The Malakiad

Reading Pratchett, Tinged with Sadness

I’m going to be honest.  If I was allowed to take the complete works of one humorist with me to a desert island, that writer would be P.G. Wodehouse.  For my money, he is the funniest author ever to grace the English language.  And I do mean grace: his sentences are a thing of beauty.  Without ever getting in his own way or using obtuse vocabulary, he managed to build perfect gems of writing… in almost every single sentence.  I can’t overstate the difficulty of managing that.  Sometimes you just want to write a sentence to get you from point A to pint B, but Wodehouse never allowed himself that.

If I had to keep ranking them, the second on my list would be Douglas Adams.  The perfect distillation of the English sense of humor.  Sadly, his oeuvre is too small to keep me entertained for an indeterminate period of time out in the south seas after a shipwreck but it is more intense.  He is more laugh-out-loud funny than Wodehouse is.

But though he doesn’t top my list on the pure humor and entertainment front, Terry Pratchett is by far the best novelist of my three favorite humorists.  He was the man who picked up the torch left by his predecessors and decided that he would not only write humor for humor’s sake, but he would break Wodehouse’s rule about writing a novel and make the books about something.  And they would be funny.

So, you get social conscience and human foibles and difficult topics with your humor.

I’ve read widely, and I’m here to tell you that only Pratchett has managed to handle that particular volatile mix without having it blow up in his face.

Most humorists fall into two camps: the ones that exploit the human condition for a few laughs and the ones who attempt to make us care.  The first group doesn’t really give a damn about humans as a group (or at least they aren’t there to make us think about humanity).  They just want their humor to be relatable enough so you’ll laugh at the right time.  The second group is usually preachy, holier-than-thou and so, sooooo concerned.  They are anything but funny.

Pratchett pulls it off.  You end up caring deeply about the issues in his book without ever having the sense that the writer is obsessed, and that the issues have taken over his work.  (actually, this happens to issue-driven books in any genre, not just humor.  When the agenda pushes the plot and characters aside, it’s a recipe for disaster).

So it’s with great sadness that I am reading the final few Pratchett books for the first time.  One can enjoy a book upon re-reading, but you never have the same sheer joy of discovery as you did the first time you encountered the words.  Since his death, a Pratchett book that I hadn’t read before became a priceless treasure.

Over the last year, I’ve consumed three of those treasures.

A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett

A Blink of the Screen is a rare treat.  It collects Pratchett short stories.  Some of them we’ve all read before, but many are early work published in tiny magazines or very local newspapers.  They show a master at work before he was a master, with flashes of the genius that made him world-famous, but without the skill at weaving it all together.  Still, there are some gems in here, and punchlines that will make you chortle.  I enjoyed it.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff made me even sadder.  It’s a Discworld novel.  If having any unread Pratchett book is a treasure, a Discworld book is like having the Crown Jewels and the Romanoff treasure all at once.  To make things even better, this is a Sam Vimes book.

A side note about Vimes.  While there are many amazing characters on the Discworld, Vimes became the most important of all after Pratchett discovered him halfway through the series.  He represents the everyman, but also the fatalist.  I have a friend who swears by the witches, but it’s Vimes who serves as the backdrop to Pratchett’s most mature work.  I like him even more than I like the Luggage and Death, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The only consolation I had when I finished this one was the knowledge that Raising Steam is still safely buried somewhere in my TBR pile.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

The last book of the three I had to hand was The Shepherd’s Crown. The Tiffany Aching books fall in the Young Adult category and are a lot less funny.  Pratchett’s sense of humor is still there in the background, but these aren’t meant to be laugh-out-loud funny, but a coming-of-age story for a young witch growing into her powers.  All of Pratchett’s humanity is on display in these, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to someone out for a laugh.  However, it is to Pratchett’s eternal credit that he manages to make a Young Adult story aimed at girls compelling to a not-particularly-young adult male who (as attested to by earlier entries) is more likely to pick up a spy thriller than a book about a teenage witch.

I don’t think we’ll ever see another writer quite like this one for a while.



Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad coming out on March 22nd (it can be pre-ordered through this link).  If you enjoyed reading Pratchett, you will likely enjoy this one.  Also, the title comes from a very rude word in Greek, so there’s that.


Crossing Genres Successfully

As a writer who has published a number of science fiction books but whose next two scheduled books are in different genres (a humorous fantasy coming out in March which you can have a look at – and pre-order if you’re in the mood to make a writer happy – here, and a literary collection of linked stories which is scheduled for a little later in the year), I’m always interested in writers who succeed across multiple genres.

There are many, but since I’ve recently finished reading Hornet Flight by Ken Follett, let’s talk about him.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

Some years ago, I was in a relationship with a girl whose first contact with Follett was through The Pillars of the Earth.  When I chuckled and told her that Follet was a writer in the Ludlum mold – a man who produced thrillers aimed at the male beach-reading audience, she was shocked and nearly offended (she was easily offended by things that broke her structured view of the world, so that might not mean much).

As a guy who’s never shied away from reading a little bit of caveman fiction, Follett had made several appearances in my reading piles, and had always delivered.  Most notably, The Key to Rebecca is not only a good WWII spy novel but, more importantly, it finally forced me to read the original du Maurier book which is utterly brilliant and has the best opening line in the history of literature.

But back to Follett.

His case is different from mine.  I’m trying to expand into other genres while I’m still a small fish in the pond.  Supposedly, it’s easier to do it this way before you become so well-known that publishers and readers expect something specific and get angry if they don’t get it.

Follett seems to have neatly defied that conventional wisdom.  When he started writing historical novels, he was already a giant in the espionage field with a number of massive bestsellers under his belt.

Did the historical books succeed despite of this?  Or because of this?

It’s a good question.  My own opinion is that Follett’s track record–and a desire to keep him happy–spurred the publishers of the historical books to give them the marketing support they deserved.  Combined with the fact that they are reportedly very good (I have yet to read one, but intend to remedy that in the short term) sold them to a completely new audience, people like my former girlfriend, who’d never heard of the man before, but are fans of well-written historical novels.  Apparently, when your pool of new readers is almost completely different from the old one, you don’t get typecast.

More interesting still, however, is how the new audience and style feeds back into the thrillers.  Hornet Flight (2002) was written after Follett started writing the historical novels…  and I can kinda tell.

His earlier thrillers, as far as I remember, were testosterone-fueled action stories where masculine virtues were celebrated – the difference that Follett brought to the table was historical accuracy.  They were the kind of books your ex-paratrooper friends might have enjoyed and that the local librarian would have wrinkled her nose at.

Hornet Flight?  Not so much.  The spy-novel genre is a formula that works pretty well and Follett’s attempts to be inclusive and politically correct while still writing a WWII thriller falls a bit flat.  Part of it is that most of the novel is buildup to a spectacular ending (nothing wrong with that ending!) which makes it a bit of a slog in parts (whoever wrote that blurb on the cover above must have been talking about a different book), but most of it seems due to Follett’s attempt to translate modern political mores, including character selection (for example there is one female main character, good guys and bad guys, for each male) into the middle of the Second World War.

Perhaps the book was an attempt to appeal to the demographic that is reading his historical novels and also to the people who rely on him to give them great WWII thrills?  If so, he definitely failed the latter – they don’t want revisionism or forced diversity, they want those stories real and raw, warts and all.  Not being privy to the sales numbers, I can’t discuss the former.

I read Folletts every once in a while and, as I mentioned, I want to read the historical books (or at the very least the first one) so I’ll probably be adding some more opinions on his career in the future.  Stay tuned!


Gustavo Bondoni is the Argentine writer who wrote Siege.  Everyone loves Siege.