Sourcery, published in 1988, is the fifth book in the Discworld Series and the third book featuring the wizard Rincewind as a main character. As a narrative, it feels like a soft reboot of the first three books.
There is a great magic that threatens to plunge the world into the ominous and horrifying Dungeon Dimensions, just like The Colour of Magic! There is a staff given to a gifted child who wields great power and whose actions change the tradition of things, just like Equal Rites! Rincewind, along with the Luggage and three other adventurers, stands against the impending doom, just like The Light Fantastic!
There is a multidimensional magical MacGuffin that arbitrarily carries the story forward, a naïve idealist who learned everything he knew from a book, and it just goes on and on like that.
I will say that Sourcery does feel like a more competently written novel than Pratchett’s first three on a production and pacing level, but it also feels much more bland.
While it holds his wit and charm with amusing descriptions of the world, and still includes classic wordplay-rich Pratchettisms over the pages, it felt like a narrative string of “And then this happened.”
Conflicts don’t resolve so much as conclude, and practically every antagonistic force in the novel is killed or defeated offscreen, as it were, and it is unclear if the protagonists even actually interacted with the plot in any meaningful way.
Most of the characters within the novel are largely one-dimensional. There is a female assassin who is the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, whose gimmick is that she wants to be a hairdresser. There is a grocer’s son who is making a go at being a legendary barbarian, but has only been doing it for three days and learned from a book. There is a wealthy desert ruler of bandits and thugs who wants to be a poet.
The big message this book tries to convey through Rincewind is a lesson that you need to be yourself:
“Talent just defines what you do,” he said. “It doesn’t define what you are. Deep down, I mean. When you know what you are, you can do anything. (Page 168)
While this is often in defense of him identifying as a wizard even though he is probably the worst wizard in the world, he is still fundamentally a wizard. It says so on his hat. We see three or four scenes play out with similar messages, including one of the final things he says in the book:
“Oh, yes. It’s vital to remember who you really are. It’s very important. It isn’t a good idea to rely on other people or things to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.” (Page 266)
But there isn’t much more depth to it than just these quotes and the concept of Rincewind as a character. It isn’t thoroughly explored, just mentioned, as Pratchett never leaves his characters in a scene for longer than a minute before racing them into the next AND THEN, like a child frantically telling you all their favorite moments in the Lord of the Rings movies.
The biggest benefit this book conveys to a reviewer of all Discworld books is a level of credibility, because this book is bad. While Pratchett’s poetry and descriptive wit are still all over the pages, they could’ve painted the pages of a better book.
And I don’t think it’s because he revisited old concepts from his previous works; he does that all of the time to great success. It’s because he didn’t refine them in any meaningful way.
This book and the characters don’t add together to create something more than the sum of their parts. I also don’t think I’m judging this book unfairly because of the better novels Pratchett will write, I’m judging this book harshly because it feels like a fan fiction of his original three novels.
I think if I read it in 1988 after reading Mort, I would’ve felt cheated and worried about the future of this Terence fellow. I’d be wondering if his career would become the saga of Rincewind’s silly adventures.
While his first four books were raw and a little rough, they were novel and unique in their own way. This book was raw, rough, AND a rehash of already-used concepts.
Realistically, Sourcery is still a fine book by itself, it could be a fun book to read. But it doesn’t really add anything or say anything important, and otherwise is just an average romp through fantasy fiction.
As someone who is reviewing these works through the lens of being an activist, it didn’t do anything for me. Even Rincewind’s forced heroics didn’t say anything of heroism or struggling in the face of doom, they’re just the motions he goes through on the rails of plot he was forced into.
The character Nejil, a barbarian hero in the making, stands against the frost giants at the end of the world. He is asked why he bothers, with the world doomed to end no matter what, and he says it is just important that you fight. And sure, I agree, but why?
There is no added argument to it. There is no reframing that fight as a reclamation of life or hope or chance. It just seems a polite thing for a hero to do I guess. And this is especially disappointing because of just how powerful the same situation was portrayed in The Light Fantastic. This all just makes this book feel like a step backwards, rather than forwards.
