Category: Pratchett Terry

Book notes: Terry Pratchett and Evan Mandery

Terry Pratchett, Dodger (2012)

Terry Pratchett visits Victorian London for his latest book. Dodger, a young sewer scavenger, sees a girl escaping from a coach and saves her from being beaten by the two men she was travelling with. This incident is witnessed by Charles Dickens, ‘Charlie’, who becomes a friend to Dodger, and social reformer Henry Mayhew, who shelters Simplicity, as the girl comes to be known. Several events increase Dodger’s notoriety, including his exposing the truth about Sweeney Todd, and he finds himself moving in loftier circles. He also discovers that there are people after Simplicity and an ingenious plan is needed to thwart them – an ideal job for someone like Dodger…

Pratchett brings the atmosphere of his London to life, conveying not just the difficulties faced by his characters through poverty, but also the ways they might survive (or not – his portrayal of Sweeney Todd as a damaged individual is especially vivid). The plot of Dodger doesn’t quite succeed: the antagonists remain too shadowy to have a full dramatic impact. But running through the novel are themes of pragmatism and appearances being deceptive, and here Dodger shines. Charlie understands that Dodger may be able to investigate events in ways which are valuable but not open to others. Dodger himself sees the manoeuvres of politics as not being much different from those of the street. And deceptive appearances are the foundation of the plan to save Simplicity, which gives Pratchett’s novel its fine finale.

(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)

Some other reviews of Dodger: Things Mean a Lot; Simon Appleby for Bookgeeks.


Evan Mandery, Q: A Love Story (2011)

An (unnamed) New York academic and writer meets one Quentina Elizabeth Deveril (also known as Q), and promptly falls in love. The pair of them start dating, and find they’re just right for each other. Wedding bells look set to chime… until our man receives a note from himself, asking him to meet for a meal. He goes there, to find his sixty-year-old self, who has apparently travelled back in time to warn the younger him against marrying Q. The two of them, his future self says, will have a son who dies young from an inherited illness, and that will destroy Q. The protagonist decides to call the wedding off, and moves on with his life – but different future selves keep coming back in time to dispense their advice.

Q is Evan Mandery’s third novel; perhaps the first thing one notices is that it’s written in a rather mannered way that pushes it to one side of reality. This technique leads to some fine comic moments, such as the narrator’s and Q’s date on a bizarre miniature golf course, or the time they go on a protest march against a construction project, dressed in vegetable costumes. It also gives the protagonist’s exchanges with his older selves an effectively deadpan tone. But the same style sometimes leaves events without a full emotional grounding – sometimes Q reads too much like a joke.

The narrative thread of Q is full of digressions on subjects ranging from Sigmund Freud’s study of eels to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; these illustrate the book’s theme of what-ifs and alternatives. As time goes on, our narrator has cause to reflect on what’s important, in life and history; Mandery shows how the most important things are not always what we think they are at the time. The main plot runs like a whirlpool, as the visitations from time travellers become more and more frequent, and the novel heads ever closer to absurdity – until the ending, which is pitched just right, and is really quite affecting.

Any Cop?: Mandery’s style walks the line between annoying and charming, and doesn’t always stay on the right side. But, once you get into the swing of Q, it works. It’s worth a look.

(This review also appears at Bookmunch.)

Some other reviews of Q: A Case for Books; Glorified Love Letters; Raging Bibliomania.

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth (2012)

On the face of it, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter may not be a particularly obvious writing partnership; their distinctive brands of comic fantasy and hard science fiction might seem incompatible. But, then again, Pratchett’s interest in science often comes through in his work; and both writers share an ability to create grand fantastic visions – whether Baxter’s evocations of the vastnesses of space and time, or the large-scale comic set-pieces which crown Pratchett’s best novels. So the prospect of a co-written work from them is intriguing, and now we have The Long Earth, the first novel in a projected duology– though the end result is more frustrating than anything.

A few years hence, more or less everyone has access to a ‘stepper’, a device that enables travel through the chain of parallel worlds known as the Long Earth. There are certain practical concerns – worlds can only be accessed in sequence; iron cannot be carried between them; and each ‘step’ induces fifteen minutes of debilitating nausea. Moreover, most of the parallel worlds are empty, minor climatic and geographic variations on our own prehistoric Earth. But none of this stops people making the journey between worlds, to exploit the resources there, or to start their lives anew.

It takes a while for The Long Earth to coalesce, as a number of plot strands present themselves at the outset, and it’s not clear initially which will be the main focus. But it’s quite exhilarating, first to begin the story at a point where the notion of parallel worlds and the stepping technology are well established (and, even though Pratchett and Baxter do fill in the back story, they don’t especially dwell on it), then to have this sense of a raw story coming together as the pages turn.

The novel eventually settles on a main narrative thread, concerning Joshua Valienté, one of a select few able to step between worlds unaided and with no ill effects. The existence of this ability is unknown to most, but not to Lobsang, a supercomputer who claims to have once been a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic. The ‘transEarth Insititute’ enlists Joshua to be Lobsang’s escort on an airship voyage to the far reaches of the Long Earth, where they discover the threat that will presumably become the key focus of the second volume.

