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

The fifth Discworld novel eschews the sharp satire of Equal Rites, preferring its simpler cousins, farce and parody. Nothing wrong with that, though at times this entry in the venerable series seems a little lazy in the plot department. But there are enough truly chuckle-inducing passages that devoted Discworld mavens won't mind at all, and indeed will probably want to kick the rating up a notch.

The story focuses on Rincewind, an absolutely talentless and unmagical young wizard whose life consists of menial work at the Unseen University. One day a young child shows up who turns out to be a sourcerer; that is, not merely a wizard, but an actual source of magic itself, a rarity among rarities. The child, Coin, immediately takes control of the University, whose resident wizards, after thinking about it somewhat, react with delight rather than dismay. After all, wizards strut and preen a lot, but don't really rule the Discworld any more than they rule themselves (wizards are a notoriously envious and spiteful lot and spend most of their time sparring with one another). When Coin — who is actually controlled by the vengeful spirit of his father, a wizard rejected by the University, from within his staff — comes along, the wizards rally behind the child, enjoying their newfound power, even if it does involve turning lots of people into piles of smoking tissue and confused frogs.

However, the Archchancellor's hat, the symbol of supreme magical power at the University, has some ideas of its own. Arranging to have itself stolen by young Conina, a resourceful female thief and fighter, the hat is determined to preserve wizardry (a rather simple practice) against the more cataclysmic power of unbridled sourcery, which could undo the very fabric of the Discworld itself. There simply isn't enough room on the Discworld for both wizardry and sourcery to flourish. Naturally, poor inept Rincewind finds himself caught up with Conina on the cusp of this incipient battle. Will it all come down to him to save the day? Could anything actually get that desperate?

In the Discworld ouevre, the story is one of a piece. It has Pratchett's trademark lightning pacing, and it fires gags and one-liners at you as if from a fully automatic Uzi. The book's plot is given just as much attention as is required to carry off the comedy, which is this series' point, after all. In Sourcery Pratchett has a ball deconstructing popular fantasy tropes, particularly of the Arabian Nights variety, as we get to see in a trip to the land of Al Khali, a riff on Scheherazade-land complete with a sinister, moustache-twirling Grand Vizier. Prachett also goofs on other popular fantasy conventions, and gets in one particularly amusing jab at D&D with the character of Nijel, a wannabee barbarian who has to consult his manual before figuring out what to do in a given situation.

But some other elements of the tale are purely the product of Pratchett's ineffable particular, the Luggage, a sentient suitcase at first owned by (or is it the other way around?) Rincewind, that seems to exist in the tale only for the sake of its own bizarreness.

There's something so lightweight about this book that you might feel as if you want to start it all over again once you've finished it, as it just seems to breeze right by you as you're reading it. But I think it's a pretty safe bet that most Discworld die-hards do make a habit of reading their favorite entries in the series more than once, and, as with any favorite piece of entertainment, the fullest rewards will come with that repeated enjoyment. Still, for me, while I laughed at most of Sourcery (one line from Conina on page 117 had me in hysterics for five full minutes), it was very evident to me that Pratchett was, at this early stage of the series, barely scratching the surface of what his considerable wit is capable of. He's just taking it easy here, although it's abundantly clear that he has the ability to be one of the most devastating English satirists since Swift. Still, the apocalyptic — er, make that Apocralyptic — final scenes are pretty bravura stuff.

If you aren't particularly anglophilic in your sense of humor — if you're the sort of person who just can't understand what gets everyone so worked up over Monty Python and Black Adder — these books just aren't, and never will be, for you. For the rest of us, well, we already know what magic lies within these novels. Once again, enjoy.