All the criticisms aside, this book was at least interesting for a few reasons, specifically what it brings to the Discworld mythos. Eventually the Discworld will have very clear rules that govern it. It’ll have an agreed-upon history of certain events or sequences. The characters will gain a level of stability, and from there actual character growth spanning novels. And while rules or characters may be broken, while new things will be introduced, there will be some base to draw meaning and contrast from.
The point is that currently, the narrative lore and history of Discworld are malleable and the mythos is still cooling from the heat of creation. So, let’s look at some of the differences so far!
The Evolving Nature of Discworld
The book Equal Rites establishes that women can be wizards. The entire point of the book is that women can be wizards. So, here is a curious line from Rincewind, speaking about the Archchancellor of Unseen University’s hat:
“Give it to me this minute! Women mustn’t touch it! It belongs to wizards!’ (Page 46)
And with that single quote we have erased the entire point of Equal Rites, and I think it is fair to say that the majority of Discworld books going forward will treat wizards as de facto male.
A running joke for the first couple of books is that magical power is tied up with sexual repression. It’s often implied that orgasming will weaken a wizard’s power. It is also implied in this book that this is a lie, meant to stop wizards from reproducing, because the 8th son of a wizard is a powerful magic user called a sourcerer. So, this is generally a nebulous truth that seems to be relevant when it wants to be and ignored at other times. Whatever ends up being funnier at the moment.
The book Sourcery deals with the return of a sourcerer, which is described as a person who is a conduit through which magic can enter the world. Basically, a sourcerer can conjure and change reality at will. Most of the events of the book are the direct result of a sourcerer changing the world to suit his desire for magical dominance.
I bring this up because it makes the nature of magic in this book rather wonky. A big component of Pratchett’s later books involve the Law of Conservation of Magic (LOCOM). Generally this means that all magical effort requires equal input. A wizard could cast a fireball, but afterwards they’d be exhausted for weeks. The notion is that magic isn’t free and that it takes extreme effort to create extreme change.
Sourcery doesn’t really mention the LOCOM and treats magic similarly to how it was treated in Equal Rites. Namely, that it could basically do anything and had relatively low consequences for the caster. While Sourcery’s basic plot did involve a supernatural empowerment of magic that would likely defy LOCOM, there still isn’t anyone in the novel who really addresses that directly.
Sourcery does continue the tradition that wizards are bloodthirsty power mongers who often resort to assassinations as a means of promotion. Curiously, Sourcery is the second time in five novels that we can assume the entire leadership of Unseen University dies. In The Light Fantastic all eighth-level wizards are turned to stone without the implication they can be revived, and in Sourcery we get the impression most wizards end up dying in the mage wars.
This book features a more fleshed out Patrician, that feels like he’s really stabilizing into the character he will become.
He didn’t administer a reign of terror, just an occasional light shower. (Page 74)
While he is given the name Vetinari, he is also given a small dog named Wuffles*, that I don’t believe makes another appearance. He spends most of this book turned into a lizard, but is given a few direct dialogue sequences with the wizards that suggest a man firmly in control of the city.
I’d say the stand out performance in this book goes to the Librarian, who feels the most fully fleshed out of all the characters. And it’s wyrd to say that, because as a human turned into an orang-utan he largely communicates with a simple grunt of “oook” that is often interpreted correctly by the people he communicate with.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we learn more about him through his actions and the agency he does have. He cares a great deal for the books and library in general. Being that it’s a magical library of sentient books, he doesn’t simply watch out for them, he soothes, comforts, and fights for them like his own children.
