The Light Fantastic, Pratchett’s second Discworld novel, cleaves closely to the model of The Colour of Magic in many ways but with notable improvements in most respects other than the amount of dragons. The one big difference is the plot, of which there was virtually none in TCoM. Nobody is award anything prizes for The Light Fantastic’s plot but there is something along the lines of one, namely the need to stop the world from ending.
Who doesn’t want to see the world’s fate rest on the shoulders of an utterly inept wizard, a suicidally optimistic tourist, and the world’s oldest barbarian hero?
The book’s charm lies in the mix of cheerful, wild imagination and sharp, thoughtful commentary. It reads well enough if ignoring one of those aspects, but an appreciation of both are needed for the best experience. The imagination jumps out at you. Druids pilot stones across the sky as they take them to great stone circle computers. Magical shops migrate the universe. An orangutan runs the University library in the introduction of what would be one of Pratchett’s greatest secondary characters, along with said world’s oldest barbarian hero, Cohen the Barbarian. There are some great lines:
‘I’m a firm believer in reincarnation. What would you like to come back as?’
‘I don’t want to go,’ said Rincewind firmly.
The old shaman said carefully, “You didn’t just see two men go through upside down on a broomstick, shouting and screaming at each other, did you?” The boy looked at him levelly. “Certainly not,” he said. The old man heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness for that,” he said. “Neither did I.”
It has killer scenes like Rincewind and Twoflower visiting (the wizard and tourist for those who don’t know) visiting Death’s house, where Twoflower teaches Death how to play card games. Or Cohen rescuing a virgin sacrifice until his back gives out halfway through.
And this is where we’re hitting the commentary. Most of it is commentary on fantasy, and in particular swords & sorcery, but there’s a bit leaking onto humanity simply because those genres are about humanity. Part of what makes Cohen so enthralling is that while he has the confidence and swagger of a barbarian hero, he also has a lot of the frailty and associated lack of confidence and swagger that comes with age. It gives the book depth as much as it gives Cohen humour and charisma.
There’s other places where we start to see Pratchett the satirist going through his warm up stretches. The druids. The mobs that greet the possible end of the world. The wizards’ reaction to one of their number seizing power through all the wrong ways.
The Light Fantastic still feels a little thin in places, in need of a stronger subplot and more twists. Its appeal lies in liking the characters and seeing people riff on swords & sorcery and humanity. But, for those who like those things, it remains a strong book, all the stronger for revisiting after being through the Discworld before.