This is the first Pratchett that I have read in a long time, since way before his death, and probably the first since I saw An Audience With Terry Pratchett in Autumn 2011. Pyramids is not considered amongst his most memorable works and few people I have spoken to have ever listed it as one of their favourites.
The premise is that Teppic, a recent initiate into the Assassin’s Guild, finds his life going in a completely different direction. He is the heir to the throne of a kingdom not dissimilar to what in our world is called Ancient Egypt. With a society based on a highly ritualised religion and traditions going back thousands of years, Teppic must adjust quickly to his new found leadership of Djelibeybi (I suggest reading that slowly) and their mysterious pyramids. Torn between the life he wanted as an assassin and the life the gods have forged for him, Teppic finds that living godhood is not all it’s cracked up to be when he is eventually accused of murdering the king (yes, himself).
As with most of Pratchett’s work, there is a lot of subtext. This book is often compared to Small Gods and understandably so too. Whereas Small Gods is very much a critique of the controlling nature of politicised religion, this is more of a criticism of dogma, of tradition, of the authority of ritual. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we accept – so uncritically – age-old traditions, no matter how nonsensical they seem, purely in order to preserve them for the sake of themselves? Furthermore, why do we make nonsense ritual so core to our identities?
Pyramids is not exactly “laugh a minute” but there is humour, the type of humour that if you hold such ritualistic beliefs and are open to having them critiqued, might make you slightly uncomfortable while you chuckle at them. Specifically, it criticises the concept of free will. One of the rituals of Djelibeybi is that the favoured servants of the prior king take their own lives to be with him in the afterlife. Poor Teppic is confused at being told by the priest that the girl had had free will, had done nothing wrong in refusing to take the poison, yet it was not the done thing to refuse the honour of being asked to die for the king to aid him in the next world. Free will is not free will when it is merely the illusion of choice.
In criticism, I would say that the story feels directionless a lot of the time. The story barely gets going before it is being brought to a close. A great, thought-provoking read, but certainly not one of his best.