Pyramids (1989): Terry Pratchett


The Discworld Reread: Book VII

The Old Kingdom of the Djel river valley has endured for millennia, governed by ancient rituals and overshadowed by its pyramids, the mighty tombs of former monarchs, which flare their power up into the night. It isn’t a place that accepts change easily. And yet, in a small act of defiance, King Teppicymon XXVII decides to send his son away to school. He’s heard that the Assassins’ Guild in Ankh-Morpork offers a fine modern education, and so young Teppic is bundled off for an improving course of etiquette, history, foreign languages and rudimentary chemistry. Oh, and learning how to ‘inhume’ people as well, of course, but it’s considered a bit vulgar to talk about that. The problem comes, however, when the King shuffles off this mortal coil mere hours after his son’s graduation exam, and Teppic is suddenly forced to confront a burning question: how on earth does one reconcile being a thoroughly modern assassin and a living god?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Teppic soon realises he has no choice in the matter. He returns to the Old Kingdom fired up with exciting ideas about feather beds and modern plumbing, only to be met with the full force of Tradition in the person of Dios, the High Priest. And it soon turns out that a kingdom as ancient as that of Djelibeybi (‘Child of the Djel’) has built up its own momentum, in which the king is little more than an unthinking cog. Restricted by the ritualistic schedule of the day, straightjacketed by the demands of a culture as mummified as its dead, Teppic desperately tries to figure out a way to take control. And, speaking of mummies, down in the embalmer’s workshop the old King isn’t all that happy with the state of things either…

All is not well in the valley of the Djel. As Teppic unwittingly upsets the established order, the entire balance of the Old Kingdom’s universe is thrown into uncertainty. The gods begin to materialise, the pyramids’ power begins to surge, and soon it becomes clear that nothing less than the fabric of reality is at stake. Teppic himself, in a moment of confused nobility, soon finds himself at large with his father’s favourite handmaiden Ptraci, a very irritable camel and several burning questions about geometry.

Pyramids is one of my favourite books in the Discworld series and I’ve read it far more frequently than most of the others I’ll be encountering in this reread. It doesn’t feature any of the usual recurring characters, but it has such a wonderful concept, riffing on Ancient Egypt, the Trojan Horse, Zeno’s theory about Achilles and the tortoise, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and tales of mummies rising from the dead. Plus, I love the glimpse we have of the Assassins’ Guild, which is basically Eton or Harrow with added caltraps and the kind of final exam which makes a PhD viva sound like a piece of cake. And Teppic is a marvellous protagonist, terribly well-meaning and polite, but at the same time rather subversive with a dash of embarrassed heroism thrown in.

Theoretically you could read any of the Discworld books as a standalone novel, but this one works better than most. If you’re looking for a way to dip in your toe, this might be a good one to try, although do bear in mind that the setting isn’t characteristic – fun as it is to discover more of the world’s cultures. It would, however, give you an excellent feel for Pratchett’s very smart and very silly British humour.

Buy the book

Last in this series – Wyrd Sisters

Paul Kidby has only done a couple of illustrations of this novel, both of Teppic, but I think he perfectly captures his good-natured resignation.

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