A Stroke of the Pen

By Terry Pratchett

They say that you should never meet your heroes, lest they disappoint, but I have met several of my favourite authors over the years and have always had a pleasant experience. I never had the chance to meet Sir Terry Pratchett which was a shame as he was, like for many readers of genre fiction, one of my absolute favourite authors. In his case of A Stroke of the Pen: The Lost Stories the saying should warn, never get to know your heroes lest their past work disappoint you. This is a collection of Pratchett short stories written under a pseudonym and until recently many of them had not been published in decades. Fear not fans, the heart and warm cynicism of the great man was still present even before the Discworld. 

Before becoming one of the most successful fantasy writers of all time, Sir Terry wrote for a local paper. Not write ups of a daring rescue of the Anderson’s cat getting stuck up the tree again, but short stories, sometimes serialised. Stroke gathers curios and lost tales from the 70s and 80s. They offer a glimpse into the mind of the writer, what he was then and what he was to become later.  

Stroke contains twenty stories, many of the only a few pages long. They vary in subject matter, but most are amusing takes on urban fantasy or Christmas stories. One story will stand out the most to fans of the Discworld as we read about an incompetent wizard using a Conan like barbarian to do his bidding. 

The Quest for the Keys is the longest tale and closest to the Discworld. It acts as a prototype to some of the ideas and characters seen in that series. There are variations of Rincewind and Dibbler, parts are even set in a grimy city called Morpork. It acts as the grand finale for this collection and will be like nectar to fans who still dream of returning to the Disc again one day. It was the most serialised of the stories and I feel suffers a little for this, felling more disjointed than the other stories in the collection. Still an enjoyable read, but for me, the rest of the collection offers the most interesting snippets. 

Many of these stories have no real link to Pratchett’s later, more famous, books, but you can feel his voice. As a fan, you get that wonderful feeling of reading a new story Pratchett story, the tone, the style, the humour. The likes of The Fossil Beach or The Great Blackbury Pie are absurdist slices of urban fantasy, full of funny ideas. As an author he always had a sense of the absurd and you get to witness the art being honed. 

The urban fantasy stories set in and around Blackbury really tickled me and over the stories you get a feel for the place. The modern age was not an era that Pratchett bothered with too often directly, but he could have easily written some longer form novels set here. The references are of the time, so a historic sense of Britain in the 70s and 80s helps with some of the humour. It reminded me in part of some humour of the era Flashman, Wilt, and the later work of the other great fantasy absurdist of our age, Robert Rankin and his Brentford novels.  

Another theme that I enjoyed was the tales of Pratchett’s cynical Christmas, of Scrooge fixing things or Father Christmas getting a new job. It is in these stories that we see more of Pratchett’s acerbic humour. You get the sense that he never suffered fools gladly and his attitude to the over-commercialisation of the festive period was to bring it down to size. These tales have no link to his bestselling series but hold all the same joy to read. 

Fans of the great Sir Terry Pratchett will pick up A Stroke of the Pen in the hopes of recapturing that annual feel of grabbing the latest hardback and absorbing on day one. They will be facinated by the origin story of The Discworld found in The Quest for the Keys, but the real magic is in the rest of the book, in a series of punchy short stories that may not have a Carrot or a Weatherwax, but they have all the heart and humour that we miss. 

Written on 11th October 2023 by .

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