The Discworld Reread: Book 17
Back when I first read Interesting Times, in the spring of 1998 when I was thirteen, I remember deciding that its title was misleading: this was the least interesting of all the books I’d read so far! In retrospect that was a little harsh, but it’s true that Interesting Times feels like a retrograde step after the sheer glory of Soul Music. After many books’ absence, we re-encounter the hapless Rincewind (last seen in Eric), who is snatched away from a life of desert-island contentment when Unseen University is confronted by a crisis that only he can solve. (Well, that’s the official line. The reality, as Rincewind knows only too well, is that they don’t want to risk any proper wizards.) A request has come from the mighty and secretive Counterweight Continent for ‘the Great Wizzard’ and, before you can say ‘travel insurance’, Rincewind finds himself up to the ears in a great clash of noble houses, revolution, insurrection, and some alarmingly familiar faces…
It turns out that the hitherto peaceful Counterweight Continent has been convulsed by the covert circulation of a modest little book titled What I Did On My Holidays. This provocative work claims that, beyond the mighty walls surrounding the Empire, there are not the blood-sucking ghosts and wastelands described by Imperial propaganda, but a world full of excitement and opportunity – and a place known as Ankh-Morpork, which the author visited in the company of the formidable Great Wizzard. This is revelatory stuff, in a world where everyone has contentedly occupied their given niche for centuries (even if that is the modest niche of ‘water buffalo holder’), trusting that the Empire is the centre of order and civilisation on earth. Now doubt has entered the equation and, with doubt, comes knowledge of other societies. The first, very polite, stirrings of unrest are rising in the Empire and, to Rincewind’s horror, it can all be traced back to him… and to Twoflower. the Discworld’s first tourist.
On one hand, Rincewind is desperate to get away from the Empire and its fabled city of Hunghung as quickly as possible because he doesn’t want to be connected with the Great Wizzard. On the other hand, he wants to escape because he’s just run into one of the few people who could make the current situation even worse: Cohen the Barbarian, now rechristened Genghis Cohen, at the head of his Silver Horde (a bunch of superannuated mercenaries who couldn’t physically cope with raping and pillaging even if they remembered what they were). Cohen and his men have their eye on Hunghung, guided by their softly-spoken new addition Mr Saveloy (formerly a teacher at a boys’ school and thus well trained in the art of controlling murderous barbarians). And, unfortunately for Rincewind, the passionate young members of the Red Army are equally determined to bring him to the capital. How on earth is he to survive up against the Empire’s finest soldiers and most lethal bureaucrats, led by the terrifyingly accomplished Lord Hong?
I think I felt last time, and I feel now, that the story just isn’t quite strong enough. This isn’t a plot so much as a series of gags about China (with a few Japanese elements thrown in, hopefully not just because ‘it’s all Asia, so never mind’). I probably also don’t warm to it because, fond as I am of Rincewind, I feel he’s a bit of a throwback to the days when Discworld was thinly-disguised sword and sorcery (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic seem to come from a different universe than mature Discworld novels). The same goes for Cohen, who’s a bit of a one-gag character. And, as with Small Gods, it feels like a book that’s already being left behind by the rest of the series, as Pratchett moves away from self-contained books riffing on a particular culture, with largely new characters each time, to focusing on his recurring casts in books which are driven by different themes, but which also form part of a broader overarching narrative.
Not one that I’ll be coming back to again and again, alas; but a necessary step in the series. One could argue that Rincewind has his own overarching narrative and indeed, we leave him on a cliffhanger moment that’ll be picked up again in The Lost Continent. For now, however, I can look forward to another of my absolute favourites – Maskerade, which not only brings the witches of Lancre to Ankh-Morpork, but is also one long, gloriously funny pastiche of Phantom of the Opera. I can’t wait…
Last in the series – Soul Music
Next in the series – Maskerade
The traditional Paul Kidby image, although this time I’m very restricted: Interesting Times doesn’t seem to have caught the artistic imagination in the same way as Soul Music. Here’s a detail from a painting by Kidby of Rincewind wearily enduring the Butterflies of Chaos: