This is a double book review for Guards! Guards! and Good Omens. The former is by Terry Pratchett alone, while the latter is both Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. They will be spoiler free and mostly an essay on the reason I don’t enjoy Pratchett that much.
I’ve tried to read four Terry Pratchett books. I’ve only succeeded with these two. The first two failures were Going Postal and The Colour of Magic. Both had potential. Both were funny. But neither were well-written or any good. At last, I struggled through Guards! Guards! I started on Good Omens, thinking that Neil Gaiman’s influence would keep the book on track. I definitely enjoyed it more than the former, and I wonder if I should try Gaiman in another book.
My problems with Terry Pratchett books in general can be summed up in the following points:
- He has the inciting incident, or “hook”, a quarter of the way through the book
- He can’t describe anything without going into its full history, all to make a paltry joke– too many tangents
- He doesn’t make me care about the characters
- The footnotes drive me nuts– too many tangents
- Bad clarity
- Too many tangents
- Did I ever tell you about my second cousin, she fell last week into a bucket of–
Ever heard that most beginning writers start their books a page too early? I knew what that meant in theory, but I never knew how horrible it could be until I met Terry Pratchett. But he doesn’t just start a page early– he starts years early. Guards! Guards! was about a marauding dragon– or so the blurb on the back says. I wouldn’t have known had I begun the book without reading that. There was no conflict for pages and pages and pages and then, whoops, dragon’s loose! We have a story! It’s like watching a duck trying to take off with a brick tied to its leg. It struggles for a very long while, then eventually lifts off and flies laboriously into the sunset, abruptly gaining and losing altitude as it squawks for help. If anyone has stayed around long enough to watch, they might cheer. (I’m not sure ducks can carry bricks, though– ask Monty Python.)
Yes, that’s what I’m saying– Terry Pratchett is an ungainly duck with a brick tied to its leg. I think Pratchett enjoys carrying that brick around, though. I wish he had listened to his first rejection letter telling him to get to the point. This was why I didn’t finish the first two books I tried.
I’ve heard people say that Pratchett makes you care for his characters more than other humorous writers (specifically Douglas Adams) ever does. I saw no evidence for that. Perhaps if I had cared, I would have… well, cared. In Good Omens, we didn’t really need to care about the characters– being angel, demon, and Antichrist, it was never a question of their safety. There were a few instances where the characters were in danger, but I never cared. In Guards! Guards! I should have been glued to the book with fear– a dragon bearing down on the main characters, who are idly discussing million-to-one chances, and I’m bored. I tell you, I have never spent so much time listening to music as I did in between pages of that book. It was like wading through mud… with an iPod.
Now let’s get down to tangents, shall we? Descriptions, footnotes, plot– every sentence he writes is a tangent.
Before reading Pratchett, I thoroughly enjoyed the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. Stroud uses footnotes in a style similar to Pratchett’s. The difference is that Stroud uses footnotes to convey funny, irrelevant information that contrasts with the very relevant story. Pratchett uses footnotes to convey irrelevant information within a story full of irrelevant information. If Pratchett followed Stroud’s rules for footnotes, each of his books would be thirty pages long with three hundred more of footnotes. It’s like hearing a magnificent symphony played note by note, with breaks for badly played chamber music in between.
We don’t need to know all the character background right up front. More complicated histories than these have been conveyed through other means than lengthy interludes. I like summing things up into hilarious synopses as well, but I don’t feel the need to start telling the story before it even begins to give them. Pratchett is a classic example of bad editing. Victor Hugo was full of brilliant characters and brilliant stories, but he took tangents to describe things. Pratchett just takes tangents.
Good Omens was better on the tangential score, but it still looks like he has no sense of plot. There was barely any setup, badly specified character motivation (but at least there was motivation), and it was a complete anticlimax. The overlapping plot lines were confusing. Someone once said, “If it can be misunderstood, it will be.” I misunderstood almost everything in the last hundred pages of that book. You don’t know how many meanings the words “four bikers” can take upon themselves until you see four motorcyclists followed by four kids on bikes, both referred to in the same terms.
All the books have amazing potential. Any of them could be amazing to me, but none were. It’s an example of how you can have good plot and good characters and have a bad book because you can’t write.
Brevity. Empathy. More brevity. Clarity. All these things Pratchett lacks. At least he proved that characters and plot aren’t the only things that go into good stories– style counts too.