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The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett


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  • 8 months later...


Discworld #29: Night Watch




Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch and Duke of Ankh-Morpork, is having a very bad day. His wife is in labour with their first child, and it is the thirtieth anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of the Twenty-Fifth of May. But rather than spending his day toasting fallen friends and greeting his child into the world, Vimes is instead chasing down Carcer, a notorious murderer and sociopath with a taste for killing Watchmen. The inadvertent combination of a lightning strike with the standing magical field of Unseen University transports both Vimes and Carcer back to the week of the Glorious Revolution, and Vimes has to stop Carcer and ensure that history unfolds precisely as it did before...which is a bit difficult when their arrival brings about the death of Vimes' old friend and mentor before his time.

There is nothing, or at least very little, as glorious in the world as Sir Terry Pratchett (RIP) on his best form. Released in 2002, the twenty-ninth Discworld novel holds a strong claim to be the series' very best, although it is a crowded field.

As with the other (arguable) leading candidate for that title, Small Gods, Night Watch is a book that is both funny and angry. In the earlier novel, Pratchett was furious over religious fundamentalism and how personal faith could and can be perverted into a force of oppression and evil. In Night Watch he studies paranoia and fear, how crowds and masses can be moved by propaganda and oppressed by their own rulers because they fear them. The tone is darker and bleaker than most other Discworld books by design: this isn't the cosmopolitan, successful Ankh-Morpork of the later series, but an old, rough, poor and paranoid city ruled by a lunatic despot. There's a sinister secret police force, there's torture chambers and inquisitions, and there's casual racism (as usual in the series, filtered through the lens of speciesism) that takes even old-skool, dyed-in-the-wool copper Vimes by surprise. There is still humour here, but it's grimmer and blacker than in most of his books.

One of the novel's most impressive achievements is evoking such ideas and reaching such quality in the middle of one of the series' most tightly-woven sub-series. Small Gods was a complete standalone set long before the rest of the series, but Night Watch is a key book in the "City Watch" arc, with frequent continuity references to what's been going in that storyline. However, Night Watch's fish-out-of-water setting does render that somewhat moot: you really just need to know that Vimes is a successful, reforming police commander with a pregnant wife and an ambiguously motivated boss.

The book is dealing with a lot of inspirations: the cover (Paul Kidby's first regular cover for the series following the passing of his more idiosyncratic predecessor, Josh Kirby) is a riff on Rembrandt's "Night Watch," whilst the revolution itself plays on everything from France to Russia and even Bloody Sunday (the deployment of the military to deal with a civil order issue is uncomfortably on the nose, as it means to be). Pratchett is not really interested in a 1:1 copy-past of the real events, though, and is more interested into delving into the rationales for civil disorder, for popular rebellions and mass uprisings, and if revolutions ever really change anything, other than just swapping the name on the door of the top office, and if today's heroic revolutionary leader is tomorrow's tyrannical despot.

Night Watch (*****) is still funny, but Pratchett wraps the comedy around more serious, even grimmer themes than in many of his books. The story is excellent, the characterisation - especially of Vimes, who by this novel has become maybe Pratchett's richest protagonist - among Pratchett's best and the villain is one of the most genuinely hateful in the entire series. It's also an interesting morality play on political states, the meaning of power, and how the masses can be harnessed for good and ill.



Edited by Werthead
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Audible keeps bestowing upon me more tokens for audiobooks than I know what to do with, so I decided to give the new Discworld recordings a try. I've read all the books, some multiple times, but having them read to me is quite nice too (it's difficult to read a book properly while doing the dishes or vacuuming).

So far I like them, mostly. I do wonder if the narrator for Guards! Guards! is overdoing it a bit on the growly voice, though. Sometimes he makes polite conversation between two relaxed, civil characters sound like Sauron and Ganondorf making threats to each other. For the longest time I was wondering whether they had Peter Serafinowicz, who voices Death in every book, do the whole narration (in the same voice), but apparently it's a different guy according to the credits.

The book is still excellent, though.

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  • 4 months later...

Discworld 30: The Wee Free Men




Nine-year-old Tiffany Aching is serious and studious for her age, and has little truck with myths and superstition. When her brother is kidnapped by an evil supernatural force from another universe and she is offered an alliance with the Nac Mac Feegle, a species of diminutive-but-psychotic warriors, this offends Tiffany's worldview. But pragmatism wins out, and she has to reluctantly embark on an adventure.

The Wee Free Men is the thirtieth Discworld novel, and when you're thirty books into any series you might be forgiven for resting on your laurels a bit, especially when the previous one, Night Watch, is often cited as the best thing you've ever written. For Sir Terry Pratchett, this was not an option. Having experimented with a Discworld book for younger audiences, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, he decided to start a whole new sub-series within the wider Discworld framework that would be aimed primarily at younger readers.

Pratchett being Pratchett, this meant relatively little changes or compromises to his usual vision. Some of the very occasional double entendre gags are gone, the book is somewhat shorter than usual, but beyond that Pratchett didn't really censor himself at all. If anything, this is a more thoughtful, contemplative Discworld book than the norm, with some enjoyable setpieces interrupted by Tiffany's internal musings on life and her ambitions.

Tiffany is smart, curious and sensible, not given to recklessness but also having a strong moral centre. She may be a quintessential Discworld protagonist, being often the only sane person in the room and constantly wondering why selfishness and hatred even exist. She is cut from the same competence cloth as Granny Weatherwax and Samuel Vimes, but lacks their experience and cynicism. She is a well-drawn protagonist who has to overcome problems presented by capable enemies, rather than because she's holding an idiot ball (something many other writers could learn from).

What is impressive about The Wee Free Men is how much of it is told from within Tiffany's head: the Nac Mac Feegle are not given to in-depth dialogue (although they have a few bon mots of wisdom) and many of the other characters are evil, monsters, stupid adults or even less-communicative children. Just about the only person Tiffany can have a decent 1:1 conversation with is a sentient toad. This means we get to lock into Tiffany's thought processes and motivations in a lot of depth, which is refreshing.

Taking part in a hitherto-unexplored part of the Disc with almost no recurring characters (not even Death, making this the first Discworld novel that he skips out on), at least until the last chapter, The Wee Free Men also makes a viable on-roading point for the entire series. Technically the main villain did (briefly) appear in Lords and Ladies, but that is really not alluded to in the book so is not hugely important.

The Wee Free Men (****½) sheds a lot of the extended subplots that had started padding out the Discworld books around this time and is focused and entertaining, with a small but well-drawn cast of characters. It's funny, but intermittently, with musings on growing up and responsibility. For the first in a new, YA (or outright children)-focused series, it's surprisingly contemplative and thoughtful, and all the richer for it.



Edited by Werthead
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