Rereading all three of the Susan Sto Helit (or Susan Death) books was something I had been greatly looking forward to. I’ve always enjoyed Susan as a character even when I didn’t especially love the books she featured in – Soul Music, for instance, was never a favourite of mine, though the animated version of it is dear to my heart (funnily enough it DOES work better with a soundtrack of relevant examples of the music that the story is about), Hogfather is one I’ve often found bewildering with moments of occasional joy, and I never remember anything about Thief of Time at all.
This time around, I enjoyed all three rather better than I had in the past, but in reading them specifically for this blogging series, I couldn’t help noticing that, well. Considering what a popular and beloved character Susan is, it’s interesting what a small space she takes up in each of the books.
Discworld novels are always ensemble productions; this is part of their charm. But it was frustrating to me, reading these books mainly for Susan, how little we see of her. While she grows up and develops into an awesome adult from book to book, the plot is never actually about her – she’s not a protagonist, but fills the role of mentor/helper every time.
Generally speaking she gets a very interesting introduction in each of the books, spends most of the middle part wandering around being cross at people, exchanging banter with the minor supporting cast and not getting in the way of the plot, and then is finally allowed to get involved at the very end of the story in some kind of epic showdown which is keyed to her particular talents, allows for character development, and shows how awesome she is.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of reviewing books negatively for not meeting my own (possibly unrealistic) expectations, but considering how iconic Susan has become (she is for instance the young female character most often cited by casual readers to me as an example of strong women in the Discworld) is it too much to ask that she gets one book as the central character?
We first meet Susan in Soul Music, a schoolgirl with mysterious abilities and a sharp tongue. She’s immediately fantastic on the page – sarcastic and intelligent but very guarded, all her secret hurts piled up inside where no one, even the reader, can get access to them.
Soul Music is very much a sequel and a response to Mort, which is one of the most narratively satisfying and well plotted of the early Discworld novels, generally regarded as the one where the series ‘got good.’ This novel was about Death’s apprentice, who failed in his task to be a decent back up Death, but succeeded awkwardly in the actual reason he was taken on in the first place, to hook up with Death’s adopted daughter Ysabell. A key plot point revolves around Mort’s inability to accept the needs of the Duty, and how he saves the life of a beautiful princess after it should have ended, thereby throwing reality into a tailspin. At the end of his book, he dies and Death turns the hourglass over to give him more time, but mathematics are a bitch, and that means he’s probably only going to get as much time again as he has already had…
Susan’s story in Soul Music plays off that of Mort, her father. Shortly after both her parents are killed in a carriage accident, she finds herself having to pick up the pieces as her Grandfather (Death) abandons his Duty in order to ‘forget.’ I rather love the sneakiness of this plot line, as it becomes very obvious that Death is grieving the loss of Ysabell and Mort, and dealing with his guilt over not using his powers to ‘save’ them, but it’s never fully acknowledged until the end. Susan acquires the scythe, the rat and her Grandfather’s job… and starts to remember all those odd family visits when she was very young.
All this, however, is a two-stranded sub plot to the main event of the story, in which a young musician, Buddy, is possessed by an ancient evil inside a guitar and with a little help from his band brings Music With Rocks In to the Discworld, one of a series of magical pop culture invasions. It appears as if Susan, rather taken with Buddy, is going to save him from assassins just as her father did for Princess Keli – but the twist is that she doesn’t, at all. The music saves him instead, and warps reality. Rather than being the cause of the disaster, Susan is the one who picks up the pieces.
While Mort had the A plot in the novel named after him, Susan stays mostly in the B or even C plot of her debut novel, only occasionally crossing paths with the Band (regularly mistaken as a groupie) until the final act.
Soul Music passes the Bechdel Test, as there is a scene early on where we see Susan talking with her headmistress, another with her school friends, and a very cute one with a Valkyrie who reminds her of a gym mistress, but it is notable that the majority of the novel involves her interacting with men or male characters: Albert, the rat and the raven; the Band; Ridcully and the wizards, and her grandfather Death.
The climax of the story is very much about Susan and Death coming to an accord, and sharing/understanding their mutual loss – as well as resolving the elephant in the room, which is that Death let his own family die, when he could have saved them. Buddy and the Band literally fade out as the story is revealed to have really been about Susan and Death and their issues all along. However, I’m not convinced by the end that the two plots really had enough to do with each other, despite some clever uses of thematic resonance to pretend they are part of the same story.
Susan and Buddy are worth mentioning because of their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ninja romance, which is a pattern across the Susan stories – when attracted to young men, she will typically show no sign of it, and eventually they go away. In this case, the story ends on a note that suggests that they might have a future in which they at least know each other (surely the lowest bar for a successful relationship, even in the Discworld) but we never hear about him again.HOGFATHER
In Hogfather, we see yet another magical threat to the Discworld, mostly involving male characters. Death takes himself out of the equation, leaving Susan to pick up the scythe and take over. It’s basically Soul Music with Hogswatchnight (the Discworld Christmas) and the Tooth Fairies, instead of Music With Rocks In. The wizards even leap about in a slapstick sub plot.
