Marc Burrows, The Magic of Terry Pratchett (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Terry Pratchett was one of England’s most famous writers. His novels sold in their millions and in several languages, and he received a knighthood for his work. Yet for all that, Pratchett’s books never quite received universal acceptance and he remains something of a mystery behind a very controlled public image. Marc Burrows approaches the Pratchett enigma from several angles in a biographical overview that will satisfy his legions of fans but leave others wanting a wee bit more.
The Magic of Terry Pratchett follows the standard biographical structure, beginning in Pratchett’s idyllic childhood where he thrived everywhere except in school. Pratchett was a prodigious reader in his local library, developing a passion for Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Satire, and he began writing his own stories as a teenager. Pratchett began his apprenticeship as a journalist on leaving school and married in 1968. He also wrote children’s stories for his newspaper, some of which laid the groundwork for later novels. His first novel, The Carpet People, emerged from that work. Pratchett continued his newspaper career through editing, but still wrote columns and reviews while writing his next novel – Pratchett was a prolific writer! Two science-fiction novels followed, along with a daughter. Pratchett moved from newspapers to Public Relations and released The Colour of Magic, his first Discworld novel.
Pratchett’s fame grew with the Discworld novels that appeared regularly through the late 1980s and beyond – he wrote at least one every year, except one, until his death and 17 between 1988 and 1992. But his day job in PR became more stressful until Pratchett’s writing career truly took off with Mort, allowing him to turn full-time. After a few more Discworlds, Pratchett turned to writing children’s books and a fruitful partnership with Neil Gaiman. Burrows describes how Pratchett’s writing polarized critical opinion. Pratchett brushed off negative jibes at his work but supported his fans to the hilt and answered all their letters. By 1996, Pratchett was the best-selling living British author, though he remained grounded in his thriftiness.
The 1990s was the era of Discworld Mania with a wide range of related products, twenty-three new novels, and a crew of artists coalescing around the concept. The first Discworld convention took place in 1995. Pratchett controlled as much of this as he could even while he fostered his author’s brand. The arrival of JK Rowling on the scene relegated Pratchett to second best-selling living British author, but he took that in his stride contrary to many media stories. His later Discworld novels were heavier reads, but he still wrote children’s novels. In 2007, Pratchett announced he had Alzheimer’s Disease. His reaction was to take the fight to the disease, becoming a spokesman for the cause and eventually for euthanasia. Despite his condition, or because of it, Pratchett wrote until the day he died in March 2015.
The Magic of Terry Pratchett falls somewhere between biography and critical review. Burrows did his research, and his analysis of the Discworld concept is excellent, as is his description of the sometimes sketchy world of publishing. His critiques of Pratchett’s books are also well balanced. Burrows presents a moving discussion of Pratchett’s fight with Alzheimers and his eventual defeat. He places Pratchett into the pantheon of modern fantasy writers, while depicting him as a generous, passionate, and independent man. Burrows does not manage to break into Pratchett’s personal shell, however, leaving significant biographical questions unanswered. In addition, Burrows’ obvious veneration for Pratchett shows through, particularly in the footnotes that he claims are homage to Pratchett’s style, but are often just irritating. Burrows never met Terry Pratchett, so he considers his research for this biography as his meeting. That should set off a hagiography alarm. It does not quite reach that level, but this is certainly written for Pratchett fans.