I feel guilty for disliking The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett. I feel guilty because I was in the audience of one of Terry Pratchett’s panels at The NY Comic Con this year, and Pratchett seemed incredibly sweet and highly intelligent. Sean Astin was the main feature of the panel and he was hugely enthusiastic about Pratchett’s work. Everyone in the audience seemed to be in the Pratchett fandom. So I gave The Color of Magic a try, and now I’ve given it’s sequel, The Light Fantastic a try, and all I’m walking away with is a resounding shrug. The Discworld series is a fantasy answer to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (which, for the record, I adore), yet somehow, for me, it didn’t quite work. And I feel awful about that.
I don’t idly mention Adams’ work. Both stories have similar construction, there’s the bumbling straight man who has been thrown into a world he knows nothing about (Adams’ Arthur Dent vs. Pratchett’s Twoflower), his narcissistic friend (Zaphod Beeblebrox vs. Rincewind), and the important item he must travel with (a towel vs. the luggage). Both books have the same dry British wit. Both books poke fun and the silliness of their genre while celebrating it. So many similarities, yet I found myself struggling to maintain interest in The Light Fantastic, which was never a problem for any of the Hitchhiker books.
First, a little bit more about this book. Twoflower is a tourist being guided through Discworld by Rincewind, a wizard who was expelled from University because of his inability to retain any spells. One spell from the Octavo, a powerful magical book, is hiding in his head, thus, he has no room for any more. Meanwhile, Rincewind’s former classmates discover that Discworld will soon crash into a huge red star unless all 8 spells from the Octavo are read. This leads the wizards on a hunt across Discworld to kill Rincewind and obtain the knowledge in his mind. On the way, Rincewind and Twoflower are joined by Cohen the Barbarian, a toothless, elderly hero, Bethan, a sacrificial virgin, and Twoflower’s luggage, a loyal, homicidal trunk made of sapient pearwood, with the tendency to eat any villains giving Twoflower a hard time. The great thing about Pratchett is that there is a laugh on every page, the only problem is that I had no great desire to read any of them.
I kept wondering to myself as I struggled through The Light Fantastic, why it was boring me so. I still can’t quite figure it out, there were plenty of elements I should have loved, but it just kept being “meh” after “meh.” It could just be that I’m old and jaded, but barring that as an excuse, I’m going to blame the characters. Twoflower is oddly loveable, he never notices when their lives are in mortal danger, he’s child-like in his awe of the sights and sounds around him. Rincewind, on the other hand, is old and bitter, when he becomes Twoflower’s guide he has every intention of cheating him out as much gold as he can. I think the main problem I had with the book is that we see much of the story through Rincewind’s eyes, and Rincewind is an unlikeable character. Now, much of the fun of the book comes from seeing Rincewind get punished for his misconduct, but it would have been more interesting to see this punishment played out from Twoflower’s perspective. It’s less enjoyable to see it from the perspective of a character I don’t want to read about.
The other problem I had with the book, is that there didn’t seem to be an underlying purpose. The fun thing about Hitchhiker, is that Adams strips away all the self-seriousness that science fiction is often guilty of, and replaces it with silliness. Instead of asking big questions, and pondering the meaning of the universe, he lets us know that we should ponder no more, the answer is 42! In The Light Fantastic, there is a vague theme that underlies the plot about creating your own destiny vs. giving into fate. There’s witty wordplay, there’s satire, but there’s nothing that makes me think that this is the great spoof of the fantasy genre that I was hoping it would be.
Unfortunately, I did not like The Light Fantastic, however, it was clear from Pratchett’s reception at Comic Con that there are plenty who do. Even as I finish this review I can’t help but feel that I’m wrong, that maybe if I had given the Discworld series a chance when I was younger I may have fallen in love with the books. I also can’t help but think that the book suffered from my constant comparisons to the Hitchhiker series, since I just kept thinking about how much more enjoyable I found those books. I won’t be returning to the Pratchett catalog for some time, however, my dislike of The Light Fantastic will likely not prove strong enough to keep me away forever. I’m always willing to give an author a few chances, especially when their books came so close to being something I could have loved. All in all, I’m very sorry Mr. Pratchett, I hope I like your next book better.