My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So…I should immediately confess, for those who are not regular readers of my reviews, that I am a big Terry Pratchett fan and simply adore his Discworld novels. I’m not going to be completely unbiased then when it comes to his work.
And what a gem ‘Strata’ promised to be! One of his earliest books, written in 1981, exploring in infant form what would become the Discworld itself. What an opportunity to see an early foray into that universe.
Well, sure enough, it was fascinating – but it wasn’t the well-honed Pratchett I know and love. The story was pretty much a sci-fi of the type that was very common in the 80s, post-Star Wars. The were plenty of witty remarks from the gaggle of characters, but none of the brilliant humour and repartee that the author’s later characters would engage in. The Discworld itself is a shadow – almost a caricature – of what that world would come to be. All of this makes for disappointment.
But – and this is important – it is still Pratchett, and this means that, even in this early attempt, the writing is solid – the story as good as anything else that was on the market at the time. As a throwaway trashy sci-fi it is perfect. You would certainly read this book and be perfectly satisfied before then sending it off to the charity shops, rather than keep it on your shelves.
The key achievement of the novel is the overarching theme that Pratchett has in mind from the beginning, which is clever and plays with our sense of truth. As all his later novels would do, the author loves to make us look at our lives, our cultures, our history and what we think we know about life. Here it is hidden but, from the opening passages through to the eventual ‘reveal’ at the end, there’s a ‘gotcha’ in place and it is one to mess with the heads of both the religious and atheists. I’ll say no more, but it’s a cracker.
My biggest critical complaint, from the point of view of the internal wranglings of the novel, is that the character of Jago Jalo is simply not used correctly. He comes in as a major character who is the whole reason for the story occurring at all, and is then written out, never to appear again. I was waiting for his denouement at the end and…it didn’t happen, though he is briefly mentioned. It’s annoying because this makes it obvious that he was just a vehicle to get the characters into place. It’s all too contrived. Terry Pratchett would never make that mistake again.
Overall then, this is a book for the die-hard fans, like myself, who will be fascinated to see the origins of Pratchett’s ideas. But as a novel in its own right? Well, for teenagers, perhaps. If you’re fresh to reading – and reading sci-fi in particular – then the novel has some charm. But frankly, I’d rather go straight for the gold and read the author’s Discworld series. If ‘Strata’ does anything, it shows just how much hard work Pratchett put in to crafting superlative books later in his career. It might look like he writes naturally, but clearly he doesn’t. That just makes me admire the man all the more. It is still a huge loss that he is no longer with us.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.