what lays beyond. The sea troll explains that he fell off another world and passed by many more before arriving at the Circumfence and becoming a slave of Krull.
Rincewind thinks to overpower Tethis the next day, but they can’t, and a flyer is sent to pick them up—a transparent lens being maneuvered by wizards and hydrophobes. They believe that Rincewind is a very powerful wizard given all that he has survived, and demand his compliance. Marchesa, a wizard of the fifth level, keeps Ajandurah’s Wand of Utter Negativity on him. They are brought to Krull and greeted by Garhartra, the Guestmaster, who is meant to make their stay as pleasant as possible. He informs them that they will be sacrificed in the morning, due to the desires of a particularly irate god who requested them specifically. Rincewind is spoken to by the frog in his pocket (the one he rescued from plunging off the edge of the Disc), and finds that the frog had been serving as a vessel for the Lady, the one who won the game game earlier on in the book.
The Lady is Luck, of course, though her name should not be spoken out loud by anyone who wishes to invoke her. The god set against Rincewind and Twoflower is Fate, who is aggravated with them both; he made a bargain with the people of Krull to have them sacrificed to smile on their voyage sending two travelers over the edge of the Disc in a vessel to determine the sex of the Great A’Tuin. The Lady lets Rincewind know that she can aid them by giving them the smallest chance, but making that chance work in their favor is up to them. In that moment, Garhartra reenters to fetch them, and his spell from earlier wears off, resulting in him getting hit in the head with a bottle of sea grape wine. Rincewind and Twoflower make a break for it. Death and Fate have a chat about the duo as they find themselves in a room full of stars and depictions of the universe, holding two space suits for the travelers Krull is intending to send over the edge.
The two chelonauts meant to wear the space suits show up and attempt to speak to them, but Rincewind and Twoflower knock them both unconscious. As the two intrepid travelers are expected to emerge in the suit, it’s clear that Rincewind and Twoflower must don them in their stead if they don’t want to be caught. They head out to the arena where the Krullians are awaiting the sacrifice and launch. Just as the Arch-astronomer realizes something is amiss and plans to do something about it, a great monster appears, and he has to fight the thing off. Once it’s vanquished in flame, only the Luggage remains behind (it had been eaten by the monster). The Arch-astronomer tells the magicians to have at it, and they all begin firing spells at Luggage, creating a concentration of magic that has not been seen since the Mage Wars. The Luggage survives that onslaught, reaches Twoflower, and opens to reveal Tethis.
They make for the ship to avoid capture, but it begins taking off. Rincewind thinks they should get out, but Twoflower is mesmerized by the idea of new worlds. Rincewind panics, and the Luggage dives after them as they launch… Rincewind wakes up in a tree on the rim. Death is there, only it isn’t really Death, it’s one of his minions, Scrofula. But before he can end the misfit with his scythe, a branch snaps and sends Rincewind plummeting through space.
Book Club Chat
This section is less based in parody than the previous two, and I’m always glad for it because Pratchett spends more time playing with language in this section and his prose just shines. There are also a lot of great worldbuilding concepts that we’re introduced to like the Rimbow, and Ghlen Livid (which is the best possible way of mispronouncing Glenlivet scotch, and the description is fit to match it), and the concept of dehydrated water, and hydrophobes—which are maybe my favorite kind of magic-users, if only for the sheer ridiculousness of the concept.
The descriptions of Tethis is the first part of this segment that always really grabs me (although this whole section of the book is very much my jam altogether). “It’s mouth opened with a little crest of foam, and shut again in exactly the same way that water closes over a stone.” The idea that a sea troll would change in size due to tides. So much of building a fantasy world is about what you choose to explain versus what you don’t, but Pratchett is particularly good at making the most out of details. Tethis is proof of that every time he shows up—particularly in the Luggage carting him all the way to Krull as a great big puddle of water.
Also, it’s kind of “dad joke” territory, but I adore Pratchett milking how often people say “here on the edge” when they’re trying to indicate how rough things are living on the literal edge of the world. It’s a very 80s action film kinda line, which would have been particularly timely when the book came out, but it’s still hilarious.
