Interesting Times
May 17, 2023 5:09 PM - Subscribe

The Agatean Empire, on the Disc's gold-rich Counterweight Continent, is at a crossroads. The Emperor (May He Live for a Thousand Years) is old and mad, and at death's door. The Five Noble Families are positioning themselves for what will come afterwards. A group of revolutionaries called The Red Army are busy sloganeering. A new book called "What I Did on My Holidays" is making tons of waves. Barbarians are within the gates of the Forbidden City. And into all of this, Ankkh-Morpork's Unseen University sends Rincewind, who may not be the "Great Wizzard" the Agateans are expecting. (Discworld #17, Wizards #5.) By Terry Pratchett.

It's the Discworld Book Club! Sorry it's been a minute - the Rincewind books have been a little tougher for me to rip through, for whatever reason. If you're new here, Fanfare covered the first 6 books in the series back in the day (The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery, Wyrd Sisters), then we went through the City Watch books (Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff) as well as the Industrial Revolution books (Previously: The Truth, Monstrous Regiment, Going Postal.) before covering some standalone books (Pyramids, Moving Pictures, Small Gods) before picking up where we left off with Rincewind and the Gang at Unseen University (Previously: Eric.) The next book following that order will be The Last Continent, though it might be a moment before I get there, as I clearly need to reread a few of the earlier ones in order to get my bearings on this subseries again.


The Agatean Empire is a profoundly isolationist nation, surrounded by a wall seemingly designed to keep Agateans in as much as to keep Barbarians out. The Empire does correspond with Lord Vetinari of Ankh-Morpork from time to time, however, and now the Patrician has received a missive requiring the delivery of "The Great Wizzard." After Vetinari informs Archchancelor Ridcully of Unseen University, who summons Rincewind from the desert island he most recently ended up stranded on. Ridcully makes Rincewind a deal - go see about this Agatean Empire business, and the University will finally recognize him as an actual Wizard. Rincewind agrees.

A new summoning spell is used to send Rincewind to the other side of the Disc, which works by exchanging his placement with that of a live cannon. Rincewind thankfully has enough of a gift for languages that he is able to communicate with the Agateans, but he finds himself in the midst of an incipient revolution. Or, depending on what you consider a revolution, several .

The Five Noble Families (Hong, Tang, Sung, Fang and McSweeney) are political animals jockeying for position as the Emperor (whom no one will miss) nears death. First among them by a mile is the Grand Vizier Lord Hong, a man so gifted at this kind of cunning and strategy that he's grown weary of not having a worthy opponent, and who longs for what he knows of Ankh-Morpork - a place he plans to know much better when he's Emperor himself and goes off to conquer it.

The Red Army are young and idealistic and into slogans and posters and are sure that they can help the peasants they've never really personally interacted with at all. Hong believes, not without cause, that he can elevate the perceived threat they present in order to frame them for the murder of the Emperor, and then take over himself in the ensuing counter-revolution.

Cohen the Barbarian is a geriactric Hero of the "stab who you must to take what you want" variety. His "Silver Horde" may be miniscule in number and ridiculously advanced in age, but they've survived for as long as they have by people always underestimating what it takes to survive for as long as they have. They've got a former schoolteacher among them, Mr. Saveloy, who is teaching them how to be civilized. Meanwhile, they're pretty sure they can just install Cohen to the throne without much of a fuss. After all, almost nobody really knows what the Emperor looks like anyway.

"What I Did on My Holidays" is a travelogue about the author's adventures outside the Agatean Empire. By Ankh-Morpork standards, it's not necessarily much to speak of. By Agatean standards, however, it provides a glimpse of what life could be like under less-oppressive rule, and is a rare peek beyond the Empire's walls. It has, naturally, been banned.

The Luggage is a fiercely devoted steamtrunk with an uncountable number of feet.

