Terry Pratchett is, to my mind, sort of a reverse Stephen King. In a typical King novel, you're saturated with pop culture references that pile up precariously but have little to do with the main theme of the novel. They're used as hooks to define characters and typically don't advance the plot. Pratchett comes at it from the opposite end of the spectrum. Pop culture references also saturate the Disc World books, but they are subtly masked, and usually found at the very heart of the story.
Pratchett consistently astonishes me with his tightly woven story lines and vivid characters, and he never fails to amuse me with his British humor, either. But the thing I love most about Pratchett is that, when I finally put down one of his novels with the inevitable sigh, I have a lot to think about. Thief of Time once again uses the inhabitants of Disc World and its mystically related environs to shine a spotlight on our world, our own culture, and, in this case, our own obsessions.
Like The Matrix, Thief of Time features a young man (well, two, actually, but it's kind of hard to explain) with talents he doesn't understand who is called upon to save the world. There's even an extended sequence in which the Good Guys (including the Neo-equivalent) are the only ones capable of battling the Bad Guys, aka the Auditors. Of course, there's a ton of stuff in Thief of Time that isn't anything at all like The Matrix, too, but you can't miss the homage moments.
There are quite a few homage moments, actually. It's very clear that Pratchett is drawn to the absurd in our culture, and finds his Disc World characters the perfect mechanism for skewering what needs to be skewered or shining a bright light on ideas that merit reflection. This particular work features some of my favorite characters, including the avatar of Death, the Death of Rats, and Death's granddaughter (it's kind of hard to explain) Susan. New characters include the charming, disarming monk Lu-Tze the Sweeper, the Neo that Sweeper takes under his wing, a perfectionist clock maker, a new Igor, the five (yes, five) Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Auditors. A few familiar names make cameo appearances, too; it helps a bit if you recognize them, but that's not strictly necessary.
Thief of Time introduces another philosophy/world view/religion to the Disc World pantheon, too: Wen the Eternally Surprised, whose philosophy can be summed up in the phrase There is no time but the present. Pratchett manages to present this idea, in which past and future do not exist, so smoothly that it make perfect sense. I promise, it will not make your head hurt to read this, but it will make you think about time and how you use it. The History Monks of the Order of Wen have learned how to save up time and reel it out where it's needed, how to watch it's currents and eddies, and basically, how to keep it going so we don't run out. Thief of Time is about what happens when that obsessive, perfectionist clock maker builds a device that can trap capital-T Time. Various threads explore who wants him to build it, why he decides to do it, how he manages it, and who helps him. At the same time we have Sweeper and his apprentice, along with Miss Susan, trying to stop him before it's too late. Meanwhile, Death rides out to round up the rest of the Apocalypse Gang for their swan song. Needless to say, and I hope I'm not spoiling anything for anyone, the Good Guys win, and chocolate plays a very prominent role in their victory (it's kind of hard to... oh, nevermind).
It all sounds a bit silly, and in fact it is, more than a bit. It's completely delightful and suffers from none of the pacing and focus problems I had with the excellent The Fifth Elephant. But Thief of Time is that rare work that leaves you with many ideas to think about. Pratchett slyly digs at topics as diverse as modern educational policies, cell phones, and men's clubs, all the while revealing the unexpectedly profound wisdom we usually label "common sense."
Like Wen the Eternally Surprised, we learn to look at time in a new way. Carpe diem, indeed -- because if you don't, someone else will.