On the whole, I love Terry Pratchett and his wonderfully-written Discworld novels. So far, I’ve been a fan of such stories where Death is one of the main characters, usually having to do with him taking an interest in humanity and all the funny and sad things that come of it.
That said, Soul Music is a bit disappointing. Not a bad story, just not one of the best.
Susan Sto Helit is a young woman attending a ladies’ school in Quirm who finds out that she has inherited her grandfather’s business: being the Grim Reaper. Naturally, she’s resistant to the idea, but Grandfather has gone on holiday to forget all the troubles of being the cessation of life. Meanwhile, a trio of young and desperate musicians in Ankh-Morpork become the start of a wild new sensation–Music With Rocks In–thanks to a mystic guitar bought at a mysterious shop. It’s up to Susan and the wizards of Unseen University to find a way to contain all this madness.
For the most part, I liked the parts of this story that had to do with Susan, being her debut novel. She’s a very logical person trying to deal with all the irrational and mythical elements of her grandfather’s world. Her conversations with the Death of Rats and the raven are always engaging, with her as the straight man to their wisecracks. Even Death’s assistant Albert gets a semi-heroic role near the climax, though he’s mostly a cynical housekeeper with sardonic commentary.
That said, when it came to musician characters like Imp and his band mates, I wasn’t that drawn in. Yes, Cliff the troll is pretty articulate and thoughtful (for a troll), but Glod is a one-note dwarf character about gold and poor bargaining skills. Imp–later known as Buddy–is less of a character and more of a walking plot device. Their conflict with the Musicians’ Guild is a little interesting at first, though it gets old pretty quick.
As much as I enjoy Mr. Pratchett’s wit, I found myself groaning at the sheer number of puns and allusions in this book. There were so many veiled shout-outs to Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Blues Brothers, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and punk rockers that after a while I wasn’t reading so much as going through the motions. I know it’s all based on a bizarre magic that created Music With Rocks In, but the mysterious magical entity doesn’t do much except persist. There’s no real threat, just a series of rock music and music fan parodies with no end in sight. And when it’s over, there’s no lasting impact. Just some vague memories and back to life as usual.
If I were the sort of reviewer who rated works (and I’m usually not, I swear), then I would rate Soul Music as a three-out-of-five novel. It’s not the worst Discworld novel ever written–not when great characters like Susan and Death are involved–but it’s not the best either.
Bibliography: Pratchett, Terry. Soul Music. London: Victor Gollancz, 1994.