One of the defining characteristics of Pratchett’s Discworld was that novels would be one thing on the surface, another below, and once you stared at them long enough you’d wonder how you ever thought one could be understood without the other. It’s in this light that I tell you that Pyramids is about nervous assassins, forthright handmaidens, intelligent camels, not so intelligent philosophers, and pyramids; and also about belief, freeing ourselves from the past, who you are vs what you do.
And, er, pyramids.
Our hero of the day is Pteppic, heir to the ancient desert kingdom of Djelibeybi and graduate of the Assassin’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork. He has distinct issues in both directions. He is not terribly keen about what you might call the bleeding edge of the Guild’s work and when he returns home to take up his crown, he finds that he’s not terribly keen on fitting the traditional mould of Djelibeybi’s monarchs either. Like many of us, he finds being educated something of a burden.
Of course, that burden is nothing compared to ruling an absolutely broke country where the high priest goes around ordering people thrown to the sacred crocodiles even after you’ve specifically said not to. That and the business with your father’s new pyramid. The largest ever…
It’ a fascinating set-up and as such, it makes me sad to say that I don’t think Sir Pterry did his strongest storytelling work here.
A lot of that’s to do with a fairly leisurely set up. Much of the opening is taken up by Pteppic’s school days at the Assassin’s Guild, a pastiche that will be very familiar to everyone who’s read Tom Brown’s Schooldays or Jennings. I love it, but it really doesn’t advance the story much at all. Then when we return to Djelibeybi, the plot slows down as we introduce multiple characters, arcs, and bits of worldbuilding. When it gets moving it’s fascinating, but for much of the book you’ve got to rely on enjoying the individual scenes.
Which will work for you depending on how you like Pratchett’s early humour, jokes about British public schools, ancient Egypt, and Greek philosophers, and ideas like mathematician camels and time building pyramids. Me, I suppose I’m happy enough, but I’m not in raptures.
I like the characters more, but it feels like their potential is hampered by the focus on other parts of the book. Pteppic’s internal confusion could have been mined more deeply. Ptraci, the handmaiden, has an intriguing awakening when presented with a wider world, but these days it doesn’t rise much above stereotype. The arguing of the family of pyramid builders is likewise entertaining but thin.
I suppose that when we come down to it, it’s a good book where the only real problem is I measure Pratchett books by the absolute bangers he laid down later on. Pyramids is an unabashed comedy that’s parodying about half a dozen things at any one time, and one with more than a little heart and thoughtfulness. Might I wish it was different? Yes, but it is probably better to enjoy the book as it is then get sour wanting something else. As a way to spend an afternoon, or a few hours on an exercise bike, Pyramids still holds up.