In terms of its authors’ other work, The Long Earth – as Adam Roberts rightly suggests in the Guardian – is much closer to Baxter’s usual territory than Pratchett’s. There’s not much humour in the novel, and what there is – such as the comic-cut biker nun, Sister Agnes – feels somewhat out of place. But the book’s interplay of fantasy and science fiction is interesting; structurally, the Long Earth could be seen as a scientific riposte to the traditional fantasy multiverse – steppers have no prospect of a swashbuckling adventure through outlandish worlds, just a systematic trudge through near-identical Earths. (Joshua and Lobsang also discover a rational origin for the idea of elves and trolls.)

The thing is, though, that – almost by definition – this is not a set-up that lends itself naturally to drama: there’s nothing much for characters to act against , and most problems can be solved simply by stepping to the next Earth. The novel never manages to find enough drama to compensate for this: Lobsang controls the central journey to such a degree that Joshua’s main function as protagonist is to witness rather than act; and the subplots exploring other aspects of the Long Earth recede too far into the background to carry enough weight in the book as a whole.

Overall, I’m inclined to agree with Paula at The Broke and the Bookish that The Long Earth feels more like a beginning than a tale that stands alone; there’s too strong a sense of pieces being moved into place for a game to be played out in the next volume. Pratchett and Baxter explore some interesting ideas of the different paths terrestrial life might have taken, and how modern humans might respond to vast new wildernesses; but the book has really only just got going as it ends.

(A shorter version of this review appears at We Love This Book.)

Terry Pratchett’s website
Stephen Baxter’s website
Some other reviews of The Long Earth: The Literary Omnivore; Baltimore Reads; Birth of a New Witch.

Book notes: Musso, Pratchett, Matar

Guillaume Musso, Where Would I Be Without You? (2009/11)

Art-crime officer Martin Beaumont is on the trail of master thief Archibald McLean, who has just stolen a Van Gogh from the Musée d’Orsay; but the investigation leads Martin inexorably back towards Gabrielle, the American student with whom he had an intense-but-brief love affair thirteen years earlier. Musso’s novel (translated from the French by Anna Brown and Anna Aitken) veers rather towards the corny (McLean, for example, is the kind of crook of flies helicopters and has an ex-MI6 officer, who ‘look[s] like an English governess’ but is skilled in martial arts and marksmanship, as a bodyguard/henchwoman), but sill holds out the promise of an enjoyable read.

The problem is that the book falls between two stools: it’s over-the-top enough to dilute the exploration of emotional issues, but not so much that the novel can really take off as a romp. Where Would I Be Without You? moves through several different genres – crime caper, love story, supernatural fiction – but they don’t quite gel. The novel does have its strong moments (repetition in the prose is used to considerable effect in some passages), but, for the most part, it’s disappointing.

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith (2006)

My experience of the later Discworld novels has tended to be that they’re OK, but don’t match up to the best of the series – not in terms of their humour, conception, or the incisiveness with which they treat their themes. Wintersmith continues that trend. This is Pratchett’s fourth YA Discworld novel, and the third to centre on young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Her predicament n the present book is that, having joined in on impulse with a traditional dance to usher in winter, Tiffany now finds herself the object of the winter elemental’s affections – and winter it will stay if she can’t find a way to get the rightful story back on track.

As the last part of that synopsis may suggest, one of Wintersmith’s main concerns – as so often with Discworld books – is how stories impinge on the way we perceive the world. Pratchett has a story literally affecting the lives and the world in the way that Tiffany has become caught up in the story of the wintersmith and the Summer Lady; but the theme is also there in the way that, although witchcraft is shown to be more about things like observation than magic per se, it’s important for witches to cultivate an air of mystique, because that’s what the people need their witches to have.

Pratchett’s treatment of this is not uninteresting, but… it doesn’t have the spark of his best work. And the disparate elements of Wintersmith don’t seem to me to come together into a successful whole. The Nac Mac Feegle (the warrior-like fairy folk who have become Tiffany’s ‘protectors’ over the course of the series) feel rather awkwardly inserted into the story; and, despite being the main comic-cut characters, don’t raise much more than the odd smile. Indeed, most of the book doesn’t raise much more than the odd smile, which is a long way from the laugh-out-loud humour of earlier Pratchett works. So, Wintersmith: yes, it’s OK, but… but OK isn’t what made me fall in love with Terry Pratchett’s writing.

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006)

Suleiman is nine years old in 1979, when he gains the first hint that there’s more to his father Faraj’s life than he had thought; the boy believes his father to be away on business, but instead sees Faraj in Triploi, entering an unfamiliar building in Martyrs’ Square. In the months that follow, Faraj’s political activities bring him increasingly to the attention of the secret police, but the young Suleiman has little understanding of what is happening to his family.

The ‘country of men’ of the novel’s title is essentially the adult political world on whose fringes Suleiman comes to hover (occasionally crossing over them). Matar uses the boy’s perspective very well; the fact that we comprehend more than Suleiman can does not diminish the power of those moments when the brutal realities of the adult world intrude upon his childhood. And the way Suleiman’s life is so profoundly affected by his encounter with the ‘country of men’ finds something of a counterpart with the experiences of his mother Najwa, who was herself brought into the ‘country of men’ at the age of fourteen, when forced to marry Faraj, and has subsequently turned to alcoholism. In the Country of Men is an interesting debut, which now makes me want to check out Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, from which I heard him read earlier this year.

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