Part 26 of The Complete Discworld Reread
Start with the personal. It was Thief of Time that first got me into Pratchett. It was not the first book of his I read, but rather it was a review of it that first made me aware. At the time I was reading a lot of thrillers and a few mysteries and I see a blurb about the granddaughter of death fighting a war with chocolate. I knew I just had to read this man. And, after forgetting his name at the bookstore later that day, finally found a copy of The Color of Magic and a love affair began.
Despite that you won’t find Thief of Time anywhere near my favorite list. There are worse, much worse, Discworld books out there but there just was never a ‘click’ moment with this one. To start with it is a Susan book, which have a habit of going a bit south for me. I have lamented before about how Susan is a great character yet I never seem to enjoy her books. Soul Music remains one of my bottom two outings, and Hogfather is a favorite for many yet near bottom for myself. To its credit Thief of Time worked much better than either of those; completely without easy pop culture jokes that are a better fit for direct to DVD movies than a Discworld book.
The premise for Thief of Time is one of Prachett’s more original ones, borrowing several ideas from earlier novels and coming up with a few new ones to create a book that truly stands alone in the series. The Auditors, obsessed with perfection and order and viewing life as a nasty hindrance to all that is right, contact the world’s best clockmaker for a special job. The clockmaker is a young man named Jeremy who is much better now that he takes his pills (and thus will not speak in class today), and has an obsession with time that can’t be understated. A match made in heaven, the auditors will provide the resources and young Jeremy will use his unique skills to build a perfect clock. What they don’t tell Jeremy is such perfection makes a perfect prison for Time (capital T) itself. No time, no unpredictability, less works for the auditors of everything.
Because this may actually lead to the end of the world Death sets out to find the other horsemen (despite not being a Christian land the horsemen of the apocalypse show up a couple times in Discworld, and of course Death makes an appearance as-is in the set on Earth novel Good Omens). But perhaps because he has a soft spot for humanity he sends a message to his granddaughter who very reluctantly comes to the realization that it may be up to her to stop all this. She won’t be working at this alone though; the monks of time know something is amiss as well. High on the mountain top these monks are in charge of making things happen. They save time, spin time, and move time around but even they can’t fix it if Jeremy’s clock is completed. So the abbot sends his best man and an apprentice with uncanny abilities to Anhk-Morpork to see what they can do as well.
Sound crazy? It is, just like any Pratchett book this one follows at least six different plot threads. If Prachett has a weakness it is in sometimes spinning too many threads at once and losing one or two by the end. I can happily say that it didn’t happen here; most felt important to the overall story. Perhaps Death’s quest was superfluous but something had to get him out of the way so Susan could jump in.
There was plenty I enjoyed. As I stated I loved the uniqueness of the story. And Pratchett’s humor shined throughout, some of it among the best. There was some of the more knee-slapping style jokes; Lu Tze, the sweeper who acts as the ace in the hole for the history monks, follows a ‘path’ that consists of random quotes form a former housekeeper (The Way of Cosmopolite). These usually consisted of complete non-sequiturs that only Lu-Tze could connect to the topic at hand. My favorite humor though came from little signs designed to keep out the very literal minded auditors; things like ‘don’t feed the elephant’ when no elephants are present.
The plotline was surprisingly focused in a book where Pratchett introduced so much new to the world. Well, perhaps not introduced as many of these aspects have been briefly touched before (Mrs Cosmopolite, Lu-Tze, riders of the apocalypse, etc). But never did he explore them with any depth. The background information of the history monks, especially the passages of Wen the eternally surprised, I felt these were great examples of everything Pratchett has been doing well. And they are hiding in a book that seems to get forgotten despite being fairly recent because it doesn’t fit the larger series in style, nor does it hold information vital for later books (though some of the time aspects will of course show up in Night Watch).
And of course Susan, as always, keeps a level head and is perfectly entertaining as the lead player in all of this.
With all that is is hard to say why the book doesn’t really connect with me. Perhaps it is the lack of a theme I care about. Time is not all that interesting to me and it just about everything in a book. Had it ever turned to time travel I would probably be completely turned off (then again, it worked better in Night Watch than anything else I have read so many not). Ultimately it sits on my shelf and gets reread every so often because it is a funny and well done Pratchett book. But it never makes my ‘what’s the best’ list because I just don’t think it belongs there.