The Discworld Reread: Book 16
This has always been one of my favourite Discworld books and, at this point in the reread, I think it’s categorically the favourite. Pratchett uses other books to riff on the arts – filmmaking (Moving Pictures) and opera (Maskerade), for example – but this homage to rock music affectionately skewers its pretensions, while maintaining a sense of the deep, raw, primal magic beneath it. Our hero is Imp y Celyn, a young bard from the rainy kingdom of Llamedos who dedicates his life to music in the midst of an argument with his intransigent father. Making vows like this is dangerous on the Discworld, because there’s always the danger something is watching and waiting for just such an opportunity to arise. And, when Imp (whose name roughly translates as ‘Small Bud of the Holly’) arrives in Ankh-Morpork, he finds himself fetching up in a strange old music shop, where he meets his destiny in the form of a very special guitar.
Imp isn’t alone on his journey. While failing to enrol at the Musicians’ Guild, he meets two fellow wannabes: the horn-playing dwarf Glod, and the rock-thumping troll Lias. The three chums decide to play a discreet series of gigs in the hope of raising money for their Guild membership, but nothing goes quite to plan. Thanks to the presence of Imp’s new guitar, something seems to be working through them – something that comes from an instinctive, urgent, addictive place that none of them ever imagined could exist. They’re playing music they’ve never even dared to dream of. And soon it becomes clear that they need to think about their image: Lias changes his name to the craggier and more impressive Cliff; and Imp allows his name to be translated into Buddy. And as for the band? Hold onto your hats, Ankh-Morpork: the Band With Rocks In has arrived…
This was music that had not only escaped but had robbed a bank on the way out. It was music with its sleeves rolled up and its top button undone, raising its hat and grinning and stealing the silver. It was music that went down to the feet by way of the pelvis without paying a call on Mr Brain.
Meanwhile, Death is having a bad day. He’s had them before and, like last time, he decides he just needs a bit of a break. And this time he’s going to do it properly – learn how to truly forget from the experts in the field: the Klatchian Foreign Legion. Unlike last time, though, the world isn’t left untended in his absence; because this time, Death has an heir: someone to step in. The daughter of his daughter Ysabel and his apprentice Mort: Death’s unlikely granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit, is currently a lady boarder at a very elite girls’ school in Quirm. The problem is that Susan’s late parents were very keen to protect her from the truth of her identity. She has been brought up to have a complete absence of fancy or foible. She likes logic, certainty, rationality. And she certainly isn’t liable to believe a skeletal rat when it comes, with the help of a sardonic raven, to announce that her grandfather has gone missing and she has to step up to help with the family business. (I love Susan deeply: with her misplaced pragmatism and her permanent state of exasperation, she might well be my favourite character in the series.) Unfortunately for Susan, memories are beginning to stir in the depths of her mind – a black house; a curious swing; a clock whose hands don’t move. And a white horse called Binky, who just happens to be waiting in the school stables.
At the age of sixteen, both Susan and Imp / Buddy have found themselves thrown into situations beyond their control, engineered by occult forces, isolating them even further from anyone who understand. So far, so history of adolescence. And this story of self-fashioning and self-discovery blends with some classic Pratchett comedy, courtesy of the wizards of Unseen University. They are deeply affected by the compulsive new Music With Rocks In, none more so than the Dean, who begins showing a distressing tendency to grease his hair into a quiff, make strange trousers with rivets on, and rebel against the Archchancellor’s rules with all the panache of a grizzly teenager. As the music gets its claws into everyone and everything, only a few brave souls stand clear of the madness: the Archchancellor, Susan, and the Death of Rats, who must try to track down his erstwhile master Death before things get completely out of hand.
Every element of the story seems to work perfectly with the others, and Pratchett has great fun with the cliches of rock music – the groupies, the tour shirts, the wannabe band which changes their name once a day for more effect, the avaricious band managers (hello Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler; long time no see). Occasionally you feel he’s having just a bit too much fun – I swear that an entire scene was crafted just so that Pratchett could work up to the phrase ‘the grateful Death’ – but it’s a full-hearted, infectious kind of fun. There are blazing concerts, high-speed coach chases, riots, burning wheels and a very, very special motorbike. In fact, the book isn’t just a favourite of mine but evidently also of the illustrator Paul Kidby (see below). As an unrepentant Meat Loaf fan, I’m thrilled to see that both Kidby and the original book illustrator Josh Kirby have paid tribute to the classic Bat Out of Hell album cover. The whole book is joyous, over-the-top and rambunctious, rather like rock music itself, and I enjoyed it even more this time round than I did when I first read the book in my early teens. Just glorious.
A collection of wonderful illustrations by Paul Kidby inspired by the book. Lower left and right are my favourites…