Interesting Times is the 17th novel in Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy Discworld series and the 5th novel in the “Rincewind” sub-series. The Patrician of the city of Ankh-Morpork has received a vexing message from the reclusive Agatean Empire, simply reading “Send Us Instantly The Great Wizzard.” Tasking Archchancellor Ridcully of the Unseen University with finding him, he and his faculty deduce that this “wizzard” can only be one man: the infamously hapless Rincewind. They retrieve him from his life as a castaway, goading him into visiting the mysterious Agatean Empire to see what it is they want. Magically transporting him there, Rincewind is placed smack in the middle of a polite rebel uprising, a barbarian invasion, and the schemes of an ambitious Grand Vizier who is pulling the strings.
It wasn’t until I started this book that I realized just how long it had been since Rincewind was a featured character. He was the main character in three of the first five novels, only to be featured once more in an illustrated novella (book nine) before finally returning in this one. The Discworld has become much more robustly populated in the plethora of novels since book five, most notably among the faculty of the Unseen University. They welcomed the likes of Archchancellor Ridcully since Rincewind’s departure, who has had the wizards more actively involved in many of the incidents befalling Ankh-Morpork, much to their chagrin. The faculty was a lot more nebulous in the previous books Rincewind had appeared in, so it was a great joy to see Rincewind brought back into the fold with these familiar, recurring characters.
This novel doubles as a Rincewind misadventure and an exploration of another unique civilization on the Discworld, this time a farcical play upon old-fashioned, Western understandings of Asia or “the Orient.” The Agatean Empire seems to most resemble Imperial China, though there are smatterings of references to Japanese ideas as well, such as samurai, sumo wrestling, and ninjas. This was some of the weakest stuff in the novel for me, as it felt more like window-dressing with the odd old stereotype thrown in, rather than something he had anything to say about. The exploration of living under oppressive, Imperial authority was considerably more interesting, fortunately, particularly the ways it emphasized how an overbearing-enough social hierarchy doesn’t need whips at the ready to keep a populace in line. It never got so grim as to undermine the comedic tone, but the ideas hit home.
The story nicely ties back into the duology that started the series. Those first two books involved Rincewind traveling with Twoflower, a tourist from the Agatean Empire who wanted to see the world outside his reclusive homeland. It turns out, after he returned home Twoflower wrote down his experiences as a book called “What I Did on my Holidays,” which began to circulate as a revolutionary text thanks to greater freedoms other common people on the Disc enjoy.
Rincewind is considered a saviour-like figure among the revolutionaries thanks to his role in Twoflower’s book and they believe he can lead them to certain victory. Rincewind of course wants no part in this. The story appreciably expounds on the troubles with governments by having him challenge the revolutionaries themselves, in a way that was surprisingly savvy for him as a character without betraying his cowardly nature. Pratchett does not go so far as to suggest a perfect resolution the problem of uprisings putting the people under new management, rather than seeing to their needs, but I was pleased that the story amounted to something more elaborate than Rincewind failing his way upward toward a successful revolution.
The X factor that helped throw a spanner in the works of the revolution and those guiding it was Cohen, the nonagenarian barbarian, making his triumphant return after he first crossed paths with Rincewind in The Light Fantastic. He leads a small horde of other elderly warriors, plus a former school teacher, intent on pulling the greatest caper of their long lives. They were some of the funniest parts of the book, thanks in no small part to the fact that they’re an actual force to be reckoned with despite their advanced ages. Their struggle to understand and conform to notions of civilization was really well done too, having them confronted with some of the truly ugly aspects of supposed “civilized” society. Can’t say the barbarian life would be for me, but Cohen certainly does make a case for a simpler approach to living.
Interesting Times seems a rather popular novel among Discworld fans, but I wasn’t especially enamoured with it. I really liked the characters and the way they interacted with the world, but the plotline itself left a little to be desired for me. Certain moments and developments had their strengths, but there was a lot of meandering and predictability to it too.
Its strongest suit was definitely the way Rincewind is characterized, maintaining his penchant for running away and weaseling out of situations while also presenting him as someone much more worldly than he’d once been. I got a greater sense of how put-upon he is as a character too, the situations he’s forced into rarely being his fault. Cohen and his “Silver Horde” made the story a lot of fun too, but the characters notwithstanding, it was a fairly middling book. Definitely worth checking out, but I wouldn’t consider it among the best.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5