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Book review: “Soul Music” by Terry Pratchett

There is a temptation to start off this review with a pun, but no dice.  I know that I’m nowhere near as good at it as Terry Pratchett, as he shows in Soul Music, published in 1995.

For instance, the talking raven — of course, there’s a talking raven in a Terry Pratchett novel — is having a discussion with the skull on which he spends most of his time. 

The conversation concludes with the skull saying:

“Yes. Quit while you’re ahead, that’s what I say.”

Or, later, when music — in the form of an alternate universe version of rock ‘n’ roll — has infected the entire city of Anhk-Morpork, including the wizards of the Unseen University, to the point that the wizards are now wearing crepe-soled shoes (the better to dance to the music of The Band with Rocks In), the Archchancellor is aghast, saying, “Proper footwear for a wizard is pointy shoes or good stout boots.  When one’s footwear turns creepy, something’s amiss.” 

He starts another sentence, “When you’re boots change by themselves…,” which the Dean finishes:

“There’s magic afoot?”

Or, when two of the members of the Band with Rocks In, Glod the dwarf and Buddy, nee Imp, a human taken over by the music, walk into a vast hall where they are to play, Buddy says, “Good grief. No wonder they call it the Cavern.  It’s huge.” 

To which Glod replies:

“I feel dwarfed.”

Or when the wizards get hooked on the music and are attending yet another concert, one of them is wearing a homemade robe with these words written in large letters across the back:

“BORN TO RUNE.”

Or….well, you get the idea.

Interacting awkwardly

Soul Music, published in 1995, has two story lines that interact awkwardly — what happens when music, in the form of a guitar, takes over a young guy and, through him, takes over Anhk-Morpork, and what happens when Death, apparently distraught over the deaths of his two closest relatives (by adoption and marriage), walks away from the family business, leaving his 16-year-old, logic-saturated granddaughter Susan to carry on.

Neither of these turns out well, and, in an odd twist, Death has to swoop — well, actually tear like a bat out of hell on a Discworldish motorcycle — in to save the day.

The music that Buddy plays — and comes across as Music with Rocks in It — turns out to be very old.  I mean, like, ancient.  I mean it was there at the beginning. 

In fact, it was the beginning, as a kind of Big Bang, but more like a Big Harmonic Set of Multiple Notes Sounded Simultaneously.

That’s cool, but, well,….

Death & Granddaughter

The thing is that, for a Terry Pratchett novel, Soul Music lacks more than a bit of coherence. 

Part of this is that Susan is a stick in the mud, and a teenage to boot.  Buddy is pretty much a mope.  They have very little to do with each other except to stare across crowded rooms.

The threat that that earliest-ever music represents for the Discworld is never very clear. Susan’s less-than-enthusiastic approach to the work of Death & Granddaughter is more of an irritation than anything else.

This novel isn’t dull, but it’s not as much fun as most Pratchett books.

Larding up

Except for the puns.

My suspicion is that, as the novel was nearing completion, Pratchett realized that it was misfiring more than he’d like.  It was good enough to publish.  But, well,…

So, my suspicion is that, to provide a little more fun, Pratchett larded up Soul Music with puns wherever he could find an opening, such as:

When the Lecturer in Recent Runes is talking about Buddy with Archchancellor Ridicully, he mentions that, at the concerts, the young girls throw their underthings up on the stage and scream a lot.

Ridicully says he doesn’t think the music was that bad, to which the Lecturer in Recent Runes says, “…when the young man was waggling his hips like that…” To which, repeating a comment made by many characters at various points in Soul Music, Ridicully says:

“He definitely looks elvish to me.”

Or, when Cliff mentions to Glod that Mr. Dorfl the sausage seller is a golem (basically an animate ceramic), Glod is surprised:

“…funny how you can know someone for years and then find out they’ve got feet of clay.”

Or, when Albert, Death’s manservant, tracks him to an outpost of the Klatchian Foreign Legion, he’s told that a tall, bony legionnaire — his master, obviously — had been able to organize the dead legionnaires to fight off an attack and then form in lines, march to the cemetery and dig their own graves.

To which, Albert says:

“Esprit de corpse?”

Or, when a member of the Assassin’s Guild is about to attack Buddy with a knife, Pratchett points out that no expert would consider an attack with an overarm stabbing motion.  Instead:

“A professional would strike upward; the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.”

Or, in the final pages of the book, when Ridicully has survived a concert that led to a riot, he tells the other wizards that he’s not that interested anymore in music.

“It’s a world of hertz.”

Patrick T. Reardon

9.23.19

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