Soul Music

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #16
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: January 1995
Printing: November 2013
ISBN: 0-06-223741-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 420

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Soul Music is the sixteenth Discworld novel and something of a plot sequel to Reaper Man (although more of a sequel to the earlier Mort). I would not start reading the Discworld books here.

Susan is a student in the Quirm College for Young Ladies with an uncanny habit of turning invisible. Well, not invisible exactly; rather, people tend to forget that she's there, even when they're in the middle of talking to her. It's disconcerting for the teachers, but convenient when one is uninterested in Literature and would rather read a book.

She listened with half an ear to what the rest of the class was doing.

It was a poem about daffodils.

Apparently the poet had liked them very much.

Susan was quite stoic about this. It was a free country. People could like daffodils if they wanted to. They just should not, in Susan's very definite opinion, be allowed to take up more than a page to say so.

She got on with her education. In her opinion, school kept on trying to interfere with it.

Around her, the poet's vision was being taken apart with inexpert tools.

Susan's determinedly practical education is interrupted by the Death of Rats, with the help of a talking raven and Binky the horse, and without a lot of help from Susan, who is decidedly uninterested in being the sort of girl who goes on adventures. Adventures have a different opinion, since Susan's grandfather is Death. And Death has wandered off again.

Meanwhile, the bard Imp y Celyn, after an enormous row with his father, has gone to Ankh-Morpork. This is not going well; among other things, the Guild of Musicians and their monopoly and membership dues came as a surprise. But he does meet a dwarf and a troll in the waiting room of the Guild, and then buys an unusual music instrument in the sort of mysterious shop that everyone knows has been in that location forever, but which no one has seen before.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a bad Discworld novel, but there is such a thing as an average Discworld novel. At least for me, Soul Music is one of those. There are some humorous bits, a few good jokes, one great character, and some nice bits of philosophy, but I found the plot forgettable and occasionally annoying. Susan is great. Imp is... not, which is made worse by the fact the reader is eventually expected to believe Susan cares enough about Imp to drive the plot.

Discworld has always been a mix of parody and Pratchett's own original creation, and I have always liked the original creation substantially more than the parody. Soul Music is a parody of rock music, complete with Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler as an unethical music promoter. The troll Imp meets makes music by beating rocks together, so they decide to call their genre "music with rocks in it." The magical instrument Imp buys has twelve strings and a solid body. Imp y Celyn means "bud of the holly." You know, like Buddy Holly. Get it?

Pratchett's reference density is often on the edge of overwhelming the book, but for some reason the parody references in this one felt unusually forced and obvious to me. I did laugh occasionally, but by the end of the story the rock music plot had worn out its welcome. This is not helped by the ending being a mostly incoherent muddle of another parody (admittedly featuring an excellent motorcycle scene). Unlike Moving Pictures, which is a similar parody of Hollywood, Pratchett didn't seem to have much insightful to say about music. Maybe this will be more your thing if you like constant Blues Brothers references.

Susan, on the other hand, is wonderful, and for me is the reason to read this book. She is a delightfully atypical protagonist, and her interactions with the teachers and other students at the girl's school are thoroughly enjoyable. I would have happily read a whole book about her, and more broadly about Death and his family and new-found curiosity about the world. The Death of Rats was also fun, although more so in combination with the raven to translate. I wish this part of her story had a more coherent ending, but I'm looking forward to seeing her in future books.

Despite my complaints, the parody part of this book wasn't bad. It just wasn't as good as the rest of the book. I wanted a better platform for Susan's introduction than a lot of music and band references. If you really like Pratchett's parodies, your mileage may vary. For me, this book was fun but forgettable.

Followed, in publication order, by Interesting Times. The next Death book is Hogfather.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-11-27

Last modified and spun 2021-11-28