The Magic Of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows (book review).

Few authors are held in such affection as Terry Pratchett, but in some ways his image of trimmed beard, black hat and almost hippy-like dress sense is rather better known than the man himself. ‘The Magic Of Terry Pratchett’ aims to put that right, but in an appropriately affectionate sort of way. After all, while the man was undoubtedly gifted, he also a man who was angry at the world: particularly social injustice and the superficial cult of celebrity.

But while Marc Burrows doesn’t ignore these aspects of Pratchett’s character or, at least, these themes in his writing across the years, this book isn’t really about Pratchett the man. There’s relatively little here about his inner life and the author is honest about the fact he never met Pratchett. Instead, what you have here is a second-hand account of the man’s life, doubtless taken from many sources and interviews. The result is an entertaining account of Pratchett’s life and career, but firmly focussed on his writing and its reception by critics and the public.

Such a perspective isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s interesting to learn that GK Chesterton was an important influence on Pratchett’s writing. Certainly, Chesterton was skilled at sharp one-liners and cleverly turned phrases, something also very characteristic of Pratchett’s writing as well. Science Fiction and fantasy stories, particularly those published in anthologies and magazines, were another huge influence on the young Pratchett. Burrows describes the time Pratchett first read ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. Pratchett said he read the book every year, in springtime and goes on to tell the story of the letters exchanged between the teenaged Pratchett and the 75 year-old Tolkien.

All this sort of thing is lovely and, as the story progresses through Pratchett’s education and early career in journalism, we do pick up a real sense of the influences on the man and how serendipity nudged his writing in certain directions. What’s lacking, though, is any deeper literary criticism. Burrows gives us a list of American Science Fiction writers Pratchett may have read, but doesn’t indicate their particular influence or, except in the odd footnote, where we can see them referred to in Pratchett’s fiction.

We do get, to be fair, a concise account of the similarities between ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ and Pratchett’s early work ‘The Carpet People’. The way Burrows describes it, it’s almost a reworking of the Tolkien novel but, as Burrows correctly observes, few writers at the time were able to escape Tolkien’s shadow and even fewer wrote their books as elegantly as Pratchett.

Perhaps it would have been easy to write a book about the ‘Discworld’ books alone and how they developed and changed with time. What’s presented here is a more balanced account that includes his often-overlooked pre-Discworld stories, particularly his time working on local newspapers. As well as learning how to write for money, Pratchett picked up his sense of ethics and social rightness. The ‘Bucks Free Press’ was where Pratchett wrote his first pieces of fiction, including short children’s stories and, together with the need to write with brevity and accuracy, Pratchett evidently learned a lot about his craft while working alongside experienced newspapermen.

The second half of the book covers not just the ‘Discworld’ books themselves but also the fanbase and Pratchett’s burgeoning status as celebrity, even national treasure. Burrows is careful here to put into context some of what Pratchett said during this period of his life. Pratchett was open about his preference to not let the facts get in the way of a good story, so when he says that, for example, ‘Johnny And The Bomb’ was one of his favourite books to write, Burrows adds that this children’s book was being discussed on ‘Blue Peter’ at the time a TV adaption was being promoted.

The final sections on Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, slow decline and eventual death in 2015 are inevitably melancholy and moving. There are flashes of the real man here, like the moment when Pratchett received his diagnosis and slipped back into the anger that was usually hidden beneath his studied charm. How much of this is Burrows’ own insight and how much taken from other sources is hard to say. But the result is that when the book finally does wrap up, we feel we have gotten to know the real Pratchett to some degree, if not with the intimacy that characterises the best biographies.

Neale Monks

August 2020

(pub: Pen & Sword History, 2020. 284 page hardback. Price: £19.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-52676-550-5)

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