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Review: Pratchett's 'The Truth' will set you free -- and laughing
(CNN) -- If "Dr. Who" had been conceived, written and performed by Monty Python's Flying Circus, the result might be something like "Discworld." Since 1983, British author Terry Pratchett has been churning out delightfully loopy tales of a world that's quite a bit like our own, except that it isn't. "The Truth," his 25th "Discworld" novel and second one this year, sets its sights on an enduring institution, the news media, and skewers it.
It's not necessary for the reader to know that Discworld is flat, or that it makes its way through space perched on the backs of four enormous elephants. Those details may have been important in earlier books, but not in "The Truth." This novel takes place entirely within the main city of Discworld, Anhk-Morpork. It's a fairly civilized place, considering it's overrun with wizards and dwarfs and vampires and trolls and werewolves. The second son of a noble family, William de Worde, has settled into a quiet existence in the city, scratching out a living as a scribe and rumormonger.
Almost by accident, he ends up establishing the first newspaper on Discworld. Before he knows it, he has stumbled onto the news story of a lifetime -- the city's chief executive is driven from office after apparently confessing to attempted murder. William tries to sort out the details and prints what he discovers in his new "Anhk-Morpork Times."
(The name, by the way, is a misprint. It was supposed to be called "Anhk-Morpork Items." But there's only so much he can expect from the dwarfs who invented moveable type and the press that prints the paper. They even have trouble getting the publication's motto straight. It often comes out, "The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret.")
Master of wordplay
Pratchett is a master at wordplay. It's hard to open "The Truth" to a random page and not find a striking example of linguistic gymnastics. Examples:
"William turned. He saw the trolls first, because even when they're standing at the back a group of four big trolls are metaphorically to the fore of any picture. The two humans in front of them were a mere detail, and in any case one of them was only human by tradition. He had the pale gray pallor of a zombie and the expression of one who, while not seeking to be unpleasant in himself, was the cause of much unpleasantness in other people."
Or: "A dozen solemn dwarf faces looked hard at William. No one can look harder than a dwarf. Perhaps it's because there is only a small amount of face between the statutory round iron helmet and the beard. Dwarf expressions are more concentrated."
The author is a former journalist, and takes obvious delight in lampooning his one-time colleagues. Why else would he have William hire a vampire named Otto as a photographer, knowing that every time his flash powder ignited, the light would turn Otto to dust?
But Pratchett's barbs are placed judiciously. He does not belittle the profession. He knows only too well how printer's ink can get into one's blood.
"The [printing] press waited," Pratchett writes. "It looked, now, like a great big beast. Soon, he'd throw a lot of words into it. And in a few hours it would be hungry again, as if those words had never happened. You could feed it, but you could never fill it up."
That's as clear and concise a description of the reporter's relationship to his profession as you're likely to find. And it demonstrates that Pratchett is no mad bomber. He explodes pretensions with his prose, but he selects his targets carefully, and almost always scores a direct hit. "The Truth" is technically a fantasy novel, but an unconventional one. And a funny one -- the laugh-out-loud kind of funny that comes along all too infrequently.
The Discworld series apparently is a great hit in Britain. Its U.S. publishers boast that Pratchett has sold more hardcover books in the United Kingdom than any other living writer -- including Steve King and John Grisham. If that's true, those of us on this side of the Atlantic have some catching up to do. "The Truth" seems like an excellent place to start.
The L-Space Web: Terry Pratchett fan site
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