The world according to Terry: Pratchett’s alternative universe is unfailingly inventive, farcical and dark. But now he has introduced rage to the denizens of Discworld, says A. S. Byatt
Pratchett’s new novel is about rage and hatred. It is about inter-species hatred between the trolls and the dwarves of the Discworld, who have for 30 books and many centuries accused each other of having made an ambush at the legendary battle of Koom Valley. Deep-down dwarves, dressed in heavy black leather robes to avoid the sin of seeing the light, led on by a firebrand preacher called Grag Hamcrusher, are literally undermining Ankh-Morpork in search of some secret. There is also an ancient entity, the Summoning Dark, split off from matter at the beginning of the Universe, that is helpless without a creature to work through. It finds Captain Vimes of the Watch – a ‘cauldron of rage’ because of the irrational disorder in his city, and tries to manipulate his determination to keep order.
‘Thud’ is the sound made by the club that crushes Hamcrusher’s skull. ‘Thud’ is the name of an ancient game, like chess, played with pieces in the form of a troll army and a dwarf army by ‘thudmeisters’ of both species. In order to win, you have to play both sides and understand their tactics. Vimes is shown this game by the mysterious ‘Mr Shine’, a new character in the stories. A game, like a good tale, is an antidote to rage and hatred. In Jingo, a tale of war between empires, where Vimes arrests two armies for disturbing the peace, Captain Carrot keeps the soldiers busy with desert football (which used to be played with something nastier than a leather sphere).
One of Pratchett’s great virtues as a taleteller is his incapacity to hate, or even to dislike. He invents despicable or loathsome people and creatures, and gets curious about them, and ends up making his readers imagine and understand them. When we first meet the Ankh-Morpork Watchmen (in Guards! Guards!), they are cowardly and farcical drunks and dregs. Carrot (so-called because he has the huge-shouldered narrow-hipped shape of a cartoon hero) is the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, brought up as a dwarf. He shames them into heroism. But as the stories wind on, Pratchett differentiates ever more subtly between Carrot’s natural authority and courage and Vimes’s sense of responsibility for his patch — and the Patrician Vetinari’s chess-playing ordering of imperfect social beings.
I used to think that Pratchett had managed to retain a revulsion for vampires — he has created some truly nasty ones — but now we have Otto Chriek, the Ankh-Morpork Times iconographer and a vampire recruit to the Watch, Salacia Delorisista Amanita Trigestrata Zeldana Malifee von Humpeding, Sally for short, who gets into a spat of sniffing and distaste with Angua the werewolf. The Disorganisers, inhabited by imps, which Vimes hated, were a running joke and usually ended badly — but now we have a Gooseberry inhabited by an imp that turns out to have a character and to be useful. At the end he even summons up a moment of empathy with the Summoning Dark.
Anything in a Pratchett story is capable of being transformed into something else — from a joke to a profound observation, from a fact of our social world to pure and lively fantasy. There is a good example of this in Thud! Seven books back, Vimes, on an ambassadorial visit to Uberwald, country of the vampires and dwarves, gets irritated by protocol and includes Blackboard Monitor among his list of titles when visiting the realm of the Low King of the dwarves. In Thud! he meets a grag (renowned master of dwarfish lore) called Ardent who repeats the term ‘with the venom one would use for “child murderer”’. Vimes, it turns out, is a ‘destroyer of written words’, a ‘proud word-killer’, the ultimate criminal in the grags’ religion.
Pratchett gives an intriguing picture of this ‘religion’ in which humans are unreal beings, ‘bad dreams’ and trolls are pointless natural accidents, made of broken stones. But Vimes meets a different grag (one Pratchett likes) called Bashfull Bashfullsson, who explains that the dwarf creator, Tak, ‘wrote the World and the Laws, and then He left us. He does not require that we think of Him, only that we think’.
Pratchett too requires us to think. Whenever I read his stories, I find myself thinking that he is ‘grown up’. He may write benign comedy but he knows how horribly complicated and exciting the Universe is. I like to read Tolkien, but both he and Philip Pullman appeal to the nostalgic lost child in me, who read stories in which good and evil were clearly distinguishable, and love made things better.
Pratchett writes farcically, and knows blackly. You might think that a world in which you can call a ‘serious’ character Bashfull Bashfullsson can only be ludicrous, just as you may laugh at the silliness of trolls and men insulting dwarves by calling them garden ornaments. But the truth seems to be that the sheer force of Pratchett’s world-building and word-building energies can accommodate farce and local jokes as it can accommodate parody of Tolkien, Bulgakov, Shakespeare, Lawrence of Arabia or St Augustine.