“They all knew the Librarian, in the same definite but diffused way that people know walls and floors and all other minor but necessary scenery on the stage of life. If they recalled him at all, it was as a sort of gentle mobile sigh, sitting under his desk repairing books, or knuckling his way among the shelves in search of secret smokers. Any wizard unwise enough to hazard a clandestine rollup wouldn’t know anything about it until a soft leathery hand reached up and removed the offending homemade, but the Librarian never made a fuss, he just looked extremely hurt and sorrowful about the whole sad business and then ate it.” (Page 156)
Other than the Librarian, we do spend most of the book with Rincewind, but there isn’t much to say about him that we didn’t already learn in his first two books. He’s a coward, bad at magic, and prone to a destiny of heroism he doesn’t want. I do like the way he is introduced within this book:
“After sixteen years Rincewind has failed to achieve even level one. In fact it is the considered opinion of some of this tutors that he is incapable even of achieving level zero, which most normal people are born at; to put it another way, it has been suggested that when Rincewind dies the average occult ability of the human race will actually go up by a fraction.” (Page 9)
The interesting thing about this is that, previously, it was justified that Rincewind had no magical ability because for most of his life he harbored one of the original spells of creation in his head. It is implied at the end of The Light Fantastic that Rincewind would now be capable of learning magic, but apparently that isn’t the case.
It really is unclear how much of the original books actually are canon. Rincewind has the Luggage, which means arguably he did meet Twoflower. He mentions knowing Cohen fairly well, so arguably the events of these books happened, but he doesn’t mention much about the world ending or the creator’s spellbook. The Luggage, which is made of sentient pearwood, was immune to magic in the original books, but doesn’t seem to have that property anymore.
I’d be very curious to see how many elements of this book remain for future Discworld books. The mythos is still white hot, raw, and spreading out as it cools. It’s still malleable and Pratchett is still blowing into it to create a shape and function to his liking.
I would like to clarify that I’m not sure you can ever point at any of the series of books and proclaim they’re “real” Discworld books. I’m not a purist like that. I think every book, even the first book, is a “real” Discworld book. There is no one way any of the books needs to or has to function.
The reason this is worth talking about is because it is interesting to see the evolution of these ideas and how Pratchett builds off of them. It’s interesting to see what he ends up liking, or what he settles on for his world building. And even if I’m not a fan of Sourcery as a book, it was another few hundred hours Pratchett wrote about and thought about the world.
Something I suspected in previous books is that Rincewind was a stand-in for Pratchett and that magic was a stand-in for writing. I don’t think this is a definitive reading of the material, but that a case could be made. And when Rincewind spends the majority of this book talking about how he needs to remember who he is, I wonder if this is Pratchett soul searching for what kind of books he wants to write.
This may be a stretch, but as a writer who has friends who are writers, I think a lot of us feel like Rincewind. If writing is magic, we feel talentless and incapable, but yet know somewhere deep down we are writers. It says so on our hat. And within this framework a sourcerer wouldn’t be the next coming of magic, but a prodigy born into a family, who could effortlessly write these incredible things. And while this is an extreme stretch and a hefty amount of projection, It’d be really interesting to me if this book had an undertone of insecurity to it as Pratchett started to become a known author, but was still more of a Rincewind in the writing world than an Archchancellor.
Written by Faye Seidler
Edited by Shane Thielges
Once upon a time it had meant that he would be the most powerful in the handling of magic, but times were a lot quieter now and, to be honest, senior wizards tended to look upon actual magic as a bit beneath them. They tended to prefer administration, which was safer and nearly as much fun and also big dinners.
They looked at one another with mutual, grudging admiration and unlimited mistrust, but at least it was a mistrust each one felt he could rely on.
‘Quick, you must come with me,’ she said. You’re in great danger!’
‘Because I will kill you if you don’t.’
But seeping through the ancient fabric was a new magic, saw-edged and vibrant, bright and cold as comet fire. It sleeted through the stones and crackled off sharp edges like static electricity on the nylon carpet of Creation.
The Vizier started to mutter. Even Rincewind, whose few talents included a gift for languages, didn’t recognize it, but it sounded the kind of language designed specifically for muttering, the words curling out like scythes at ankle height, dark and red and merciless.
Editor Note: This represents the first appearance of a major canine character in the Discworld, but certainly not the last. In fact, dogs of many sizes, both canine and stray, will continue to crop up in future Discworld books as story elements.