I’ve never been fond of this one at all – it belongs to an era of Discworld novels that I have not tended to appreciate, and it’s one of those Pratchett novels like Carpe Jugulum that actually makes no sense until you’ve got to the end and re-read it. I know it’s loved by many, but I find that everything cool about it (like the conflagration of mythologies and folklore) is done far better in other Discworld novels.
Having said that, it also has some excellent bits, and Susan is magnificent even if once again she is relegated to the role of helper/mentor/tidyupperofdisasters and isn’t allowed to play with the plot-relevant main characters for more than short bursts.
What most bugs me about Hogfather is that there is no protagonist – or if there is, then it is the crazed assassin Teatime, who is not only the bad guy but a very unpleasant character to follow around. For this reason I think I prefer the TV movie to the book, because of not being in anyone’s head, plus the bonus of Michelle Dockery’s fabulous eyebrows. I always mean to make Hogfather the book a Christmas reading tradition as I know many Pratchett fans do, but never get around to it. The movie, however, I saw for the first time last Christmas and I can definitely see myself making it part of an annual ritual.
Ahem. But let’s get back to talking about the book. The Susan we meet here has moved past her schooldays to become a governess, and the scenes in which we see her actively governessing are the best in the book. It makes you wonder how governesses who don’t have eldritch powers possibly cope with the requirements of the job, particularly when it comes to dealing with monsters under the bed.
Susan’s steely practicality is shown to great effect in the scene where she and little Twyla give one particular monster a good seeing to with the poker, while the jolly and ignorant parents and their upper crust friends think the whole thing is an amusing bit of child psychology. Worth noting that young Twyla and the Tooth Fairy Violet are the only female characters Susan interacts with, and neither have much time in the book at all.
Indeed, there’s a fair bit of psychology (or in Discworld terms, Headology) going on in this book as a whole. Susan’s childhood and her lack of romanticism turn out to be of great benefits for this particular adventure, which revolves around the childhood belief in the Hogfather, and folklore traditions in particular. The skills she has picked up from wiping little noses and pinning up brightly coloured paintings (not to mention telling improbable stories to wide-eyed four-year-olds) turn out to be vital survival skills, a twist I really enjoy now as a mother myself to small children.
But again, Susan appears in so many fewer scenes than I expected, and while she is the one who faces Teatime with her skills of ruthless governessing, more than once, it still doesn’t feel like she is being treated like a hero by the narrative. Her interactions with Bilious, the Oh God of Hangovers, follow the pattern of Susan’s super-subtle ninja romances (though to be fair this one is so subtle I’m not even sure it’s supposed to be read that way) and he falls happily in love with someone else in the course of the story. Susan’s reaction to that romance is a quiet and understated deflation as if she hadn’t even decided if she liked him yet, and is determined to be nothing more than mildly wistful about his sudden attachment to the rather soppy Tooth Fairy Violet.
More and more, it seems that Susan is outside the human race, looking in.
While the book as a whole is quite uneven, I do love the ending of Hogfather, where Susan has already beaten Teatime in the tradition scythe-wielding way in the Tooth Fairy’s castle, and then has to save the day again by rescuing the mythic version of the Hogfather in form of a frightened wild boar, and then after all that, the threat turns domestic.
In the home of her employers, a battered and vicious Teatime appears, and tries to make Susan choose between the safety of her children and Death himself. Susan ends up throwing the nursery poker (which only kills monsters) through Death and into Teatime, killing him.
Once again, the finale behaves as if Susan was always the protagonist of the story after all, rather than someone helping out. If only the middle of the book felt the same way!
With Thief of Time, we have another story ostensibly about other people, whom Susan is going to help out. There’s rather less focus on Death as a central character, as he doesn’t get much of a subplot to himself this time around, which allows for a bit more Susan attention. The Auditors, otherworldly creatures of Order who were behind Teatime’s assassination of the Hogfather, are now attempting to stop time itself through the creation of a truly perfect glass clock out of a fairy tale.
The titular Thief of Time is a young orphan, Lobsang Ludd, who was raised by the Monks of History and turns out to be the illegitimate son of Time herself. He is taken on as an apprentice by Lu-Tze the Sweeper, who is preparing him for a great quest, to stop the building of the clock and save history.
The master-apprentice relationship between the two men is smart and banterific, with all manner of hidden depths to it. Lu-Tze is probably an amalgam of a whole bunch of racial stereotypes, but he’s so enjoyable on the page, with his subversion of traditional martial arts heroics. He feels at times like a male amalgam of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg – capable of great power, but most happy when people see nothing but a little old unthreatening person and underestimate him like whoa.
Likewise, Lobsang’s frustration with the master who won’t apparently teach him anything (while sneakily teaching him all of the important things) mirrors Magrat and Agnes’ respective journeys alongside the older witches of Lancre. As suggested by the title, the book is very much Lobsang’s story, and the climax of the story revolves around how he is able to utilise Lu-Tze’s teachings.
