Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
It seems there is no subject too big or too small, too esoteric or too familiar, that Terry Pratchett won’t tackle in DISCWORLD. His 1989 Pyramids, seventh in the series, sees the author exploring Egypt and just entering the groove that would become more than forty novels in the DISCWORLD setting. The humor in Pyramids is some of Pratchett’s best, but the book still leaves something to be desired for plot. As such, I’m guessing it won the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for historical grounding, wordplay, stabs at theme, and accomplishments to date, rather than consistent storytelling or characterization.
Pyramids is the tale of Teppic, son of Teppicymon XXVII who is king of the desert land Djelibeybi. Teppic was sent to the Assassin’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork for grooming into an “educated young man.” After graduating Teppic finds he’s needed back in Djelibeybi due to a family emergency. Djelibeybi is stuck in a time warp, so the state of the kingdom compared to Ankh-Morpork is a shocking experience. Though determined to follow with tradition, Teppic soon finds what’s best from history may not be the best for his country.
Djelibeybi is Pratchett’s go with Egpyt. Running amok are pyramids, gods, bangled handmaidens, desert lands, ghost kings, camels, and all other manner of the ancient land. Mummies come to life, crocodiles lurk in rivers, and the riddle of the Sphinx fools everybody. And Pratchett keeps all of it rotating at a steady tilt for the entire length of the novel; for action and adventure, there is no shortage.
But for as nicely paced as Pyramids is, characterization and plot take a hit. In the movement of events there are some things which don’t quite fit together. The story is occasionally bumbling. Ptraci, for example, never quite settles into the story enough to allow her character to fully occupy the position she ultimately finds herself in. She disappears in the middle of the story simply because there was nothing for her to do. Likewise, the armies Teppic finds in a neighboring kingdom, while delved into in relatively significant fashion, play little to no role in the overall story. They seem to be merely digression so we can laugh at Trojan horses and point to burgeoning Greek power. But most importantly, Teppic, as main character, is never presented in a fashion that has you chasing the story with interest. The reader more phlegmatically follows along, and if it weren’t for You Bastard, Teppic’s tale may have dried up like the desert he rules. Ahh, You Bastard, the world’s greatest mathematician — and a camel…
In my opinion, Pyramids is among the top three of the DISCWORLD novels, humor-wise. Less slap-stick than Men at Arms and more subtle than The Color of Magic, Pratchett’s wordplay in Pyramids is at times among the best I’ve read. You Bastard’s internal dialogue, the personalities and conversations at the Greek — err, Ephebien — tavern, and the architects as they banter and discuss the technique and commerce of pyramid building (like coffins!) is a stomach-jiggling delight. Pratchett humor waves a bright flag of erudition with one hand while pushing the story along with the other, wordsmithing every step of the way.
The themes of Pyramidsare not as developed as the humor, however. Facets Pratchett would later rework with Small Gods and Thief of Time, the novel tackles following tradition merely for tradition’s sake (i.e. blindly), time in the long term, and the perception and effect of religious dogma. Perhaps biting off more than he could chew, there is little balance to the moralizing save the final page. Undoubtedly Pratchett would also like to have left more room for the value of custom and culture — which he does in later novels.
In the end, Pyramids is a solid middle entry in the DISC. The pace paves over many plot inconsistencies as Pratchett keeps the story moving in gloriously humorous and adventurous fashion. Playing with all manner of Egyptian stereotypes and real history, time gets twisted, the dead walk again, and pyramids vent time in bolts of blue lightning to keep their entombed kings alive — DEATH even letting matters be. Pyramids is often cited as a good entry point to Pratchett. I won’t disagree, but there are better books on the DISC.
Lots of fun, especially with the audio edition read by Nigel Planner. The audio production quality is labelled “vintage,” and you can tell it was produce decades ago, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I thought it suited the story well and I can’t imagine anyone better than Planner for performing this story. You won’t regret purchasing the audiobook of this one!
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