The beginning of Sourcery is very good, and the end is very good, and I am trying to think of why the middle didn’t work for me as well as Equal Rites and Mort, the two Discworld books that immediately precede it in order of publication.
Equal Rites showed some of the magical power that comes to the eighth son of an eighth son; well, eighth child of an eighth son, since the baby in question is a girl, one whose life confounds several of Discworld magic’s preconceived notions. Sourcery concerns the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son, “A wizard squared. A source of magic. A sourcerer.” His name is Coin.
Coin’s father, a powerful wizard, had been driven into exile for falling in love, and wanted his revenge on the rest of the practitioners of magic. Death comes for the father shortly after Coin’s birth, but he manages a final prophecy for his son’s destiny: “And I say that my son shall go to Unseen University and wear the Archchancellor’s hat and the wizards of the world shall bow to him! And he shall show them what lies in their deepest hearts. Their craven, greedy hearts. He’ll show the world its true destiny, and there will be no magic greater than his.”
Death demands a loophole in the prophecy, because, as Death says, SUCH TINKERING WITH DESTINY COULD MEAN THE DOWNFALL OF THE WORLD. THERE MUST BE A CHANCE, HOWEVER SMALL. A brief negotiation follows:
“…they shall have their chance when my son throws his staff away.”
NO WIZARD WOULD EVER THROW HIS STAFF AWAY, said Death. THE BOND IS TOO GREAT.
“Yet it is possible, you must agree.”
Death appeared to consider this. Must was not a word he was accustomed to hearing, but he seemed to concede the point.
AGREED, he said.
“Is that a small enough chance for you?”
[Coin’s father] relaxed a little. In a voice that was nearly normal, he said: “I don’t regret it, you know. I would do it all again. Children are our hope for the future.”
THERE IS NO HOPE FOR THE FUTURE, said Death.
“What does it contain, then?”
But Coin’s father snags a little more future by ensconcing himself in the staff he has linked to his son, and thus to the prophecy that Death has already agreed to respect.
So that is the neat set-up for the book: a character who is himself a source of magic, with the potential for unlimited power. He is destined to use his power in such a way that may lead to the destruction of the Discworld.
I liked this danger to the world better than the one in The Light Fantastic because it arises from a character, and for understandable reasons. Coin will grow into his power, and have no real notion that he poses a danger because he’s never known anything else besides being a font of pure magic. Guided by his father, who is embodied in the staff, he will pursue his destiny, consequences to others be damned. Other people, other wizards, will join him, either because of the attraction of power, or because Coin can compel them. Will anyone step up to stop him? More to the point, will anyone even realize that there is a problem before it is too late?
Another reason to like Coin’s danger to the world is that a solution can be glimpsed at the beginning. “I’ll show them!” is essentially an immature vision, a fantasy of revenge. If Coin awakens to empathy, he may throw away the staff, fulfilling the loophole in the prophecy. But how can that come to pass?
Satisfyingly, and not without cost, but also in a way that affirms the decency at the heart of the Discworld stories.
Why did I like the middle of Sourcery less than Mort or Equal Rites? Part of it is the structure: saving the world, even in the clever setup described above, feels forced as a narrative driver. More important, though, is that I’m not so interested in Rincewind, the hapless wizard who’s the protagonist of Sourcery. He’s inept, and yet he survives. That’s good for the comic set pieces and the parody of various fantasy elements that are part of the fun of the book, but in the third novel with Rincewind as the lead character, it has worn thin for me.
The book’s strong finish redeems some of that, but I am still glad to look ahead and see that other characters carry the next few Discworld books.