“Most people call me Lu-Tze, lad. Or ‘Sweeper’. Until they get to know me better, some call me ‘Get out of the way’. I’ve never been very venerable, except in cases of bad spelling.”So where’s Susan? Tidying up in the B-plot, as usual. She is now a school teacher, and one who uses all of her otherworldly abilities and innate practical ruthlessness to provide an unparalleled education for the children under her care. She has a life, in other words, and isn’t overly pleased to be summoned indirectly by her grandfather (he never asks in person, always sends the rat and the raven!) to interfere in a matter he himself is not allowed to be involved with.
Once again, she disappears for large sections of the book, while Lobsang is Learning Things and the Auditors are discovering how hard it is to walk in human shape without things getting all messy. Susan isn’t given much at all to do until the final act, when time is stopped and everything goes pear-shaped.
Along with Lu-Tse and Lobsang, the other most interesting relationship in Thief of Time is between Susan and Myria/Unity LeJean, the Auditor who takes on human shape to commission the clock and is quickly seduced, damaged and infiltrated by the messiness of human nature. It’s the closest thing we see to a female friendship for Susan since the schoolgirls from Soul Music (who didn’t really know her that well), and it’s an intense, complicated, utterly awkward combination of two people who have to work hard at pretending to be entirely human.
The use of chocolate and other foods as sensory weapons against the Auditors (who were intensely vulnerable to anything that smacked of humanity) and Unity’s use of illogical signs to keep them at bay were nothing short of brilliant, and the “boy talk” scene in which Unity embarrasses Susan with intimate questions and revelations about their respective attractions for Lobsang and his “brother” (really the other half of him) Jeremy was greatly revealing of both of their characters.
While there were a couple of elements of the way Myria/Unity’s character was handled that made me uncomfortable (mostly her self-diagnosis of being Completely Insane and how that meant she had to die, but also the whole gendered joke about women’s relationship to chocolate which had been set up around Susan from the start) all her scenes were quite electric, and I enjoyed how she and Susan worked as a team.
Susan names Unity, insisting its a better choice for her than Myria – being an individual rather than representing the many – and it’s a deeply symbolic act that ties them together. I’m so sorry that the story ended with Unity’s suicide, as I would have adored to see her embracing her new humanity (with Susan’s help) rather than giving up on it.
Meanwhile, there’s a romance. Yes, really. Between Susan and Lobsang. Possibly. They hardly ever cross paths through the book, but this is the (romantic) story of Susan’s life. This particular ninja romance with Lobsang is handled exactly the same way as her interactions with Buddy and Bilious: their few scenes together involve them getting a bit cross at each other on early acquaintance and never quite managing to convey any attraction at all. Susan’s buried interest in Lobsang is noticed by other characters, but not something she ever admits to – and while the two of them have one or two angst-filled conversations once it becomes obvious that he is going to have to leave humanity behind, there is no overt romance until the very final scene of the book, which makes it clear through some very understated (DID I MENTION SUBTLE) writing that Lobsang (maybe) returns Susan’s (possible) feelings.
In other words, they’re both utterly repressed and not quite human – perfect for each other, a bit doomed, and if there’s ever another Susan book I quite expect that Lobsang will not be mentioned again.
I wasn’t expecting to be quite so critical of Susan’s portrayal in the Discworld books – she’s always been a character I liked (and still do like, very much) and I think she’s a great example of the way that Pratchett improved radically in his portrayal of young female characters after his first ten or so books. It’s just a shame that with such a fabulous character, he seemed to not quite know what to do with her, or how to allow her to be a protagonist through an entire book, instead of being introduced and then waiting patiently while everyone else gets the character development and plot circles out of the way, and turning up with her scythe at the end to kick butt and take names.
Perhaps her story is done. She has certainly grown up from book to book, and what we have of her is awesome. A powerful female character who uses domestic skills as well as necessary battle skills, who isn’t distracted by romances, who gets the job done and then returns to the life she has built for herself. She’s extraordinary.
But if she does get to pick up the scythe one more time, before Pratchett finally lays down that pen of his, I hope he allows her to take central stage for a whole book, in a plot that revolves around her: Susan Sto Helit, Granddaughter of Death. Protagonist.
Posts in this series:
Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, The Bad and the Broomsticks
Pratchett’s Women II – Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening in Lords and Ladies
Pratchett’s Women III – Werewolf Glamour and the Sexing of Dwarves in Guards, Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay
Pratchett’s Women IV: His Henpecked Voice in Jingo & The Fifth Elephant
Pratchett’s Women V: The Seamstress Redemption in Night Watch
Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls, and the Family Man in Thud and Snuff
Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair – Agnes Nitt Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum
Pratchett’s Women VIII: Has Scythe, Will Teach School – Susan Sto Helit in Soul Music, Hogfather & Thief of Time
Pratchett’s Women IX: The Truth Has Got Her Boots On
Pratchett’s Women: Unauthorised Essays on Female Characters of the Discworld, by Tansy Rayner Roberts – now available as an ebook and paperback. The e-book contains all nine essays from this blog, recently revised with an essay exclusive to the collection: “Socks, Lies and the Monstrous Regiment.”