The Color of Magic, 1983
Mass-market paperback, 210 pages
I'm not a big fan of fantasy, so I've never really given Pratchett's Discworld series a second glance. I've been broadening my literary horizons lately, however, and upon hearing news of his recent health issues, I figured I'd buy his first Discworld novel in mass-market paperback and give him a try.
And boy, have I been missing out. For those who have either been living under a rock or who otherwise have never given Pratchett's books the time they deserve, the overall mood is much like a fantasy version of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books, or an even more demented version of Monty Python, but with the kind of budget and special effects that the members of Python couldn't even have dreamed of. The plot (well, the plot's really just a MacGuffin, but anyway) involves a fledgling wizard named Rincewind who is called "the worst wizard in the world" on several occasions. He meets up with Twoflower, an insurance agent from an antipodal continent on this flat universe carried on the back of four elephants, that walk on the back of a turtle. Twoflower's a tourist to this continent, see, and while he claims to be a simple clerk where he comes from, by the standards of the people he runs into he is spectacularly wealthy, giving sums that would be sufficient to buy an entire hotel in exchange for a single night's stay.
In real-world terms, Twoflower is an obvious target for thievery and painful death, so the Powers that Be task Rincewind with keeping Twoflower safe. And it is through the reluctant journeys of Rincewind alongside the ebullient Twoflower that we see the sights of the Discworld. This is a universe that is explicitly ruled by the capricious whims of the gods, and any attempt at science or technology is completely impossible, as natural laws simply don't apply with any great regularity. Rincewind continually wonders at how nice it would be to in some way "harness lightning" to make its powers available for use, to which the other characters stare blankly. "Harness lightning? Like a horse?"
To even attempt to summarize the adventures and sights these characters experience would be to ruin a lot of the great jokes. My favorite, though, is Rincewind and Twoflower's run-in with a Lovecraftian monster deep in a dark cave. Pratchett deftly bounces around his fantasy world, using and satirizing all kinds of fantasy tropes and plot devices along the way, and eventually taking our "heroes" to the edge of the Discworld itself, where... well, you'll have to read for yourself.
It's a wonderful book that doesn't take itself too seriously, and which readers should take equally so. Pratchett's satire is top-notch, and I am led to understand that later volumes of the series follow other characters in this ever-expanding universe. It's really a great way to while away a few hours, and Pratchett has certainly gotten himself a new fan in me. I'll be buying and reading the other books as I feel like it.