Soul Music is the third novel in Pratchett’s Discworld “Death” series, and as in the previous two novels, we see Death abruptly abandon his duties and behave, or try to behave anyway, as a human would in his attempt to deal with an unexpected problem. Unlike the previous novels though, Death this time has an able replacement — his granddaughter Susan. This does not mean, however, that there won’t be trouble, and in Soul Music, the trouble has to do with a young musician and his unusual guitar.
Susan, the daughter of Mort and Ysabell, is an extremely capable young woman attending a boarding school. She is a logical, no-nonsense kind of girl, and she has the extraordinary ability to make herself invisible to those with whom she prefers not to interact. Shortly after her parents’ untimely and tragic death, she is visited by Death of Rats and his interpreter, the raven; through them she learns, or re-remembers, that she is the granddaughter of Death and that given his absence, she needs to take over his duties. Death, it turns out, is grieving. Ysabell was his adopted daughter, and the deaths of Ysabell and Mort have made him depressed — a feeling that he has never experienced before but that he knows humans have. Death decides that he will deal with it as humans do — try to forget. But how? Death’s attempts at forgetting are both hilarious and poignant. As always, I find Death to be one of Pratchett’s most interesting characters; he tries very hard to know and understand the ways of humans but mostly falls short. I love Death.
Meanwhile, Susan’s first job as the reaper is to deal with one Imp y Celyn. Imp is an 18-year-old bard from the countryside who has argued with his father and declared that he will be the world’s greatest musician. Turns out, sometimes the gods listen and Imp’s words unleash something that will be a blessing and a curse for him. Imp has left home for the big city, Ankh Morpork, with his harp only to find that if you want to play music there, you have to belong to the guild and that costs more money than he has. He joins up with two other budding musicians, Glod Glodsson the dwarf horn player and the troll Lias (aka Cliff),who plays rocks (drums) and they form a “Band with Rocks In” but before they can even get started, Imp’s harp meets an unfortunate end. Oddly, conveniently, a music store just happens to be where they need it and it has a guitar that they can afford. Imp, aka “Buddy”, seems to have a unique relationship with this instrument and when he plays, not only does he attract a lot of positive attention but Glod and Cliff become better musicians as well. It’s like the guitar is playing Imp instead of the other way around. Their first gig is at a dive bar called the Mended Drum, and according to Imp’s sand timer, which Susan/Death has, it should be Imp’s last. The patrons of the Drum tend to get a bit enthusiastic with projectiles and one is meant to kill Imp. When Susan sees Imp, she is struck by how unfair it is that he should die young and, even though she knows she shouldn’t, she intervenes to try to stop his death. Something weird happens though; Imp’s timer, instead of being filled with sand, has some kind of strange bluish substance in it. Susan has no idea what it is or what has been unleashed on the Discworld.
The Band with Rocks In becomes a huge underground sensation, much to the dismay of the musician’s guild and delight of shady businessman Dibbler, who becomes their manager. Among the band’s devotees are a number of faculty from Unseen University, which means the reader is in for some super-silly fun. The faculty of Unseen U are also among my favorite characters, especially the Dean, who in this novel becomes like a rebellious teen to the Archchancellor’s father figure. Nearly every page in this novel is full of allusions to famous rock bands and songs, teen rebellion, and “behind the music”-type descriptions of the ups and downs of life in a rock band. For example, Imp has to keep denying that he is “Elvish” and a song that every aspiring guitar play in Ankh Morpork tries to learn is called “Pathway to Paradise.” A number of Blues Brothers allusions make it in there, too. I do wonder if younger readers today will recognize some of the jokes.
The story lines involving Imp, the guitar, Susan and Death do eventually converge with a huge free outdoor concert, wherein the Band needs to make a secret escape, a crazy cart chase with the bad guys ensues, and Death rides a motorcycle. Sometimes it feels like the different lines gets a bit unwieldy, but it’s mostly good fun and quite funny. I am always going to love Death and the faculty at the Unseen University, and Pratchett’s witty puns and wordplay delight me, so much can be forgiven. I might take a little break from Pratchett for now, but I will be back for more.