Soul Music by Terry Pratchett is the 16th novel in the author’s Discworld series and the third in the Death sub-series. After a tragic carriage accident kills his adopted daughter Ysabel and his son-in-law/former apprentice Mort, Death becomes distraught and bemoans his inability to forget anything, wishing to quell his grief. Death wanders off into the world, leaving his vocation unfulfilled. It is soon foisted upon his bewildered granddaughter Susan, who was kept away from him for the sake of living a normal life. She struggles with the duties of the vocation, however, feeling she ought to use it to make the world a fairer place. Meanwhile, a young musician named Imp has traveled from his distant home in the mountains to make a name for himself in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Unbeknownst to him, something powerful and ancient has set its sights on him, shifting reality to make his dreams comes true…on its own terms.
I’m always excited to read a Discworld novel about Death, so the most regrettable thing about this novel is the fact that he has the least active role he’s ever had in this sub-series thus far. It’s hard for me to start this review without bringing that up. It’s the one sticking point, really. That being said, there’s a lot going on in this book that’s really quite good, so while I didn’t get as much time with the character as I would’ve liked, there was still plenty to take in and enjoy. In the vein, we have Susan’s experiences rediscovering her bizarre heritage.
As the granddaughter of Death, Susan inherits much of his abilities and traits—even more so while he’s absent—allowing her to see things the way he does and give a more human perspective on it. In this way, though Death is often absent, a lot of the story is about understanding him; how he sees his place in the world, how that has evolved, and how he tries to connect with others. I loved every little detail about his attempts to emulate human things. There’s one in particular that’s significant to his relationship with Susan that I won’t spoil, but there are many small things too, like bathroom towels in his home being as hard as stone or drawers on his desk that don’t open. He recognizes things that belong in certain places, but he has no frame of reference for what they’re for. I loved how this so effectively captured how otherworldly his mind is, yet also made him relatable in how much he himself tries to understand and connect with others.
Despite Death and Susan playing key roles, the true heart of the story lies with Imp and his compatriots—a dwarf hornblower named Glod and a troll percussionist named Lias—as they struggle with joining the Musicians Guild in Ankh-Morpork due to the steep fees, discover a mystical guitar in a mysterious shop that hadn’t been there the day before, and explode onto the music scene against guild wishes. The guitar is possessed by an otherworldly music, which their band (dubbed “The Band With Rocks In” after Lias’s tuned rocks) doesn’t really play so much as the music plays them. The guitar saves Imp from his fated death on the night of their first performance, much to Susan’s bafflement, and they become a smash success as the music whips people into a frenzy of enthusiasm.
If it wasn’t obvious, this music is supposed to be rock music, and while the premise of it rocking a fantasy world doesn’t exactly sweep me off my feet, I got the strong sense that Pratchett was having a lot of fun with the idea. His apparent glee was rather infectious too. The story is packed full of gags and references, bent a little to fit the setting, and it was hard not to get a good chuckle out of it. Music isn’t something I particularly connect with on a critical level, but with so many bands being ubiquitous it was easy to be in on the jokes with him Imp eventually changes his name to Buddy, for instance, because the translation of his native of name is “bud of holly.” Get it? There was even a little Blue Brothers reference thrown in there too, which I somehow caught despite not having seen the film.
The core plot, with a force invading the Discworld and making profound changes, is rather common in this series. Archchancellor Ridcully of the wizards, one of the perspective supporting characters, even remarks upon it in a half-knowing way that I found amusing. All the same, this was a rather good execution upon that sort of story. Though not especially deep, it made for an interesting commentary on how much of an overwhelming whirlwind fame can be, when at the outset you were set on more humble successes, whether it be just making a living or simply sharing your talent with the world. Everything comes together around this story of musical fame and rock music references in a way I hadn’t quite expected too, giving Death something he didn’t know he needed in his quest to simply forget. It made for an appreciably subtle moment.
Soul Music is a great continuation of the Death series that does well with developing the character further, while telling a good standalone story, and laying the groundwork for future books. The story was spread across so many perspectives that it felt as if there was a lot going on at once, but it all worked rather cohesively. Most Discworld novels you could start the series with, and while I would recommend at least reading Mort and Reaper Man first, if the rock music focus appeals to you it should be pretty accessible. It ultimately didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped it would, but it was a rock solid entry in the series overall, resting on the higher end in my estimation.
My Rating: 4 out of 5