Book Review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows

Picture of a book cover. The title is The Magic of Terry Pratchett, the author is Marc Burrows and it announces a foreword by Helen O'Hara. The picture is a very realistic drawing of Terry Pratchett's face with a background of blue/green outer space imagery.

My rating: 4 stars

Book Blurb
(from Pen & Sword):

The Magic Of Terry Pratchett is the first full biography of Sir Terry Pratchett ever written. Sir Terry was Britain’s best-selling living author*, and before his death in 2015 had sold more than 85 million copies of his books worldwide. Best known for the Discworld series, his work has been translated into 37 languages and performed as plays on every continent in the world, including Antarctica. Journalist, comedian and Pratchett fan Marc Burrows delves into the back story of one of UK’s most enduring and beloved authors; from his childhood in the Chiltern Hills, to his time as a journalist, and the journey that would take him – via more than sixty best-selling books – to an OBE, a knighthood and national treasure status. The Magic Of Terry Pratchett is the result of painstaking archival research alongside interviews with friends and contemporaries who knew the real man under the famous black hat, helping to piece together the full story of one of British literature’s most remarkable and beloved figures for the very first time.
*Now disqualified on both counts.

Full disclosure, I received an ARC pdf of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Starting a biography of one of Britain’s best loved modern day authors, an author who has only been dead for five years, by announcing that you never met him or had any connection with him at all during his life is unorthodox, to say the least. Yet this is what Marc Burrows choses to open his introduction with. He quickly goes on to tell us that writing this book was his way of getting to meet the man he admires so much, now that it is no longer possible to do so in the flesh. He then suggests reading this book is a way for us to meet him too. 

As a long-time fan of Terry Pratchett who also never got to meet him, this attempt to conjure him into our consciousnesses with words is completely understandable, for all that it seems deeply optimistic. Words have remarkable power but when they are being built on sources that are all publicly available – Terry’s estate have not authorised the biography, although they have wished Marc well with the book – I could not see how it was going to be possible to give me more insight into the man underneath the hat than I already had. 

And in all honesty it didn’t. I can’t say that I felt closer to Terry as person after I’d read it than I did before I started. What I can say is that it put everything that I already knew about him into proper chronological order, added a layer of gloss to it and, in addition, provided a detailed and interesting look at Terry’s progression as an author. 

The book is well written, clearly set out, and – despite some jumps backwards and forwards between topics which is inevitable with someone like Terry, who had such an interesting career path as well as an astonishingly prolific output – easy to follow. There are footnotes throughout*, the majority of which add to the text rather than take away from it, and Marc is careful to alway cite his sources, which are many and varied and do included people who worked closely with Terry. There are several points where Marc states his opinions as fact but when writing a biography without direct access to the subject’s family or his personal archives, that’s a very hard thing to avoid doing. It does not, for me at least, damage the veracity of the book as a whole.

There were some authorial quirks that niggled away at me as I read. The most noticeable of these being the oft repeated assertion that Terry was a story teller who embellished the tales he told of he own life, so we can’t be certain what really happened in many cases. I don’t doubt for a second that this is true, it is after all what writer do, but I’m not sure we need to be reminded of the fact quite as often as we are.

The chapters which dealt with Terry’s Alzheimer’s and death were kindly, carefully, and sensitively handled. I will not pretend that they did not make me weep, nor that I did not feel again the anger I felt when he died; fury that the world had lost a man whose understanding of humanity was both profound and illuminating and had such a gift for showing others just what humanity was capable of, both good and bad. 

What really made the book stand out for me, though, was the deep dive into Terry’s work. I found myself thinking more than once that
a) this book is more a literary analysis of Terry’s whole bibliography than it is a biography, and
b) that the book is all the better for being so.
I was pleased at how much focus was given to Terry’s journalism, early works and non-Discworld books and found the discussion of the Discworld canon, and everything which sprung from it, equally as illuminating. 

The Magic of Terry Pratchett has been meticulously researched, carefully put together, and shines brightly with the love Marc clearly has for Terry’s works. The textual analysis is excellent (if highly subjective in parts) and I found the care and attention to detail a fitting memorial to one of my favourite authors. The most magical aspect of Terry’s life, at least from the perspective of those who didn’t know him, is the words he wrote and the worlds he created. What this book gives us, openly and honestly, is the story of those words and I can, therefore, happily recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether they were already a fan of Pterry or someone curious about a man whose name topped the best seller charts so often. 

I should also add that I’ve ordered a copy for my shelves as it has definitively earned its place in my collection of Pratchett ephemera. It’s not available as an e-book yet but you can order a hardback copy here.

*because of course there are footnotes, this is Terry being discussed, there couldn’t not be footnotes!

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