Interesting Times showcases the return of two fan favorites of the Discworld series: Rincewind, and Cohen and the Silver Horde. Now, of all of the various subseries of the Discworld books, I’ll admit that Rincewind is probably my least favorite. But Cohen and the Silver Horde mostly only appear in Rincewind-centered contexts, so I’ll take it. I suppose it makes sense in terms of contrast – the abject coward and the completely fearless.
In this book, Rincewind is sent all the way to the Agatean Empire, on the distant Counterweight Continent. The Agatean Empire is a convenient fantasy counterpart culture to ancient China. The Agatean Empire is having some turmoil, and for once it has very little to do with Cohen and his pals. No, it turns out there’s going to be a revolution. The current regime is being threatened by an underground movement of young people who want to see a change in the government’s harsh and restrictive policies.
I think the themes of revolution seen here vary slightly from those seen later in Night Watch, and I don’t think that they’re as fully fleshed out. But it is very clear that this is something that Pratchett had a lot of thoughts about, considering that he dedicated at least two books to the concept. A quote from him on the subject says, “I would say that one of things I wanted to develop in the story was the strange way in which revolutions can turn into tyrannies. People struggle to overthrow tyrants, then suddenly find that they’re ruled by ‘The Government’ once again – and popular uprisings don’t stop often to ask common people what it is they need.” I think that idea is definitely revisited later in Night Watch, with the initial lofty revolutionary goals of “Truth, Justice, and Freedom”, later being revised to add “and a Hard-Boiled Egg”.
Of course, who should show up with his own plans to become Emperor, but Genghiz Cohen himself. At one point, his Horde of seven nearly faces off against an army 700,000. Given the nature of the Discworld, it should be quite obvious who would win. The Horde, of course, due to the rules of narrativium. I personally thought that the Horde was the most entertaining part of this book, especially the presence of Mr. Ronald Saveloy, a retired school teacher who nonetheless has the heart and spirit of a true barbarian hero. When he is killed by cannon fire (not even a Horde member can withstand that), he goes to the warrior’s afterlife. Through a series of mishaps, an actual army of terra cotta soldiers is animated by magic, Cohen is actually installed as the Emperor, and through a freak accident, Rincewind narrowly avoids being killed and is teleported to XXXX or Fourecks, the Disc’s Australia counterpart. This sets us up nicely for the next Rincewind and the wizards books, The Last Continent.
At any rate, the prevailing theme of the disparity and lack of understanding between the upper and lower classes is a very solid one here. We get to see Twoflower again, but this time in a much darker context. His wife has been killed by the noble classes’ armies, and his daughters are leaders in the rebellion against them. What we see of his life makes it clear how wretched it is to be the peasant class, not just in any circumstances (let’s be real, there’s never a time when it’s chill and fine to be a peasant), but under a regime that is especially weighted against the peasant class. There’s a hint of Night Watch’s later theme that revolutions can’t be trusted, because they just go around and around again. It’s in the fact that the new regime can’t be trusted any more than the old one to actually do what’s right for the common people, because they too have become out-of-touch with them.
It’s a solid book, though I’ll admit that it’s not one of my favorite ones. It’s especially tough, because this book comes right before a decent stretch of three particular favorites of mine – Maskerade (a play on The Phantom of the Opera, which inspired my own novel), Feet of Clay (the subject of my very first blog post), and Hogfather (a book about Christmas, hope, and fantasies). And I know so many people love Rincewind, but he just never captivates me the way that most of the other primary protagonists do.
“The best thing you can do with the peasants is leave them alone. Let them get on with it. When people who can read and write start fighting on behalf of people who can’t, you just end up with another kind of stupidity. If you want to help them, build a big library or something somewhere and leave the door open.”
“Rincewind had always considered that life was no more than a series of temporary measures string together.”
“The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.”