This is the first part of the book that really brings up how common slavery is on the Disc, and while I think it can come off a bit cavalier in places, there is an importance to how Pratchett treats it as commonplace—as it is a common part of Earth’s history, it must be common on the Discworld in order to be effective as satire. He’s not at a point in his overall narrative where he’s going to devote a great deal of time to dissecting that issue, but he also doesn’t shy away from it. We see it in several forms here, from the slaving ship to the many slaves that Krull uses to do their bidding. Even the death of Dactylos is bound up in servitude, the life of a master craftsman defined and ultimately ended by people who wanted to possess him and his work. It’s ugly in its mundanity, which is very much where Pratchett’s implicit criticisms live.
The scene between Fate and Death might be my favorite in the whole book? Pretty much anything with Death is my favorite because Pratchett gives him such a workable wisdom—it’s impossible not to be comforted by his presence. There’s also the imagery that Pratchett manages to work into scenes with Death that just seize me every time. “His words drifted across Death’s scythe and split tidily into two ribbons of consonants and vowels.” If I had a book full of huggable sentences, that one would be there. (It has a sharp instrument in it but it’s still huggable, okay, it’s my book, I make the rules.)
This is the week where I remember to bring up the fact that Pratchett capitalizes Death’s pronouns the same way that Christianity (and I believe other monotheistic religions) does for God. I have a lot of thoughts about this and how this plays into Pratchett’s view of the universe, but it’s better to get into those once we we’re deeper into the Death-centered books, so we’ll get there when we get there.
There’s a particular spectrum of delight to the satire we get in the depiction of Twoflower and his role as a tourist. In particular, this quote: “In an instant he became aware the the tourist was about to try his own peculiar brand of linguistics, which meant that he would speak loudly and slowly in his own language.” We all know one of those people (especially if we’re English-speakers because it’s a very English-speaker-thing to do), and it’s embarrassing enough to be standing next to them when they try this method without having to worry about human sacrifice like poor Rincewind. But there’s a clear-eyed optimism to Twoflower that Pratchett chose to imbue him with that I find myself more appreciative of this time around. Not because I think that more people should put optimism in the place of forethought and rationality, but because plenty of tourists do not venture away from home with so much good will and faith in others. It’s a cliché that tourists are often taken advantage of, sure, but that particular problem never dims Twoflower’s need to learn and experience the world for himself. He is not a being of chaos, but he’s happy to let chaos take him where it may—because the very best travelers have to adopt that sensibility.
I have a soft spot for the fact that this book technically fakes out the ending twice, once by having the words THE END in big block letters and still continuing the story beyond that point, and then again because it ends on a cliffhanger so unapologetically that you just have to shrug your shoulders and move immediately to the next volume. But I have a lot of questions about how the publisher felt about that choice when confronted with that plan—was there pushback against the thought, or were they happy to go along in good faith? Or did they have a hand in shaping the books that way?
It has been pointed out (here and all over the internet) that Pratchett himself said that The Colour of Magic was not the ideal introduction to the Discworld series. While I may agree as a fan (and for the more functional issue that very few other Disc novels follow this format), I still enjoyed starting at the beginning for the sake of another vantage point—experiencing a writer in the earlier days of their craft, how they hone their voice and skills over time. From a craft perspective, it’s very enjoyable to start at the beginning, to see what Pratchett started out with before discovering where he would end up. Also, I think there’s an enjoyment to be had in having the same experience readers had when the series started. And having completed the exercise, I’m still glad to have made that choice.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Getting back to the hydrophobes, I have a bit of an obsession with how Rincewind describes their creation as an imposition of loathing, the idea that they can’t simply hate water because hate is an attracting force like love.
- We get a little odd Star Trek shoutout in this section with the “boldly go” joke about the chelonauts.
- On the one hand, it can be trying as an author to come up with unique visual descriptions to entice readers. On the other hand, if you’re Terry Pratchett, sometimes you write things like: “One of them in fact turned into something best left undescribed and slunk off into some dismal dimension.” And that’s a glorious use of your verbal powers.
- I do feel for Death’s minions. Scrofula has a rough gig, man.
Next time: Tune in for the first segment of The Light Fantastic. I’ll probably get to adding the Pratchettisms section for that book! And we’ll go through roughly a quarter of the story, ending on “He could feel the dry rustling right in front of his nose… He ran away.”