Monday, 20 September 2010

Review: Pyramids

Teppic is a young man with a problem. He's just finished the tortuous (and often fatal) final exam that completes his training at Ankh-Morpork's Assassin's Guild when his father dies unexpectedly after trying to fly off a balcony. That would be merely tragic except that Teppic's late father was King Teppicymon XXVII of the ancient land of Djelibeybi and Teppic discovers that being an assassin is no preparation for his new career as a sort of living god. Worse, he has to make sure his father is properly buried and that means building an extremely large and expensive pyramid for him. Still worse, the late Teppicymon XXVII, whose ghost is still hanging around, is not taking too kindly with his body being mummified and he definitely doesn't want to be interred inside several hundred thousand tons of black marble.

And if that isn't bad enough, the greatest mathematician on the Discworld is a camel.

Pyramids (2001) is another in Terry Pratchett's prolific Discworld series. One reason why the stories have remained so popular after over a quarter of a century is that Pratchett has turned his turtle-borne planet into a personal sub-genre where almost anything can happen. In this instance, the action is diverted away from the usual location and characters of Ankh-Morpork in favour of the Discworld's version of Ancient Egypt. Djelibeybi is a country 150 miles long and two miles wide. It is so old that its neighbours treat it with great respect despite the fact that kings of Djelibeybi have bankrupted the nation with their mania for building ever larger pyramids. It's also so steeped in tradition that "hide-bound" doesn't begin to cover it. Djelibeybi is a plae where time literally stands still–in fact, it's running in place. Teppic soon discovers that as king he really can't do much of anything because everything is covered by some long-established rule or other and before he can open his mouth the ancient high priest Dios is rattling off Teppic's decisions for him.

Pratchett is in fine form here with all manner of word play and asides that make Pyramids a slow read because of the temptation to reread every other paragraph. There's also an audaciousness as he dares to bring in such absurdities as a literally lost kingdom, time-looping contractors, a pantheon of gods fighting over who gets to move the sun across the sky, and embalmers who have to cope with customers who rise out of their sarcophagi to compliment him on his workmanship. It's almost as if Pratchett regards suspension of disbelief as a challenge and he wants to see if he can stretch it to breaking point.

However, unlike some of the more ambitious Discworld novels, Pyramids is very straightforward in its plot–which is saying something for a story where Teppic turns around and discovers that his kingdom isn't where he left it. The social satire is mild compared to likes of Thud or Monstrous Regiment and some characters, such as the handmaiden Ptraci aren't developed as well as they could be. It's more of a flat-out romp where no one suffers anything worse than being eaten by a crocodile and all's well that ends more or less well for most of the protagonists.

All in all, not in the mainstream of the series, nor the most memorable, but a lot of fun.

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