Monday, 9 December 2013

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 16- Soul Music

Soul Music
Corgi Press
Terry Pratchett

"But most people are rather stupid and waste their lives. Have you not seen that? Have you not looked down from the horse at a city and thought how much it resembled an ant heap, full of blind creatures who think their mundane little world is real? You see the lighted windows and what you want to think is that there must be many interesting stories behind them, but what you know is that really there are just dull, dull souls, mere consumers of food, who think their instincts are emotions and their tiny lives of more account than a whisper of wind."
"No. No, I've never thought like that."
"You may find that it helps."

I'm very fond of romanticising the early to mid nineties period of Terry Pratchett's long fantasy satire series as his golden period, and Soul Music has a great deal to do with that, even though it's not one of my favourite Discworld books. The sixteenth book in the series, it follows on from the essential, five star classic Men At Arms, where Pratchett dramatically changed the landscape of Ankh-Morpork, largest city on the Disc by establishing that the City Watch had expanded enough to get a grip on the rampant crime and corruption previously keeping the city in a state of dangerous chaos. Not only was it a landmark title in regards to the shape of this ever-growing fictional universe, but it also followed on from Small Gods in somewhat mastering the satirical elements of the series' tone, putting it to the forefront of the story without being overwhelmed by the power of the fantasy element of the Disc, as earlier novels ocassionaly did. 

Soul Music, then, if not my favourite book (for reasons I'll get to) was another step forward for Pratchett's writing as a whole in seamlessly combining its satirical elements, on the very recognizable topic of rock and roll, with a high fantasy back story somewhat reliant on previous Discworld mythology. In Soul Music, Death returns as the lead attraction, alongside his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, and unassuming aspiring musician Imp Y Celyn, who has traveled to Ankh-Morpork to seek fame and fortune. When his beloved harp is destroyed, Imp replaces it with a guitar bought from a suspiciously mysterious little shop, and with new-found band mates takes the Disc by storm through their new yet primal genre; music with rocks in.

Within merely days, The Band with Rocks In have been powered by the supernatural guitar to heights eclipsing Beatlemania, causing the citizens of the city to go crazier than usual in their obsession with this strange new sound. Susan Sto Helit, meanwhile, an incredibly intense and unwavering boarding school girl from the nearby city of Quirm, is initially distracted by her own problems. Death, the grim reaper, is in absentia, mourning the deaths of his adopted daughter Ysabell and his former protege Mort, generally wondering what the point of it all is. As a result, the curious narrative path of destiny means that Susan has started to inherit the powers of death, including walking through walls and the ability to speak in capital letters. Taking on Death's duties, Susan becomes aware of Imp Y Celyn when scheduled to attend his demise and usher him into the beyond. Instead, Imp is saved by the spirit incumbent in his guitar, and his very soul is possessed by the spirit of music with rocks in, and things really go awry.

Pratchett's loving satire to rock music is one of the most recognizable of all of his subjects, parodying and punning on numerous famous bands and figures from Buddy Holly to The Sex Pistols, all the while developing the narrative based on both real rock history (similar to Moving Pictures and the film industry) and the mythological legends surrounding. Pratchett plays on the readers' expectation of events thrown in the mix with some of his most carefully crafted mythology in the style of HP Lovecraft meets Neil Gaiman. His mythology surrounding Death isn't too complicated, but exudes an evocative tone that's helped make the character perhaps his most popular. Pratchett's achievement in blending very human, very cultural, and very funny satire on an instantly recognizable subject with the po-faced complex genre requirements of high fantasy is, to my knowledge, uniquely brilliant. 

So with that said, why is it not one of my favourite Discworld books? In certain ways it has everything. Unfortunately my problem is chiefly with one of the main characters; Susan. She is, in many ways, a powerful, independent female archetype, far more capable in the face of almost certain peril than, say Mort was in his eponymously titled book. But she's also not very likable, armed with a flat, straight-(wo)man act personality that stands in contrast to the magnetic oddness of Death himself. As a result, she is the least memorable part of the book for me despite being its lead heroine, and as a reader's viewpoint of sorts was just too bland and uninspiring. Thankfully there's a very varied supply of supporting characters, many of them reoccurring from previous novels to help prop things up and to continue Pratchett's careful but bombastic development of his fictional universe as a detailed and complicated place. Probably a great place to start if you're interested in the series but don't know where to begin.