One of the fascinating things about reading Pratchett’s career as a whole is that you get to see where he had an idea, maybe didn’t quite like what he did with it or saw other possibilities, and therefore did it again. Sourcery is a prime example, and an enjoyable read in its own right too.
Sourcery is the tale of Coin, born the eighth son of an eight son of an eight son. By the laws of Discworld, the eight son of an eight son is a wizard, and the eight son of one such is a Sourcerer – not just a wizard who uses magic, but an actual source of magic himself. There hadn’t been one on the Disc for a long, long time, as their tendency to reshape reality nearly destroyed the whole thing, leading wizards to forbid sexual relations to ensure no such could be born. Coin’s father, hounded by the wizards for falling in love and having children, decides to shape Coin’s destiny so that he takes the father’s revenge.
Got that? In the middle of that is poor old Rincewind, trying once again to
save civilisation stay alive. The only things he’s got on his side are an opinionated hat, a barbarian hero who’s actually a grocer’s son, and a hairdresser who’s actually a barbarian hero.
Riotous behaviour ensues.
Anyway, in a lot of ways, Sourcery feels like a mash up of The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites in terms of ideas. It has The Light Fantastic’s riffing on Armageddon scenarios and barbarians mixed with Equal Rites‘ use of the idea of the young inheriting a wizard’s staff, power, and burdens. The result is a book that very much lives in conversation with the author’s other works.
I’m not sure that’s to its favour in terms of the comparisons it evokes. It doesn’t help that while The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites contained scene-stealing characters who deservedly went on to be titans of the world, nobody introduced in Sourcery is on that level. There’s a lot of decent new characters, but none that rise above the others. Conina was probably my favourite, but that’s probably because I like hot kickass women. She never got much depth. Njel was an interesting idea that didn’t quite land. The Grand Vizier was metaphorically and literally a hatstand. The wizards were, well, wizards. And while Sir Pterry says he learnt plotting while writing Sourcery, it’s not a fantastic plot.
Which means that Sourcery come down to the ideas, the jokes, and the individual scenes.
And there are some good ones. But when I start to type about one to tell you how fantastic it is, a little voice in me goes “but it’s not that great”. And part of that’s me comparing things to the books that came before. The scenes in which the wizards realise that the utopia of magic ushered in by a Sourcerer is becoming a nightmare are very good, the highlight of the book. It’s unfortunate they do not happen to the characters we’re meant to care about. There are lots of fun scenes though. The burning of the library is my favourite, but Conina has a lot of good action scenes, and Rincewind had a lot of good bitterness about being anywhere near them.
Sourcery is a fun read. But it struggles to be more. In many ways it was Pratchett’s most ambitious book to that point; the biggest cast, the most plot strands (one of them would get expanded on in Good Omens). He cast a satirical eye at some of Sword & Sorcery’s exoticist stereotypes he’d done relatively little with, and some of the sexist ones with Conina the barbarian hairdresser, making it the most ambitious in that respect too. I don’t think he quite nailed the landings but the attempts themselves were something. And in a way, I think perhaps he was bored with the playgrounds of Sword & Sorcery parody as he rarely returned afterwards. Perhaps that had something to do with it too.
As such, I must say that Sourcery is probably best enjoyed as part of the Discworld’s arc, knowing everything that came before and would come after. But it is a good book in its own right.