Sourcery: Book Review

“‘What is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?
Death thought about it. CATS, he said eventually. CATS ARE NICE”
(“In questo mondo per cosa vale davvero la pena vivere?”
Morte ci pensò su. GATTI, disse alla fine. I GATTI SONO CARINI)

Rincewind’s adventures continue. After traveling the length and breadth of the Discworld and removing from his head the Octavo spell that kept him from learning new spells (see The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic), we saw him assisting the Librarian in the Unseen University library (in Mort): not exactly a big step forward.

In Sourcery, we return to daring journeys while the world risks destruction. This time it’s entirely the wizards’ fault, as they let themselves lure by lust for power after the appearance of Coin, a powerful sorcerer, that is, the eighth son of a wizard (who’s already the eighth son of an eighth son1). Coin is a child, but he’s influenced by the soul of his father Ipslore the Red who took refuge in his staff shortly before dying, deceiving Death at the opening of the book.

Sourcery is an uncontrollable type of magic, much wilder than the one used by the fat wizards currently circulating in the Discworld, which is in serious danger of collapsing when they begin to fight each other. Initially, the clash is between Coin and his followers on one side, and, on the other, the hat of the Archchancellor of Unseen University who takes possession of Abrim, the adviser of the Sultan Creosote of Al Khali. The hat is brought there by Rincewind and Conina, a very skilled thief and daughter of Cohen the Barbarian who actually aspires to become a hairdresser (and Luggage is with them, of course).

The whole book is a funny series of absurd situations in which this unlikely group of adventurers find themselves: Rincewind, Conina, Creosote, and Nijel the Destroyer, aspiring barbarian hero.2 Nijel and Conina instantly fall in love with each other, Creosote had never left his palace before the events narrated in the book, Luggage gets drunk to forget the disappointment of being sent away by Conina, and Rincewind tries to stay alive, and continuously fails to stay out of trouble. There’s also a flying carpet3 and a genie!

It must be said that eventually Rincewind manages to do something, partly because with all the magic freed by sourcery it becomes much easier to cast spells, and partly because at some point he decides to end Coin’s reign of terror by facing him armed with … Well, let’s say, an unconventional weapon.

Sourcery is a hilarious book, with a concentration of jokes per page which is practically unprecedented. Pratchett uses every single opportunity to make the reader laugh, and he invariably succeeds.4

The fact that this is one of the early Discworld books is evident from Pratchett’s pervasive humour, and for the Discworld being portrayed as an unstable world due to invasive magic, almost devoid of logic. Other telling signs are the references to our world to describe things and situations, the fairly linear structure of the story, an immature Vetinari far from the unbeatable statesman of the later books, and of course Rincewind as the protagonist. To be honest, it seems that Pratchett wrote the book due to fan pressure, despite the fact that he thought the character had little else to offer. And in fact the book is not perfect: some characters have little motivations (Creosote above all, even if his poetry attempts are splendid), and many narrative threads are left hanging (for example, at the beginning Rincewind seems to have a crush on Conina, but this leads nowhere). The ending then, without Rincewind, seems half-cooked, despite the remarkable images of the Dungeon Dimensions (in my opinion, the monsters there are a homage halfway between H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter’s The Thing, 1982). .

At the same time, it’s interesting to note how things which are more fleshed out in future books are anticipated in Sourcery, such as the existence of a king destined to rule Ankh-Morpork (with magical swords and marks signalling the chosen one – see Guards! Guards!). In practice, it’s as if many of the ideas later developed in a more complex way in the Discworld books to come were already whirling in Pratchett’s head, and here they surface in the most unthinkable places. Even the themes addressed are typical of the Discworld saga: power, the fragility of life and the importance of accepting its end when the time comes, and the futility of war are among them. And there are also various considerations on the direction to take in life between the dreams we may have and the talents we possess.

In 2022, with everyone talking about the risk of nuclear war, Sourcery clarifies how stupid humanity is in pursuing power even if the cost to be paid is the existence of the world in which it lives. After all, the destruction caused by sourcery is comparable to that of a nuclear conflict. Perhaps Pratchett sends a stronger pacifist message in other books (I’m thinking of Jingo), but it does soe here in a magnificent way as well.

I conclude by certainly recommending reading Sourcery, especially for fans of the Discworld wizards, as it’s fun and, at times, even profound. It probably pales in comparison with the previous book, Mort, and especially with the subsequent Wyrd Sisters, but we’re still talking about differences between works of art all of unique and sublime workmanship. Ciao!

1. Iron Maiden play Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but Discworld‘s magical number is eight.

2. His terrible battle cry demonstrates that he chose the wrong career path: There were a few seconds of total silence as everyone waited to see what would happen next. And then Nijel uttered the battle cry that Rincewind would never quite forget to the end of his life. “Erm,” he said, “excuse me…”  

3. “I’m not going to ride on a magic carpet!” he hissed. “I’m afraid of grounds.” “You mean heights,” said Conina. “And stop being silly.” “I know what I mean! It’s the grounds that kill you!”  

4. Here’s one example: For example, a popular spell at the time was Pelepel’s Temporal Compressor, which on one occasion resulted in a race of giant reptiles being created, evolving, spreading, flourishing and then being destroyed in the space of about five minutes, leaving only its bones in the earth to mislead forthcoming generations completely.

Index of the Discworld Reviews


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