There are risks inherent in literary criticism. Is it justifiable to analyse a writer's work? Is there danger of "reading in" to what the author actually says? Can you derive an author's thoughts through assessment of the text[s]? What service does criticism provide the reader? Literary criticism has been compared to someone chewing on writing and leaving the residue in a nearby paddock - watch your step. That charge isn't valid in this collection on one of our most unique writers. Certainly, our most unique "fantasy" writer. It is the fantasy base that has allowed some critics to place Pratchett's work outside "mainstream" literature. This set of essays sets that displacement to rest as invalid.
Terry Pratchett has produced three dozen books on his Discworld theme, complemented by the Bromeliad and Johnny Maxwell series plus some "children's books". Anyone writing such a corpus without repeating himself has some special qualities. The authors of these essays examine those qualities and find them among the best of fantasy writing. Whether the theme is Comedy, Tragedy, Heroes and "Leaders" or the conditions of everyday urban life, the writers show how Pratchett eases reality into view. Everything he writes contains material valuable in understanding ourselves. Even his humour, say these authors, imparts views of reality we may both laugh at and reflect on. How many writers share that skill?
Some critics claim to know how an author thinks. Edward James' essay, in this anthology of fourteen, has the closest valid connection to Pratchett's thoughts. They exchanged letters when they attended different schools together. Many of Pratchett's early ideas were formulated in his teen years. Exploring some of those ideas resulted in "The Carpet People", a book Pratchett wrote twice. "The Carpet People", his first venture into fantasy, was almost "formula" in it's character depiction. As several of these essays explain, Pratchett moved away from absolutes, creating unheroic heroes and compassionate evildoers. However Pratchett thinks, these writers assert, it's not in simple terms. His Discworld characters are far more complex than those of the "genre" fantasy. The comparison with Tolkien is inevitable, and several authors point out the distinctions between the two authors.
The writings here address Pratchett's characterisations - human, animal, anthropomorphic personifications and even a building complex. The list manifests the scope of Pratchett's grasp. Every reader will find a favourite, from Vimes to Vetinari. Although judging these contributions is difficult, perhaps Farah Mendelsohn's provides the most insight. She certainly tackles the most serious and difficult subjects. If nothing else, her comments justify the view that Pratchett is as much philosopher as fantasy author. Titled "Faith and Ethics", she describes how religion is dealt with in Discworld books. From "faith", she notes how ethics may rely on teachings - parental, academic or religious - but remains a question of how an individual deals with ethical challenges. Pratchett, eschewing absolutes as he does, produces scenarios in his tales that leave his readers clear that we must all make our own choices. There is no "escape from reality" here, she argues. We identify "self" not through others, but as we choose to see ourselves. As a "mirror of worlds" the Discworld confronts us with how to make that identification - and, "the Truth Shall Make You Fret".
For the Pratchett reader, this is an indispensable book. For the newcomer to the Discworld or his other works, this will be a resource to appreciating his wide readership. Young and old alike take to Pratchett for his unique approach to fantasy, to his characters and to the insights he stimulates us to consider. It says much that since the first edition of this book, its content has been enlarged. So long as Pratchett continues to write, there will be reasons to reflect on his ideas. There will be another edition of this book. Read Pratchett while you're waiting. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]