Rincewind is an incompetent mage with a talent for running away from things, which makes him a favorite playing of The Lady in her celestial games against Fate. It just so happens that Fate and The Lady are striking up a game right now...
posted by Navelgazer (10 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So this one took me forever, but I think that's partially that I needed a bit of a break, and partially that it's been so long since I read the previous Rincewind books that I had very little grounding for what was going on here. Writing it up I found I enjoyed the overall arc of it more than I realized, though. Seeing Twoflower again was nice (it'd been so long for me that I definitely did not remember that he was Agatean even) and the "What I Did on my Holidays" stuff was probably my favorite element of this.

I have no idea what to make of the Agatean Empire being a very thinly-veiled stand-in for China. Like, maybe this was fine, but it still seems dicey from a white British dude. That said, the shots fired are all pretty much at institutions, while different Agatean characters had a wide range of personalities. Which is a low bar for sure but still one I'm glad to see this cleared.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:18 PM on May 17, 2023

This was the first Discworld I ever read, and I haven't re-read it since I was a child. I'm interested to find out how I find it now.
posted by Merus at 6:01 PM on May 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

This book always makes me disappointed that we didn't get a full-on Cohen the Barbarian novel.
posted by madajb at 9:21 PM on May 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

This book always makes me disappointed that we didn't get a full-on Cohen the Barbarian novel.

I feel like we got a lot of Cohen in the Rincewind books, and The Last Hero gives him a proper send-off.
posted by Merus at 11:38 PM on May 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Teach qualifying for the barbarian hero afterlife was nice.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:02 AM on May 18, 2023 [3 favorites]

I'm afraid this is one of the ones I find unreadable. The Agatean Empire is appropriation and caricature, neither of which I welcome. Cohen and his troop are just annoying, and so is Rincewind.

So yeah, no thanks.
posted by humbug at 10:45 AM on May 18, 2023 [3 favorites]

Full sucking-in-air-through-the-teeth reaction here. To be honest, this book is one of the first things I bought in the UK. Long story short, I was a teen and I had not even left the airport. There was a long wait for our ride, so I went to a bookshop, and a new Terry Pratchett paperback was sitting there like it was nothing.

I was delighted by it then. I do still think the Silver Horde are pretty funny, although I do not hold with the rape jokes. (Although they were jokes about barbarian pulp stories, rather than the thing itself.) And it's a shame that Mr. Saveloy had to go and not appear in any other stories. He was terrific.

As for what's wrong with the Agatean Empire, Mark Oshiro posted a pretty long summary. The best you can say is that Pratchett apparently meant well and thought that his "colorblindness" preserved him from needing to do any postcolonial reading. If he thought about that at all, of course -- it was the early 90s, and not many white writers were talking about sensitivity readers.

(Incidentally, I would love to read a review of Nation from a Polynesian reader, but I never have found one. I thought it was a wonderful book, but then, I would.)
posted by Countess Elena at 1:23 PM on May 18, 2023 [6 favorites]

I liked the complicated plot with so many moving tiles, I loved many of the characters, I can deal with Rincewind and to a lesser extent Twoflower. I always liked Cohen though the Horde was a bit much.
But the ancient corrupt empire destined to fall with the arrival of enterprising outside actors makes it a book I like to forget when I think of Pratchett's work.
posted by Ashenmote at 1:35 AM on May 20, 2023 [2 favorites]

Question: Is "What I Did On My Holidays" a nod to the Fairport Convention album title "What We Did On Our Holidays?" or are they both a reference to something else - for example a traditional composition assignment after a school break? There also seems to be a 2014 comedy film called "What We Did on our Holiday" (singular). Is this phrase a standard and familiar formulation of some sort for Brits?

The closest American equivalent I can think of would be elementary school writing composition assignments on "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" but that's not a standardized thing with a recognizable phrase covering it, though such assignments are fairly common. I was just wondering if there's some common connection I'm overlooking by not being that familiar with common British tropes.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:55 PM on June 1, 2023

I had missed out on these threads for a while, but was curious about what everyone’s take on this one would be (and luckily popped back in at the right time).
Glad to know I’m not alone in my thoughts here. I am generally a Rincewind apologist… except for this one.
posted by TangoCharlie at 10:44 PM on June 6, 2023

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