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Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett
(HarperCollins, $25.00, 324 pages, hardback; 5 May 2001. Corgi, £6.99, 430 pages, paperback, 2 May 2002.)

Well, the initial report from the Front is that the cover's OK, but inexplicably HarperCollins still refuse to use the Josh cover scan - US editionKirby cover illustrations that do so much to enhance the experience of reading each new Pratchett novel. No wonder there's a healthy trade here in the States of the UK editions of Pratchett's books -- the ones that have the real covers...

What sets Terry Pratchett head and shoulders above almost all his rivals in the field of comic fantasy is not just that he is at his best a very funny writer but that he is also a very clever and inventive fantasist. On those (fairly rare) occasions when the humour flags, he can rely on the wit of the fantasy to pull the reader delightedly through. The importance of this is exemplified by one of his own, earlier books, The Lost Continent, which has plenty of jokes -- some of them good ones -- but through the paucity of its fantasy inspiration is, overall, perhaps the least enjoyable to read of all his novels; it's not bad, but ... Scribes who venture into the field would do well to learn this lesson from Pratchett, or from the very few other writers who have handled comic sf/fantasy with any panache, such as Ron Goulart, Douglas Adams (who, as I write, has just died tragically young) and of course Tom Holt.

The point is worth making because Thief of Time has fewer moments of uproarious humour than most of Pratchett's books, and the best of the jokes show a darker, more satirical aspect than we generally associate with him, like:

"Hold on, hold on ... how can you take a piece of, oh, some old century, and stitch it into a modern one? Wouldn't people notice that ..." Susan flailed a bit, "oh, that people have got the wrong armor and the buildings are all wrong, and they're still in the middle of wars that happened centuries ago?"
IN MY EXPERIENCE, SUSAN, WITHIN THEIR HEADS TOO MANY HUMANS SPEND A LOT OF TIME IN THE MIDDLE OF WARS THAT HAPPENED CENTURIES AGO.

or

Every society needs a cry like ["Remember Koom Valley!"], but only in a very few do they come out with the complete, unvarnished version, which is "Remember-The-Atrocity-Committed-Against-Us-Last-Time-That-Will-Excuse-The-Atrocity-That-We're-About-To-Commit-Today! And So On! Hurrah!"

Thief of Time, more than is usual for Pratchett, must therefore largely stand or fall according to its merits as a fantasy novel rather than as a comic novel.

It is indeed full of inventiveness. The Auditors -- the anonymous, unidentitied spirits who, rather like an Accounts Department from Hell, try to keep the Universe in order without cover scan - UK editionthe slightest heed to the catastrophic counterproductiveness and total pointlessness of such efforts -- have decided that their self-appointed task would be much easier if time could be made to stop: then they could get everything sorted and it would stay that way, because, frozen in time, such irritating pests as human beings wouldn't constantly be disordering things again faster than the Auditors can sort them. One of them accordingly incarnates itself as the lovely but offputtingly odd Lady LeJean in order to encourage the Discworld's finest, if most unstable, clockmaker, Jeremy, in the construction of a new clock that will on completion, because of its unique precise accuracy, have the effect of bringing time to a halt. Unfortunately for the Auditors' plans, once this particular Auditor discovers itself in a human body it begins to develop human traits, like individuality and the yen for chocolate. And -- it having become a she -- Lady LeJean falls head over heels in love with Jeremy.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Discworld in what one might consider to be the high mountains of Tibet, the Monks of History are becoming aware of what is going on. It is their task to make sure that the world's time is sensibly managed, with reserves being held so that they may be pumped in an emergency to locales that suddenly need a bit extra; they can indeed stitch bits of one century into another, and have done so on occasion -- which goes to explain why history doesn't make much sense if you look at it too closely. Among their number, humblest but reputedly most powerful and sagest of them all, is Lu-Tze; to Lu-Tze has just been apprenticed the mysterious Ankh-Morpork orphan Lobsang Ludd, who possesses in raw form the ability to locally manipulate time -- an ability he has put to use by becoming an undetectable petty thief. The abbot of the Monks of History sends Lu-Tze and Ludd off on a quest to Ankh-Morpork to thwart the endeavours of the Auditors.

Death, too, is concerned by developments. Although he is duty-bound to organize the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- Five, if you count Ronnie, the one who left the group before it made it big -- for their final Ride, he entrusts his granddaughter Susan (one of Pratchett's finest character creations) with a similar quest.

And that is where, as you would expect of any Pratchett novel, the complications begin...

The difficulty with this book is that, while all is eventually resolved and the status quo ante restored, it somehow doesn't quite hang together as a fantasy novel; there is a pervasive slight feeling of arbitrariness about the developing course of events. Because of this, the narrative fails to engender any sense of urgency in the places where it should. Of course it's true of most genre novels that we know in advance that right will prevail in the end (or whatever); at the same time one expects to be caught up by the story so that one ignores the foregone conclusion for the thrill of the moment. Not so here, because of that lack of any necessary inexorability about the unfolding events. (There's also some very occasional careless copy-editing, which doesn't help.) The words do not disappear from the page, which is surely the aim of the taleteller. Reading Thief of Time is still an entertaining experience, but even to judge the book at that level it is not as entertaining as it could be because (at least this reader found) there is none of the emotional involvement in events or characters that one usually expects from a novel that is fully successful as a novel.

Still, Terry Pratchett's millions of well earned fans will presumably be undeterred by such considerations, and enjoy Thief of Time just the way it is, thank you very much. And certainly one could swiftly lay hands on a dozen genre-fantasy novels that are less worthwhile. But Pratchett himself has done far better than this.


Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 2 June 2001