Yes, Pratchett never quite figures out how to get beyond his broad-brush depiction of the Agatean (i.e. Jade, i.e. Chinese) Empire. There’s a superb but underutilized villain, a potentially wonderful apocalyptic ending that comes rather out of nowhere, a bit of a clumsy main plot…and of course Rincewind, Pratchett’s least interesting protagonist, plus Twoflower and the Luggage for a little trip to Memory Lane. It’s quite funny, particularly in the second half, but the jokes and the plot seem to come from different places at times.
The actual music in the last Discworld book (Soul Music, published the same year(!)) was undercooked, but Pratchett handled the mythic dimension of his ‘music with rocks in’ perfectly — and he doesn’t soar in that way here. Even Twoflower’s moment of bravery at the end, which should have gone through me like a lance, felt a little disconnected from the rest of the book.
Yet the bright center of Interesting Times is Genghiz Cohen, Cohen the Barbarian, and his wonderful Silver Horde. When Rincewind steps offstage and the old men move to the fore, Pratchett’s empathy and affection surge forth — his sense of time, its cruelty and compensations, is understandably less engaged when he’s dealing with his picaresque coward, but the Horde will die, and that knowledge is one of the animating forces of the ‘true’ Discworld. Cohen’s story sparks Pratchett’s humanistic imagination — I think Twoflower’s stand arrives out of the same impulse — and the result is a middling (though very funny) book with a pure heart.
Again, ‘minor Discworld’ in a sense…but this is still Pratchett’s ‘golden age,’ the man was still one of the great modern comic writers, and the next two volumes are Maskerade and Feet of Clay, by consensus some of his best work. I’m half tempted to jump right into Granny’s adventures in the opera. But there are so many book-books on my shelves, and what’s the hurry?
At this time in my life, Pratchett might be my favourite writer.