Pratchett fans are like Freemasons. There are a lot of them about, some in unexpectedly high places. They tend to keep quiet until asked, then their eyes light up and they will start taking the listener through the intricate arcana of their enthusiasm with the sort of joy normally associated with Revivalist meetings.
Pratchett has devised an alternative universe, through which the Discworld travels. At the heart of this fantastical planet is the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, ruled by a sinister Patrician, peopled by various criminal types and policed, in the loosest possible sense, by a City Watch. Like Jonathan Swift, Pratchett uses his other world to hold up a distorting mirror to our own, and like Swift his is a satirist of enormous talent. His range of cultural reference never ceases to surprise and delight. He will parody any genre, quite promiscuously. He has done rock’n’roll, opera, newspapers and Australia, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sideswipes at Russian literature and Shakespeare along the way….
Pratchett is incredibly funny. His jokes slide under your skin as swiftly as a hypodermic syringe, leaving you giggling helplessly. He does puns, filth, parody, and slapstick with an Aristophanic extravagance. But his is not a mere humorist, not that that’s anything to be ashamed of. He does suspense as well as any thriller writer, and the depiction of the Watch House under siege is griping. He shares with Aristophanes a sense of the comedian’s mission to teach, and with Sophocles a concern to examine the rule of law versus the rights of the individual. Parts of Night Watch recall Antigone. His constant theme is choice. Individuals choose the way the behave. There is always this sense of chaos waiting for people to allow themselves to go wrong.
A darker streak has emerged in the last few Discworld novels. The Watch break into the secret police base, and suddenly we are not in fantasy land any more, but in a murky place where there is blood on the floor and real people are tortured for breaking the curfew. Suddenly the Watch realises what is has been unwittingly involved in. They have learned one of the 20th century’s terrible lessons. For evil to flourish it suffices for good men not to want to know. . . compulsively readable. Fiona Hook in Sunday Times. Book of the Week
When writers engage in plots that rely on familiar and much-loved characters travelling back in time, it’s usually a sure sign that they’re struggling for inspiration. But rules are made to be broken. Step forward Terry Pratchett with a Discworld novel that sees the ever pragmatic and resourceful Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, finding his pursuit of a psychotic murderer, Carcer, rudely interrupted by a temporal anomaly.
The Commander returns to the city of his youth, as kind of Ankh-Morpork square when it comes to the venal side of life, and a place overseen by a madman Patrician. Worse, this is an Ankh-Morpork where sadistic secret police, the Cable Street Unmentionables, enforce a strict curfew, and a city that’s about to descend into bloody mayhem as the Patrician’s grip on power fails.
Unless, that is, Vimes’ presence in the past changes history. Taking on the identity of honest copper John Keel – the very many who taught Vimes the basics of policing (and, yes, the Commander does meet his younger self), Vimes applies his long years of policing experience to preventing all-out war between the city authorities and the populace.
The nature of revolution and power relationships may be serious themes for a novelist known primarily as a satirist, but then that’s rather the point. Over the years, Pratchett has moved from simply ripping the piss out of fantasy towards a fiction that mixes up big questions with the trademark gags and puns. It may be overstating the case, but you could even read this as a novel that reconciles the earlier books, with their far more laissez-faire attitude towards the fates of Ankh-Morpork’s citizens, with the humanism of Pratchett’s recent work.
Alternatively, just sit back, enjoy the funniest novel of the year, and along the way discover how Reg Shoe became a zombie. The best Discworld book in the whole world ever. Until next time ***** Jonathan Wright in SFX
Not a side-splitter this time, though broadly amusing and bubbling with wit and wisdom: both an excellent story and a tribute to beat cops everywhere, doing their hair-raising jobs with quiet courage and determination. Kirkus Reviews
Though he is arguably the leading comic novelist of our time, as well as a master of contemporary fantasy, Terry Pratchett hasn’t been content with those enviable laurels. Until the advent of J.K. Rowling, he was also the bestselling author in Britain. The dust jacket on his previous novel Thief of Time – published in 2001 – notes that more than 21 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide. The jacket on Night Watch ups that figure to 27 million, meaning – if I retain my fifth-grade math skills – that he sold 6 million books in the last year or two. Recently, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was awarded the Carnegie Medal as the best children’s book of the year. His admirers, who are obviously legion, include such superb popular storytellers as Barbara Mertz (a k a Elizabeth Peters) and Neil Gaiman, creator of The Sandman graphic novels (as well as Pratchett’s collaborator on Good Omens, a comic fantasy about the end of the world). Not least, even highly browed intellectuals such as A.S. Byatt have called him “truly original” and “brilliant.”
