Having introduced the Discworld to Roundworld readers with "The Colour of Magic", Terry Pratchett enhances our knowledge of it through this volume. New characters, previously unexplored regions of the Disc and deep questions about The Great A'Tuin almost garner answers. Rincewind, the failed wizard, is still acting as a guide to Discworld's first tourist, Twoflower. It's not always clear however, who's doing the leading and who the following. Twoflower, who is thrilled by everything and refuses to feel threatened by anything, absorbs all the novelty introduced to the reader. Through it all, Pratchett's delightful wit and innovative abilities keeps the reader's full attention. Only your laughter will interrupt the flow of narrative.
There's magic to this book, and no little magic in the story. Rincewind, having been catapulted over the Rim marking the edge of the Disc, inexplicably finds himself lodged in a pine tree. The entire universe has been rearranged to let him survive. Why should one timid outcast be so favoured? Twoflower, in a side gesture of cosmological justice, isn't far off. Rejoined, the pair struggle to find a way home to Ankh-Morpork. A sense of urgency over that return has appeared in the sky - and the Disc is likely to be destroyed soon.
Rincewind's role in changing the universe and coping with a "new star" that's appeared soon become apparent. As a student wizard, one of The Eight Great Spells entered his mind. Those spells are the glue holding the cosmos together. To survive, the Spell must keep Rincewind alive - not out of danger, but a survivor of many dire threats. Even Twoflower has noticed Rincewind's special role in life. The tourist has actually counted the number of Rincewind's near-death experiences. Those threats keep the wizard in a state of tense expectation. Rightly so, since there are yet more to come. Including the end of the world.
In their attempt to return, Rincewind and Twoflower encounter some fascinating characters. Perhaps the most engaging is the aging hero, Cohen the Barbarian, the Disc's Greatest Warrior. He, too, is a survivor, having long ago shed the notion of a "fair" fight. Fast with sword and knife, he knows the value of treasure, the delight in rescuing virgins, and the comforts of "soft lavatory paper". Trolls are encountered - those night creatures who live backward in time and who "suffer from philosophy". Yet, the Discworld isn't lodged in some parallel of the Roundworld's Middle Ages. There are computers and hardware consultants serving them. The Ring of Stones on the Vortex Plains "has gone down again" - a phrase every computer user will recognise. Who but Terry Pratchett could so successfully broker a liaison between such disparate concepts? And adapt from a hotly contested work about the meaning of the Stonehenge monoliths? **
There are other elements Pratchett considers in this tale. Death, who can be seen by wizards, joins the party to observe people's reaction to the new star. Death's perplexity is manifest at encountering humans who fear him, yet will subject themselves to a "death of the mind" almost without hesitation or reflection. Pratchett will keep you pondering many paths as you wend your way through this book. It's a delight to read Pratchett at any time, but taking up this book again after a long hiatus proved even more enlightening. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
** Note: for young folks who find this meaningless today, Gerald Hawkins published "Stonehenge Decoded" in 1965, explaining that chalk- and charcoal-filled pits at Stonehenge provided a "computer" to forecast eclipses.