Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Written Word Wed. - ". . . Once He'd Ridden Without Pants, Too, But Luckily All the Tar and Feathers Helped Him Stick to the Horse . . ."

Once again, I shall have to pass on reviewing Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, this time because I'm too preoccupied reading Kathy Reichs' Deja Dead, which is ostensibly the basis of the TV show Bones, but which so far has demonstrated little in common with the series beyond a forensic anthropologist who happens to be named Temperance Brennan; the Temperance in the book and the Temperance of the show are worlds apart. Trying to decide if I would have liked the book better if I hadn't seen the show first; of course, if I had read and enjoyed the book first, I might have been less thrilled with the show. But, more on that once I'm done with it; until I can find the time and/or motivation to write a new review, you'll have to settle for yet another left-over from my Genre Fiction class. This time, it's my Fantasy selection; the first part might sound a little familiar. That's right; it's another Discworld novel.

Pratchett, Terry. Going Postal. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN: 0-06-001313-3

Going Postal is the 29th or 30th (depending on if you count the illustrated The Last Hero or not) novel in the bestselling Discworld series. Before addressing the book itself, here’s some background on the series. The series is set on the Discworld, a disc-shaped world (of course) which rests on the backs of four giant elephants, which in turn stand on the back of the Great Turtle A’Tuin, who in turn soars through the vastness of space. Discworld is a world filled with mystical characters such as wizards, witches, gods, vampires, golems, zombies, and about anything else you can think of. Most of the action in the series revolves around the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork. The series started off as a parody of typical Sword-and-Sorcery novels, but over time its scope has evolved into covering a wide range of topics, including Hollywood, Rock & Roll, freedom of the press, jingoism, and every possible stereotype we have of Australia. Different books focus on different characters, and I tend to place the books into one of six categories of my own devising. The category that has dominated most of the recent Discworld books is one I call “Tales of Ankh-Morpork,” and it is into this category that Going Postal falls.

The protagonist of Going Postal is the unfortunately named Moist van Lipwig, an unrepentant (and highly successful) con-man. At the beginning of the book, Moist is hard pressed to decide which of the following is the most surprising: that he has actually been captured by the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (which he hardly feels is fair since they neglected to advertise the fact that they had werewolves in the Watch); that he has been sentenced to death by hanging (under his assumed name of Alfred Spangler) and, indeed, has been hung; or that following his hanging he awakens to find himself not only alive (albeit with a sore throat), but seated in front of the Machiavellian ruler of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari, who declares that Moist’s alter-ego of Alfred Spangler is now legally dead and that Moist has the choice of either accepting a job as the Ankh-Morpork Post Master or joining Alfred Spangler in the great abyss. Moist agrees, hoping to make his escape at the first opening, but is deterred by the presence of his parole officer, the nigh-unstoppable golem known as Mr. Pump. Resigning himself to his position (for the time-being), Moist proceeds to take over the post office, which has become rundown and forgotten in the face of the new-fangled Clacks system (a sort of semaphore-based Internet). Moist learns to his horror that the post office is filled to overflowing with years worth of undelivered mail, a condition that is worsened by the fact that, on the Discworld, even the most basic words have power; messages have an innate desire to be delivered; and a large enough confluence of the two can begin to warp reality himself. Moist soon finds himself chosen to be the avatar for the undelivered mail and so undertakes a mission to return the post office to its former glory. Unfortunately, his attempts attract the attention of the businessmen in charge of the Clacks, who don’t take kindly to the threat to their monopoly on communication and who are willing to go to extreme (and deadly) measures to make sure that their business emerges on top.

Going Postal is an example of a humorous fantasy. It exemplifies several conventions of the genre, such as the presences of magic and magical creatures and an otherworldly setting. Although it is part of a series of books, unlike most fantasy series the Discworld books are more episodic in nature. There are recurring characters and themes, but with rare exceptions each book is a self-contained adventure. The transformation of Moist from a self-serving conman to the noble Postmaster reflects the idea of a journey of discovery often found in Fantasy.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal. Pratchett is one of those rare authors with the ability to make me laugh out loud in every book. Pratchett has a gift for constructing quirky characters whose logic doesn’t quite gel with the world around them. Although I was saddened that most of the long-time characters were minimized in this book, the new characters were just as engaging and entertaining. Moist, like many of Pratchett’s protagonists, is a cynical observer who is constantly flummoxed by the illogic of those around him, and in many ways represents the reader’s P.O.V., only filtered through the mind of an almost pathological con-artist.

While I would gladly recommend this novel, I would caution that it would probably be best to read some of the earlier books first, in particular The Colour of Magic (the first book in the series) and Feet of Clay (which features the Watch, Lord Vetinari, and golems), although a quick glance at the online primer ( might work just as well. Although this book could conceivably stand on its own, I feel that there are numerous facets of the novel which would be better grasped by someone who had a better understanding of the series as a whole. I think this novel would appeal to anyone who is a fan of humorous fiction in general. The idea of the Clacks system borders on Steampunk, which might appeal to SF fans.