Wuffles’s first appearance here takes place in the nascent days of the Discworld, while it’s still taking shape, and like many characters Wuffles appears here mostly as a character sketch, and will take on more of his signature characteristics as the series progresses. For now, though, it is at least made clear that the domestication of dogs took place on the Disc as in our own world. Because Wuffles’s owner is no less important a figure than the Patrician himself, and because he seems to have no duties related to livestock herding, pest animal control, or other agrarian tasks, the reader can conclude that dogs are kept not only for utilitarian purposes but also for companionship.
While it is not specified in this early stage, we will come to find in the course of the series that dogs ARE kept for such agricultural purposes on the disc. For example, Granny Aching’s two dogs Thunder and Lightning assist her in shepherding. We also learn that small and seemingly functionally useless companion dog such as Wuffles are not an affectation unique to the patrician but are kept by other important ruling figures of Ankh-Morpork. Topsy Lavish, a chairwoman of Ankh-Morpork Bank, keeps a small pug named Mr. Fusspot, the richest dog in the city. And just as in the real world, even utilitarian working dogs can come to take on an aura of respectability and even high class. Lipwigzers, a breed of dog that come from Uberwald, were originally bred for their gurading capabilities but became a lucrative export for the Von Lipwig family. Pratchett makes clear that, much like the peoples of various kinds that populate his world, dogs occupy every level of society, and both affect and are affected by it in many different ways.
Another major canine character will make his appearance in a few books’ time from Sourcery: Gaspode, sometimes called the Wonder Dog. Unlike Wuffles, Gaspode does not live in the lap of luxury but has to fend for himself on the chaotic streets of Ankh-Morpork. He is a notably scruffy dog even by his nature, and the unhygienic conditions in which he exists further contributes to making his presence distasteful to most people. He takes up company with various humanoids throughout the series when his needs necessitate it, including representatives of the guild of alchemists and their Holy Wood entourage and the Canting Crew, but doesn’t ever really have an “owner.” He does not reside with a trusted human in a permanent dwelling, nor are all his needs take care of by someone besides himself. Gaspode is a dog that looks out for himself.
Early on, the closest canine comparison to be made to Gaspode is Laddy, a physically fit Labrador- or Retriever-like dog who is universally appealing to humans. While Laddy is also driven to acts of cunning and action for his survival, his attractive appearance means he is actually better cared for and more admired than Gaspode. While he may have superior survival skills, he does not actually need to employ them, as humans take care of his needs. Thus, we see that Gaspode represents the stratification of society and the ways in which it unfairly distributes resources to its inhabitants out of proportion to their needs and abilities.
It isn’t until much later in the series that Gaspode and Wuffles are contrasted directly within the same book. Both dogs become involved in a political scandal, one of the many that attempt to compromise the Patrician and the influence he has over Ankh-Morpork in the name of shadowy special interests. Wuffles’s love and loyalty to his master give him a key involvement in this scheme, and is a key aspect to solving the mystery of the book’s major action. However, on his own, he is powerless to affect any change. It isn’t until Gaspode gets involved and takes on the temporary identity of a political informant that all the pieces can fall into place.
Here Pratchett is once again cleverly employing canine characters to examine aspects of society. Wuffles and Gaspode occupy very different places in the Ankh-Morpork hierarchy. Wuffles’s proximity to matters of civic importance give him crucial insight into its workings, but as an effete and pampered companion, he struggles to apply those insights. Gaspode is underprivileged and despised, but this gives him the unique ability to blend into the underbelly of the city and make practical connections. Thus, we can discern Pratchett’s message that canines from all walks of life are an important component of the society they live in; that they all deserve dignity and respect, and that, in fact, all have an important place in that society.
Terry Pratchett was a humanist, but he was not one without deep doubts and occasional rage toward his fellow humans. Here, with the introduction of Wuffles, we see an early example of him employing animal characters to examine characteristics of humans through a more abstract and therefore more easily sympathetic lens. Many more such animal characters will serve their roles in the history of the Disc, including You Bastard the camel, Greebo the cat, Quoth the raven, and many more. But dogs occupy a unique bond with humans, and Wuffles stands here as their vanguard, introducing the unique impact they will come to have on Pratchett’s world.