Book Review: “Soul Music” by Terry Pratchett

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The sixteenth Discworld novel introduces us to a new heroine: Susan Sto-Helit, granddaughter of death by way of death’s adopted daughter Ysabell and his one-time apprentice, Mort. She has been sent to a girl’s boarding school in Quirm (a cultured city not far from Ankh-Morpork) where, at age 16, she doesn’t understand why she sometimes remembers the future and can become invisible at will.

Then Death goes out on one of his periodic depressions, trying to erase the memory of taking the lives of Mort and Ysabell in a terrible carriage crash. And Susan, who has been carefully raised NOT to know that Death is her grandfather or even to believe in such a person, suddenly finds herself thrust into the role of Death Himself. All in all things are going surprisingly well until she comes face to face with a boy who is about to die, and realizes that she is destined to have a future with him.

The boy is a druidic bard named Imp y Celyn (which turns out, when you get down to brass tacks, to be a paper-thin cover for Buddy Holly). Beautiful as an elf, sensitive and sweet-natured, and extremely talented, he has made the fatal mistake of swearing that he will be the most famous musician who ever lived. The gods do not take kindly to hubris, you know.

Running away from his homeland, Imp/Buddy comes to Ankh-Morpork to make a name for himself, falls in with a dwarf horn player named Glod and a troll drummer named Cliff, and soon they’re struggling to get started in a Guild economy which makes it prohibitively expensive to join the Guild and impossible to earn money by playing music without joining the Guild (unless you want parts of your body stomped on), so you can see their problem.

A magical guitar comes along–well, not magical exactly, but the sort of guitar that plays the guitarist–and the next thing you know, the instrument possesses Imp/Buddy and leads his band on a madcap musical chase surrounded by screaming fans, a greedy talent agent named C.M.O. . Dibbler, a murderously vindictive Guild of Musicians, and a girl Death who wants to save Imp/Buddy from death (and worse than death), but doesn’t know exactly how or why. Along the way she is helped or hindered by Albert, Death’s manservant; the Death of Rats and his talking raven steed; Ridcully and his silly wizard faculty at U.U.; and other strokes of luck.

Meanwhile, Death (Sr.) tries various methods of forgetfulness, including joining a wacky Foreign Legion where everyone is trying to forget (with absurd levels of success), drinking himself silly at the Mended Drum, and joining the company of hobos like Foul Old Ron.

Other old favorites show up, like Sgt. Colon and Cpl. Nobbs of the City Watch. And as this is the Discworld story in which the magic of Rock’n’Roll plays out (somewhat along the lines of the magic of Hollywood in Moving Pictures) you can expect a lot of music industry in-jokes, from take-offs on song titles and band names to merciless portraits of human folly at every level and on all sides of the stage. Heck, there’s even a motorcycle in there somewhere. But what will probably keep you turning the pages, more than anything else, is the romantic suspense (though a bit twisted from its usual format): does the girl save the boy in time? And will they live happily ever after?

Recommended Age: 14+