By:Andrew Osmond
Date: Friday, December 15, 2000

'A thousand years ago we thought the world was a bowl. Five hundred years ago we knew it was a globe. Today we know it is flat and round and carried through space on the back of a turtle. Don't you wonder what shape it will be tomorrow?'

Eight years ago, when I interviewed Terry Pratchett for a student paper, the author said he foresaw the end of his most famous series. Eleven Discworld novels on, there's little sign of flagging. In Britain, around two million Pratchett books (mostly Discworld) are sold each year. The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy claims Pratchett accounts for one percent of Blighty's book sales, a remarkable achievement. The good news is that The Truth, while neither groundbreaking nor Pratchett's best, is a solid, satisfying read, accessible to newbies.

The Discworld books began in 1983 with Colour of Magic, a whimsical parody of other fantasies (Conan, Pern), which was uneven but often charming. It wasn't long, however, before Pratchett mapped out a viable fantasy world in its own right. One of Pratchett's skills is extrapolating the comic potential from a 'traditional' fantasy world where heroes, dwarves, vampires, golems, wizards and so forth rub shoulders together. The Discworld also serves as an effective distorting mirror for any number of real-world subjects. To take some examples, Pratchett has explored Shakespeare (Wyrd Sisters), the cinema (Moving Pictures), fundamentalism (Small Gods), opera (Maskerade) and even rock and roll (Soul Music).

The Discworld series is subdivided into different strands. For example, the Rincewind books chronicle the misadventures of the realm's worst wizard, while the Witch sequence (starting with Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters) deals with a group of well-characterized crones and acolytes. By general consensus, a good starting-point is Mort (1987), which reworks the staple folktale of a human meeting Death. (Death Himself is a regular in the Discworld series, and one of the most popular characters.) Alternatively, there's Guards! Guards! (1989), which introduces the Watch, motley keepers of law and order in the Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork. The Truth shares this setting but demotes the Watch to support duty while introducing a new main cast.

This time around Pratchett's target is journalism, as the Discworld gets its first popular newspaper. Our hero, an aristocratic dropout called William de Worde, is happily writing a small-time newsletter when he's suddenlyand violentlyintroduced to the world of movable type. (Suffice to say the story starts with a slippery street, a runaway cart, and the shout 'Stop the press!') Before long, William finds himself editing the Ankh-Morpork Times, coping with irate readers, hostile guilds, obstructive authorities and oddly shaped vegetables. And that's before a real news story comes along, with scandals, set-ups, hit-men and a shadowy informant called Deep Bone. As events escalate William realizes that, like it or not, this is personal...

Pratchett's books, like many comedies, stand or fall on whether the gags serve a sturdy plot. By and large The Truth succeeds, though things take a while to come together. The first hundred pages feel somewhat haphazard, with confusing changes of focus and too many cameos by regular characters. Newbies especially may find it uninvolving. But persevere: once the main cast is established and the scandal breaks, the book improves greatly. My other worry involves the city vagrants, who prove handy for William when it comes to finding paper-sellers. There's no reason why beggars can't figure in a fantasy-comedy, and Pratchett treats equally touchy subjects with ease. In this case, however, I found the humor distasteful, though I'm sure reader mileage will vary.

Fortunately, the other characters fare better. There's Commander Vimes (familiar to Discworld fans), a lawman who's eternally exasperated by Williams' antics, while our hero's ladylike coworker finds that journalism brings out a disreputable side. In a more eccentric vein, there's a zombie lawyer, a reformed vampire ('going through cold bat for three months!') and a hit-man who never got to grips with the drug habit idea and seeks heaven in flour and baking powder. (Do I sense reader mileage again? Oh well...) The ideas are well grounded and the characters fully worked-out. There are plenty of extended gags: for instance, a recital of the vampire temperance song with lyrics like '...Zer drink that's in zer livink vein, Is not zer drink for me...' Oh yes, and I forgot to say the vampire's a flash-photographer. Just think about that one.

But as usual Pratchett goes beyond gags, with characters who might have been one-joke ciphers developed and rounded in sympathetic ways. The hero's transformation from drifting dilettante to hardnosed campaigner is particularly convincing. Even the hit-men develop souls of sorts. The city setting feels equally solid, less genre fantasy than gaslit hybrid, with semaphore networks and recording devices (imps with good memories) alongside traditional wizards and barbarians. Much of the detail is no fantastical whimsy, but historically accurate. As Pratchett points out, there really were entrepreneurs 'recycling nature's bounty' in the manner of one character who gives new meaning to the phrase Golden River. As with many fantasy cities, Ankh-Morpork most resembles the London of centuries past, though that doesn't stop Pratchett drawing on Seattle (see the 'author's note') or including hit-men whose fast-food talk has a Tarantino ring.

As for Pratchett's choice of subject, it's surprising it's taken him so long to cover journalism. The author was a local reporter in his teens, and one can speculate which of William's experiences are actually autobiographical. The Discworld has always celebrated high ideals while portraying low realities, and it's hard to think of a more fit subject than journalism. Some casually dropped phrases ('And finally,' 'sword of truth') have particular resonance for those who've enjoyed and suffered UK news media in recent years. But there's also Deep Bone and plenty of throwaway gags with no linkage to journalism, such as a priceless painting called 'Woman Holding Ferret.' (For those stumped, think Da Vinci.)

In the end, it's less these one-liners than the ensemble comedy, invention and charm of Pratchett's story that makes The Truth (yet) another worthy addition to a quality fantasy series.