For some reason, though, Pratchett hasn’t attracted the right attention in the United States. His work is seldom reviewed at length, and even the wellread haven’t heard of him, or, if they have, their brains have lodged the Discworld series in the pigeonhole labelled “cutesy fantasy” and then dismissed it. In truth, Pratchett’s work is almost impossible to describe without making it sound childish, sickly sweet or twee. But there’s nothing soft and cuddly about it: Think Monty Python or “The Simpsons” rather than Harry Potter; satirical rather than silly.
The novels, approaching 30 at this point, take place on an Earth-like planet called the Discworld, where civilization, such as it is, blends the medieval and the modern (with touches of the Victorian) – i.e., swords and magic, robes and armor, but also a bustling, crowded capital (Ankh-Morpork) plagued by racial, religious and political issues that we all recognize. Pratchett’s various titles usually hint, often punningly, at their subtexts: Jingo is about political jingoism and war fever, The Truth about the role of the press in society, Mort about Death’s new, rather bumbling understudy.
As the creator of an entire world, Pratchett has room to move about, to explore any theme that interests him, to call upon several different stock companies. There are novels in which Granny Weatherwax and various witches take center stage, others about the inept wizard Rincewind or the decrepit Cohen the Barbarian. Recently, Thief of Time introduced the Monks of History, a sect of Buddhist-like priests who seem harmless and dopey but are actually responsible for the temporal stability of the universe: They make sure that tomorrow happens. Night Watch itself slots into Pratchett’s ongoing history of the metropolitan police force, the City Watch, a profession in the forefront of social change, since its coppers include trolls and dwarves, a werewolf and even a zombie, as well as the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork (though no one quite realizes this). The force is headed by Sam Vimes, a onetime street urchin, whose leadership, courage and urban-smarts have won him the love of the aristocratic Lady Sybil, a fortune and a ducal title.
The book opens with Sam awaiting the birth of his first child on, as it happens, a mysterious day of remembrance: Several members of the Watch, including Sam, have pinned a sprig of lilac to their uniforms, as have the notorious Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (purveyor of street snacks you never want to touch, let alone eat) and the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, the courtly former Assassin responsible for the city’s government. All of them, one gradually realizes, shared some great, doomed adventure 30 years ago, centering on a revered figure named John Keel, who lies buried in the cemetery of Small Gods:
“This cemetery of Small Gods was for the people who didn’t know what happened next. They didn’t know what they believed in or if there was life after death and, often, they didn’t know what hit them. They’d gone through life being amiably uncertain, until the ultimate certainty had claimed them at the last. Among the city’s bone orchards, the cemetery was the equivalent of the drawer marked MISC, where people were interred in the glorious expectation of nothing very much.”
Just as the reader is growing tantalized about the lilac blossoms and John Keel, the Watch is called out to track a sociopathic killer named Carcer. When Sam and the vicious, sweet-talking murderer start to grapple on the rooftop of the Unseen University’s great library of magic, an electrical storm strikes, and they are both catapulted back in time. Carcer escapes, and Sam awakens to find himself being patched up by Doctor Mossy Lawn, a good-hearted medico who usually treats the city’s “seamstresses,” i.e., prostitutes.
To hide his true identity, Sam gives a phoney name. John Keel has been on his mind all day, and so it naturally comes tripping to his lips. At this point, nearly any reader will have guessed what’s bound to happen next. As Sam later remarks to Lu-Tze, a Monk of History usually known as The Sweeper, “I’m probably going to end up being the sergeant that teaches me all I know, right?”
Though Pratchett pays homage to many of the elements of time-paradox stories, at its heart Night Watch is less about the multiverse and metaphysical matters than about the nature of community, human rights and our obligations to others. Pratchett’s political views are apparently those of any reasonable man: All ideologies tend to dehumanize people and distort reality. At best we should accept the task before us, or as the Omnian religion stresses: “We are here, and this is now.” One improvises, muddles through. The privileged and the powerful, no matter what their professed allegiance, should almost never be trusted. “One of the hardest lessons of young Sam’s life had been finding out that the people in charge weren’t in charge. It had been finding out that governments were not, on the whole, staffed by people who had a grip, and that plans were what people made instead of thinking.”
