The Colour of Magic is the first book of the Discworld saga. Published in 1983, it’s the first part of the story of the tourist Twoflower (a native of the Agatean Empire) who, together with the wizard Rincewind, discovers Ankh-Morpork and its surroundings. I’ll write it right away: the saga doesn’t start with a bang, and if you haven’t read any Pratchett book before, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one to start reading his works. Yet, the book introduces very well many of the elements that would then become recurrent in the subsequent books of the saga.
The first part of the book takes place in the largest city in the entire Discworld, Ankh-Morpork. The naive Twoflower arrives there with his traveling Luggage and his camera, or rather his picture box. Twoflower is very rich, but only because gold is very common in his country: he’s a simple insurance salesman.
Rincewind agrees to be his guide for a high fee and, above all, due to the fact that he’s asked to do so by Lord Vetinari, Patrician of the city and also the only man able to guarantee order, if one can speak of true order, in a chaotic place like Ankh- Morpork.1
During their journey, Twoflower and Rincewind (and Luggage: after all, he’s a sentient being) visit various places in addition to Ankh-Morpork: Quirm (similar to continental Europe, even if here it’s not developed that much), Wyrmberg (an upside-down mountain with imaginary dragons), and Krull, a nation on the edge of the Discworld where some mad scientists want to discover the sex of Great A’Tuin, the giant tortoise with the four elephants on it supporting the whole Discworld.
The gods stand out among the various characters introduced in The Colour of Magic, as they affect the actions of the protagonists and would reappear several times in the saga (especially in Small Gods). The book also introduces Hrun the Barbarian, the archetype of the barbarian hero in search of virgins to fall in love with, just the first of a series of barbarians who would also appear in subsequent books (above all, in Interesting Times and The Last Hero). A few words are also spent on the city guards who would give life to one of the most beloved subseries of the entire Discworld (starting with Guards! Guards!).
The Colour of Magic is more fragmented than most of the following ones in the saga, so much so that one could speak of four separate adventures, one for each place visited by Twoflower and Rincewind. The parodic intent of each of these sections is also clear, something which would become much less evident as the saga progresses. Let me explain: Pratchett has always enjoyed filling his books with references to other works, but in this case he did it very explicitly. For example, the Quirm part of the journey with the temple of Bel-Shamharoth is clearly inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, while the Wyrmberg is a take on the dragons imagined by Anne McCaffrey.
So, what about The Colour of Magic? I find it a great way to start describing a new world, the Discworld, with fun adventures that clarify right from the start what the atmosphere of the saga is. This is a fantasy book, of course, but it’s also an ironic one and with some satire here and there. The cowardly Rincewind, the naive Twoflower, the dishonest owner of the Broken Drum in Ankh-Morpork who decides to immediately take advantage of this new concept of fire insurance… they are nothing but mirrors of the society where we live where most of the people try to minimize the effort and maximize results!
In any case, Pratchett’s brilliance lies in making every paragraph of the book interesting. His sense of humor was exceptional, and combined with his mastery of language, produced truly incredible results. It’s hard to read a page of The Colour of Magic without smiling or laughing at least once. Do you want an example? “On the Disc, the Gods aren’t so much worshiped, as they are blamed.“2
I find this book absolutely brilliant! I don’t know if I’ve managed to convey my enthusiasm for it (and for the saga as a whole), and I don’t think I’m able to express the incredible quality of The Colour of Magic in my own words. If I managed to awake your interest, please know that the ending is a cliffhanger whose conclusion is to be found in the second book of the Discworld saga, The Light Fantastic. Ciao!
1. The Colour of Magic’s Vetinari is different from the Patrician of the rest of the saga, but Pratchett himself has never tried to justify this inconsistency in his books. He simply declared that the Patrician of The Colour of Magic is the same character, but written by a worse writer.
2. And here’s another one: “Some pirates achieved immortality by great deeds of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”