Fantasy Review: ‘The Fifth Elephant’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 24 of The Complete Discworld RereadThe Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24)

And just like that the series starts to change. Opens up, shows signs that Discworld is not just a series of random places where things happen but is instead a living, breathing world. People interact, and not just for war. ‘Foreign places’ are not just places to visit and fix; they are places where people live and cultures thrive. The signs that Pratchett’s series is going to start exploring the effects of some major technological changes are present but not yet running in full. Perhaps The Fifth Elephant was just the author’s way of easing into where the series goes from here. For better or worse I think this book represents a turning point, an attempt to avoid becoming stale. And while it isn’t the best book of the series, or the best watch book, or really all the memorable on its own for story alone; while it is none of these things it does seem to represent an important point in the Discworld journey.

Ah but perhaps I get ahead of myself. After all I am not supposed to know all this yet; I am reading these in order, ain’t I? No peaking ahead, even though I know that the next Vimes’ book is considered by many to be the best of the series. I can’t look at the clacks and know that technology is about to make this big, big world a lot smaller for all involved. All I know is Vimes is off for another adventure, and I have to look at the book solely on those merits.

Or not, I haven’t decided yet.

Does anyone know the name of the city with the largest dwarf population? Thinking of that town in Uberwald? Everyone starts off saying that, but in reality the answer is Anhk-Morpork, a town we are all familiar with by now. But a dwarf will always find their heart back in the mine no matter where they live. Because of this the ascension of a new king back home (home being where the heart is, not where the dwarf is) can get quite political. Who better to take care of the political front than the Duke Samuel Vimes?

Along with a delegation designed to piss off everyone by including everyone Vimes stumbles his way through diplomatic meetings, bull headedly takes charge of things he has no actual control over, and tries to find the connection between a couple of murders in his city and the politics of Dwarven royalty. While he is gone a field promotion takes Sargent Colon well past anything covered in the Peter Principle and moves the city into a strange tranquility as the various crime organizations stay well away until things implodes on itself.

Highlights are many. Colon’s strange thought process that starts to relate everything to stolen lumps of sugar is both funny and telling. Gaspode has thrived as a minor character who brings out personality in those around him; not bad for a talking dog. In this case he proves to be the only one who can pull the wool over Carrot’s eyes in this series—though only in the minor, non-important issues. And Lady Sybil shows up in this one; when she points out the cultural significance of something through a Dwarven opera I wanted to shout hooray! This, despite not really knowing what she was singing about at all and only seeing the results.

This doesn’t rate as a favorite of mine but it isn’t weak; just a bit stale. It actually holds a bit better as I have been reading them in order than it did in the random order I read the books in the past. Because despite yet another mystery for Vimes to only kinda solve as events play out around him I can see where the world is going. From here on out the people of Discworld are going to stop pushing their very human issues under the rug and actual be forced to deal with them. The world is growing connected, technology is taking over, and thousand year fights over who attacked who are no longer going to fly when looked at by the world’s eye.

It is not that Pratchett hasn’t dealt with issues before within the Discworld series; but for the first time they seem to be tied to a larger story. If the first half of the series was a set of loosely connected standalones there is a bit more of a meta-story line starting now. So while Granny kicked ass and took names in forcing the male dominated University to accept a female student it was a one off thing; all the students of the university in later books were still male. And while some racial barriers were broken down on the individual level in Jingo (specifically in everyone’s favorite sergeant) the largest racial fight of the series has been left unchallenged.

That changes here. A dwarf who wants to be known as female in society that only sees male gains some acceptance. A troll is allowed into the dwarven caverns (well, entry is forced by the great weapon of diplomacy), traditionally the hated enemy. The winds of change is the major theme of the whole tale and is evident everywhere. A powerful vampire gives up blood. Werewolves give up a game played over centuries. Even Vimes is affected. By now the pattern of a Vimes book is almost stale; solve the crime, get another unwanted promotion. Credit Pratchett on the ending here; technically he gains a promotion of a sort at the end(keeping with tradition) but it doesn’t come from his boss. More importantly, and unlike the previous promotions that led to little change in his overall routine, this one will dramatically change the live Vimes is living in a way that sets the series out for what may be the best book in Discworld. Yes I am talking Night Watch; the story within could not be told without the events of The Fifth Elephant.

4 Stars

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