Ultimately, Night Watch builds to a grand climax during which revolution strikes the city, an assassin moves silently through the darkness of the Patrician’s palace, and the working-class citizens of Ankh-Morpork barricade their streets and declare themselves “The People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road,” their clarion calls “Truth! Justice! Freedom!” and “Reasonably Priced Love!” As violence and confusion escalate, Carcer finds himself in his element, but so does Sam Vimes, a k a John Keel, who desperately tries to keep the peace and save lives. For a while he seems to be coping pretty well. But then the military is called out, and a blood bath threatens, despite the best intentions of the earnest, if somewhat irresolute, Major Mountjoy-Standfast:
When the major “was a boy, he’d read books about great military campaigns, and visited museums and had looked with patriotic pride at the paintings of famous cavalry charges, last stands, and glorious victories. It had come as rather a shock, when he later began to participate in some of these, to find that the painters had unaccountably left out the intestines. Perhaps they just weren’t very good at them.”
There are laughs in Night Watch, much repartee and even observations borrowed from Sterne, Shaw and the aphorist Chamfort. The book’s rapid, cinematic pace – quick cutting, multiple plot lines slowly converging – never flags. Yet few readers would regard Night Watch as zany or even particularly comic. Like earlier satirists, Pratchett is, at least in part, a moralist and, because of his vast readership, one with clout. More and more, he’s using his wit and brilliant talent for characterization and dialogue to attack every kind of intolerance, especially the imbecilities and cruelties of the modern nation-state. His oeuvre has deepened, even as it’s grown more tendentious and less sheerly funny. But Pratchett wants to make us feel and think as well as laugh.
As a result, Night Watch turns out to be an unexpectedly moving novel about sacrifice and responsibility, its final scenes leaving one near tears, as these sometime Keystone Kops, through simple humanity, metamorphose into the Seven Samurai. Terry Pratchett may still be pegged a comic novelist, but as Night Watch shows, he’s a lot more. In his range of invented characters, his adroit storytelling and his clear-eyed acceptance of humankind’s foibles, he reminds me of no one in English literature so much as Geoffrey Chaucer. No kidding. Michael Dirda, in Washington Post, Book World
British author Pratchett’s storytelling, a clever blend of Monty Pythonesque humor and Big Questions about morality and the workings of the universe, is in top form in his 28th novel in the phenomenally bestselling Discworld series (The Last Hero, etc.). Pragmatic Sam Vimes, Commander of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, can’t complain. He has a title, his wife is due to give birth to their first child any moment and he hasn’t had to pound a beat in ages but that doesn’t stop him from missing certain bits of his old life. Thank goodness there’s work to be done. Vimes manages to corner a murderer, Carcer, on the library dome at Unseen University during a tremendous storm, only to be zapped back in time 30 years, to an Ankh-Morpork where the Watch is a joke, the ruling Patrician mad and the city on the verge of rebellion. Three decades earlier, a man named John Keel took over the Night Watch and taught young Sam Vimes how to be a good cop before dying in that rebellion. Unfortunately, in this version of the past, Carcer has killed Keel. The only way Vimes can hope to return home and ensure he has a future to return home to is to take on Keel’s role. The author lightens Vimes’s decidedly dark situation with glimpses into the origins of several of the more unique denizens of Ankh-Morpork. One comes away, as always, with the feeling that if Ankh-Morpork isn’t a real place, it bloody well ought to be. Publishers Weekly (USA)
Terry Pratchett’s 28th Discworld novel is both comic and dark, blending high fantasy, twisted storytelling and all manner of wordplay. As Night Watch begins, Sir Samuel Vimes has been dropped from the Assassins’ Guild target register – just another blow for a man who suffers ‘gilt by association’ every time he puts on his fancy armor and heads off to Pseudopolis Yard. His duties as the commander of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch seem to consist of little but watching over multicultural patrol units of trolls, zombies, werewolves and dwarfs, and he misses pounding the cobblestones. But when Vimes chases a maniac into a time vortex and finds himself in the anarchic Ankh-Morpork of his youth, his wish becomes a punishing reality. Worse yet, the psycho killer is now running roughshod over the proper course of history. As the author ties up his time-warped plot, he doesn’t stint on the satire – one character, for instance, is bewildered by ostentatious displays of patriotism: ‘We don’t have to make a big fuss about being the best, sir. We just know.’ A fine place to start reading Pratchett if you don’t mind a few ‘in’ jokes, Night Watch transcends standard genre fare with its sheer schoolboy humor and characters who reject their own stereotypes. Therese Littleton, New York Times Book Review
When Pratchett was writing this book, you wonder why he thought the points he makes about human rights, the undesirability of secret police, etc., needed making. Then history got in the way and we got the world we live in now. A stand-out scene is where Vimes refuses to hand over some prisoners to the dreaded Unmentionables without a receipt. In just a few short paragraphs, Pratchett says more about the necessity of habeas corpus than my history teacher ever did. Ben Jeapes in Vector 234
Background illustration © and by courtesy of Marc Simonetti