Fantasy Review -‘Night Watch’ by Terry Pratchett

Night Watch (Discworld, #29)I am known as a Pratchett guy. Even before the blog this was a well-known fact about me. At one time my old roommate asked me why I seemed to have a Pratchett book in room of the house; she even called me out of the blue years later to tell me he had a new book on the shelf (as if I didn’t already know). Because of this I have answered the ‘where should I start in Discworld?’ question as more times than I could count. And while my answer has changed a few times a couple things were consistent. I never have recommended starting with Night Watch because of…reasons.

I retract this restriction as of now. Honestly I am not sure why I held out for so long. Go ahead and start with Night Watch. There is almost no reason not to an plenty of reasons to take the plunge right here. It is typically Pratchett’s top rated book by almost every fan for a reason. (Yeah yeah, Small Gods is right there on most lists too, WE KNOW).

Night Watch is the continuation of a sub-series that started as a way for the nameless guards that typically die early in fantasy stories to get their own voice. We have watched the watch itself grown from a group of four to a behemoth that is slowly adding law all across the land. At its head is Samuel Vimes, a character who has changed tremendously, but organically, throughout the series. While always the head of this series he has moved to the background some in later books. Night Watch brings the series right back where it belongs; on planet Vimes.

So you will miss some of Vimes growth and if you inevitably fall in love with the series and find you had a couple of minor things spoiled when you back to earlier books? Doesn’t matter. Because there are just so many reasons to read this book TODAY. Not tomorrow, but today.

Reason number 1: Tight, and I do mean TIGHT, plotting. If there is one thing Pratchett sometimes gets docked for it is the occasional loose end. He is one of those people that that effectively turns in a first draft; outlining is for other people. I wonder if he knew Night Watch was something special and it got extra care of if he was just in the zone this time because this story hummed from beginning to end. Little details built one big details until a perfectly crafted story emerged.

Reason number 2: Carcer. There are not a lot of memorable villains in Discworld. But there is Carcer. ‘I can see your house from here.’ Oh chills. Unpredictable, so insane he circles right back to a strange sort of sanity. I believe there are more decent books that involve Vimes in the future if my memory holds but really his story should have ended here because Carcer was his perfect foil. A man who actually does the things Vimes at times thinks about (including tricks that involve carbonated beverages).

Reason number 3: Time travel done right. Because let me tell you I hate time travel. I pick up on every paradox and plothole they present and it ruins the experience for me. But here, where explanations for what is going on includes ‘quantum…always bloody quantum.’ So when Vimes shows up looking just like someone in his own past while his younger self runs around we get this.

“Is that Narrative Causality, or Historic Imperative, or Just Plain Weird?”

No hiding the absurdity of the situation Vimes finds himself in, yet the serious nature of the revolution going on around him is never diminished. Which leads me to…

Reason number 4: The Glorious Revolution. Want to know more about it? Then read the damn book.

On top of all this Night Watch proves that Pratchett’s humor is even better when he holds it in check in his more serious outings. I laugh out loud every time I read this book. There are fewer throw away jokes, fewer gags hidden as asides, but plenty of humor; even if some of it was more of the gallows variety than normal. This keeps the serious nature of the book from ever turning grim. We know bad things are afoot and some bad things are going to happen. But there is always a ray of hope, laced with the humor.

I have thought all along Night Watch would hold up as my favorite Discworld book through this long reread. It may be conformation bias at work but that opinion has not yet changed.

5 Stars

 

Fantasy Review: ‘The Last Hero’ by Terry Pratchett

The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable (Discworld, #27)Part 27 of The Complete Discworld Reread

Rincewind has grown a bit tiring in the last couple of his books so it is not real upsetting that Pratchett left him behind after The Last Hero. What’s nice is Rincewind got an entertaining and all too fitting send off in this one. It let me bask in the glory that is one cowardly WIZZARD one last time; and do so with a fun, picture filled story with half the page length of a typical Discworld book. (Random aside, these books have gotten progressively longer. It was nice to be reminded that Pratchett could pack a whole lot of punch into books without huge page counts).

Something of a mashup book, The Last Hero contains lots of shout outs to previous books and even grabs a popular character from the Watch books to join in a very Rincewind-like story. Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Hoard, last seen ruling a vast and rich empire, seem to have gotten bored. It appears that they have decided to return fire, stolen so long ago, back to the gods of Discworld. With interest. On small problem that he wizards back in Anhk-Morpork see in this venture; it may destroy all of Discworld if the hoard succeeds. And that would suck.

So Rincewind joins a mad genius fans of the series knows well and a red head from the watch that is in no way a king and leads the charge to stop Cohen’s plan. This decidedly un-Rincewind like behavior comes about in a scene strait out of Catch-22, only the sane would be insane enough to volunteer for such a mission. (Another aside, because it is my damn blog. I am the WORST at catching references as I am usually too into the book I am reading to be thinking about what it is parroting or paying homage to). So yes, I am quite proud to have caught the Catch-22 wording this time around).

The selling point of this book is Paul Kidby’s artwork that is present on every page. Not quite a graphic novel because the artwork wasn’t presented in exact time with the text. It makes this book a bit harder to rate among the rest of the series. For those who grew up with Kidby’s artwork on their covers I am sure this was something to love. Even I, with my generic American paperback covers, recognize and identify Kidby’s work with Discworld and there is some great stuff within. But I don’t have any ties to the work, no emotional resonance is to be found.

