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Book cover art by Ben Perrini (left).
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Considering that its topic of satire is rock and roll, Soul Music could have been the most outrageous, blistering satire of Terry Pratchett's entire Discworld series...but it isn't. It's a reasonably good book, and funny in all the right places, but it takes a while to get to all of those right places. And when it gets there, its targets are, for the most part, fairly obvious ones. Jokey song titles like "Anarchy in Ankh-Morpork" and "Born to Rune" pop up, effortless puns that any lesser humorist could have come up with just as easily. Wizards wear bell-bottom robes. The chuckles are there, but they are, in many cases, as superficial as a lame pop song itself. Pratchett never gets into rock music, never really explores from a satirical perspective what rock music has meant as a cultural force, beyond its obvious role as upsetter of the establishment's applecart. Thus, this novel could be considered something of a disappointment, though it does contain many funny passages that will doubtless please those fans so devoted they'll gobble up anything with Pratchett's byline. If you don't mind that the humor is more sitcommy than usual, you'll have a good time.

The story follows two plot threads that, naturally, come together later on in the book. Imp y Celyn is a young musician who arrives in Ankh-Morpork where he hopes to find some work. Once there, he hooks up with an unlikely pair, Glod the dwarf and Lias the troll, and the three of them become, quite unwittingly, a band when Imp discovers a strange magical guitar in a magical shop. The guitar seems almost to play itself, and, eerily, it also seems to be taking control of Imp, who changes his name to Buddy as the band (now named the Band With Rocks In, with none other than the orangutan Librarian playing keyboards) begins booking gigs that attract even the attention of the wizards of Unseen University.

Elswhere on the Discworld, a young woman named Susan is discovering her own true calling...namely, that she is the granddaughter of Death. Try as she might to deny who and what she really is, doing so eventually becomes impossible, and soon Susan is out riding the winds astride Binky (Death's horse, remember), cutting those precious silver cords and sending the departed on to their final reward. And coming up next on her list: none other than Imp y Celyn, Ankh-Morpork's newest musical sensation.

When Susan turns up to claim Imp at one of his band's concerts, she is stunned to discover that, through no fault of her own, he remains alive when the sand from his hourglass runs out. It appears that the guitar is keeping Imp alive, and for its own purposes; what's worse, it seems that Imp will die soon anyway, which means that he is simply being used by forces beyond his understanding...but for what reason? Susan immediately falls into the same moral crisis that plagued her father Mort; namely, that it just isn't right that some people should die when they don't deserve to, and she decides she ought to do something about that state of affairs.

My main problem with this Discworld entry is that, of the two storylines, one is funny and interesting and the other isn't, particularly. Imp and his band and the whole rock music angle, what there is of it, generates some hearty laughs, especially when the band unwittingly acquires a manager who promotes their efforts beyond their wildest dreams (using posters with the slogan "Bee There Orr Bee a Rectangular Thyng"). Pratchett also gets some funny digs in at rock fandom as well, as some of the Band With Rocks In's fans make their own feeble attempts at music; there's also one hilarious footnote aimed at Gary Larson's The Far Side. And yet you can't help shaking your head at the missed opportunities the story leaves unexplored (how about overblown rock star egomania, Terry?). Susan's half of the story is not nearly as good; it carries your interest, mind you, but it doesn't have nearly as high a crack-up factor as one is used to from Pratchett. Though, I suppose, the concept of the Death of Rats (a little skeletal reaper for the rodent world) is cute.

Soul Music isn't bad by any means. The only thing wrong with it is that it just doesn't rock. Die-hard Discworlders will, of course, take to it much more avidly than new readers, whom I'd advise to start the series with a different volume.