So it is only the Pratchett story that matters to me. And it is over just a bit too quick to make an impression. Certainly it is entertaining, and simple enough that no loose ends are to be found. I enjoyed the Silver Hoard, the unnamed bard(there must be an allusion I am missing with this), and Rincewind’s time on the metal bird. The wit and the jokes are still strong. So I guess it counts as a success?

I am going to go ahead and leave this one unrated. I simply don’t know how to attach a star to it, much like my occasional attempts at reviewing comics I can only give this a pass/fail grade. And if a person finds themselves like me, reading every single Pratchett book they can get their hands on, then The Last Hero will not disappoint. So I have to give this a passing grade and move on to the next book.

Fantasy Review: ‘Thief of Time’ by Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time (Discworld, #26; Death, #5)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.

4 Stars.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Truth’ by Terry Pratchett

The Truth (Discworld, #25)Part 25 of The Complete Discworld Reread

“An’ then…then I’m gonna get medieval on his arse.”

There were more pressing problems but this one intrigued Mr. Pin.

“How, exactly?” he said.

“I thought maybe a maypole,” said Mr. Tulip reflectively. “An’ then a display of country dancing, land tillage under the three-field system, several plagues, and if my –ing hand ain’t too tired the invention of the –ing horse collar”

You can always tell when my favorite author is on his ‘A’ Game and when he is off. When the plot for a book is a bit weaker than the norm the easy jokes start coming through. The obvious ones, more likely to come from the fun guy at a party or a start up standup comic. I think of all the bad jokes that permeated through Soul Music and Moving Pictures and I cringe. So it is with great pleasure that I will point out that nowhere in The Truth did a character shout out some paraphrasing of ‘you can’t handle the truth.’

Finally breaking from his ongoing sub-series for the first time in quite a while The Truth is the first to feel like a success to me since Small Gods. While the last book in the series set the stage for the world to start changing The Truth finally picks and aspect of Anhk-Morpork’s society to change in the major way. And true to life what better way is there to shake everything up than by have the people learn what is going on around them; or at least the free presses’ version of events?

One of Pratchett’s funnier openings starts it off, people speculating that the Dwarves have found a way to turn lead to gold. Just another example of Pratchett getting more out of a page and a half than any one should be able to. Quickly we meet the protagonist of the novel when he runs right into this gold making machine (or more accurately, it runs into him); a movable type press a dwarven couple has brought into town against the wizard’s long standing order against it. But money moves all, and as long as the Patrician sees no issue then it is time to proceed with this new venture.

William de Worde has long told important people what is happening in the city and made enough to survive on by doing so (plus all the figs he can eat). Making copies was a time consuming process though, this new movable type makes it so easy. On a whim he tries selling these items to non-important people and quickly find the news waits for no one. Of course timing is everything and when the Patrician is suddenly accused of attempted murder de Worde finds himself working hand in hand with the watch to solve this case (without the watch wanting him around at all).

As a look at the impact of free press the book is hit or miss. This little venture becomes a full force in incredible time; a must read after two or three issues. de Worde and his cohorts, quickly joined by a reporter by nature named Sacharissa, fall into the game so fast there is no real transition of learning what power they have quickly found (most of their struggles are against the norm and involve supplies and competition rather than acceptance of this new idea). And of course de Worde is only interested in the truth, in no way influenced by money or political situations; a picture of what we hope free press could be rather than any reality we live in. The cash driven yellow journalism is presented as the outlier, the deviation, rather than any sort of norm.

But despite getting up and going so quickly the way they start interacting with the world around them is a highlight. A pen in the hand changes everything; the knowledge that things could be made public proves to be as effective as old threats. The City Watch finds itself in the position of being watched (whereas before when asked Who Watches the Watchman before Vimes was always able to ME). The public has to learn what role these papers actually play, and what role they play with the truth (sometimes in an over the top manner but this is a short book).

I would suspect that this book is most memorable for most folk because of the pair of villains, The New Firm, Pin and Tulip. They are not nice people at all. In some ways they are nothing new; the obvious comparison is Croup and Vandamer from Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Old James Bond fans would recognize their style in the villainous pair form Diamonds are Forever. Hell they remind me of a diabolical Abbott and Costello as much as anything. Pin is the thinker, Tulip is the muscle. They play to each other’s strengths and finish each other’s sentences. But Tulip makes them something special. Maybe it is a gimmick, giving the supposedly dumb muscle a reverence for things of beauty (another nod to Gaiman’s characters?). But listening to Tulip wax poetically about various works of art, even choosing to use a balled fist to knock someone out so as to save an antique, is a complete gem.

As an addition to this series The Truth is a welcome one, one of my favorites truth be told (feel the pun people). I am not sure it says what it wants to in the way it wants; it tackles little issues with an ease that its handling of journalism never grasps. But it is real damn funny, a kick to read, and basically a standalone outside of knowing a bit about the Watch in the background (something that was common early in the series but getting rarer by this point). Right now I am going to call it a top five Pratchett book, let’s see where I stand with that when I have reread them all.

4 Stars

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