I haven’t said what every reader must be thinking, that Thud! is related to the world we live in, where ‘quasi-demonic pure vengeance’ is killing people and stirring hatred in the mind. This is because Pratchett doesn’t write parodies or parables or allegories. The nearer he gets to those, the worse he writes — Moving Pictures is one of his few failures, because it stays too close to Hollywood, just as the story in which Vimes revisits his past gets out of control precisely because of too much moral indignation. Pratchett is a storyteller who writes a parallel world, which we read badly if we don’t suspend disbelief, but also if we stop thinking.
I was recently called by a journalist who wanted a comment on the proposed ending of the teaching of English, in favour of drama and media studies. I said reading taught you to think privately and was irreplaceable. What book would I tell all children to read, she asked (an impossible question). Pratchett, I said, after thought. Any Pratchett. But, I added hastily, I don’t think anyone should ever teach Pratchett. People, from 12-year-old nerds to professional philosophers, can and do and should work him out in his own terms for themselves. A.S.Byatt in The Times
Where is Koom Valley? No, that’s not the right question. What is Koom Valley? Is this the story of a place or a state of mind?
I’ll begin at the beginning. Thud, by Terry Pratchett, is a novel inspired by the Discworld board game, also called ‘Thud’, in which dwarves are pitted against trolls in parody of an ancient battle. The book Thud, in turn, will soon have a spin-off children’s story of its own called ‘Where’s My Cow?’. In other words, it’s another piece of the increasingly convoluted and self-referencing, twenty-two year long, Discworld series.
The plot centres around an ancient battleground called Koom Valley, where the dwarves ambushed the trolls, or perhaps it was the trolls who ambushed the dwarves. Who knows exactly, or dares to care? The important bit is that the dwarves and trolls remember. They remember that’s why they detest the other side and why they can never get along. That’s why their historical re-enactments lead to the original battle being re-fought again and again after all these years, with perhaps more authentic reality than the Sealed Knot’s insurance company might be keen to quote for. This time it’s different. There’s been a murder and the only thing keeping the sides apart is the author’s favourite character, Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch.
Okay, so it’s about dwarves and trolls and badgered detectives. Although it isn’t really, is it? Terry Pratchett has long been an exponent of the modern parable. The themes he explores are those of our world, as seen through the distorted lens of fantasy. This is another Discworld story with a grand humanist message for us. A message which reads: Sectarian violence is silly.
Perhaps we all have our own ‘Koom Valley’. We carry it with us, lurking deep within the psyche. It’s often an historical event, usually a piece of ancient craziness or national injustice, which helps to define who we are. Which side we’re really on. A beacon for the disaffected, an anchor of tribal identity we seemingly need to feel safe. Safety in numbers and a world-view in purest black & white. You weren’t there, but if you were, things might have been different. You would have done it properly.
What’s your Koom Valley? The Battle of the Boyne? The abject surrender at Maastricht? The Bodyline cricket series of 1933? Whatever form it takes, the Koom Valley Syndrome affects many people in the world. It propagates sectarianism, re-fighting the old battles, teaching the next generation to hate. Of course, things rumble on. That’s what unfinished business does. An image The Cranberries summed up with “In your head, they’re still fighting”.
What really, accurately, happened then? Does it matter to minds already entrenched? Mild and reasonable after the long years, in much the same way that diamonds are squishy. Can anyone really win now? Pratchett thinks so. His Discworld is a place of fantasy, where goodwill and reconciliation can still win through. In our reality, although this message is not lost, it all seems so much harder to do.
Thud is a though-provoking book, but seldom the most outrageous fun in the Discworld canon. However, the author should be applauded for using his fantasy skills to convey rationality. A sweetened pill to encourage readers to re-evaluate their own behaviour. A brave balance this, between social responsibility and light entertainment. Adam Corres in Sunday Express,
“One of the darker Discworld tales, [Thud!] does not disappoint.” Sunday Express
Some of my best friends are trolls
….Like Monstrous Regiment, which examined the causes of war against a brilliant comic canvas, Thud! has a serious theme: racial intolerance. That Pratchett can explore this while still making us laugh is a tribute to the integrity of his created world. Not that this is without problems.
In Thud!, Vimes is trying to prevent the ancient enmity between trolls and dwarfs spilling over into urban warfare. Some of you may be groaning at the thought of trolls and dwarfs, but here is where the problems – and the interest – lie.
A constant mapping has gone on over many books between the Discworld and our less amusing universe, and dwarfs have taken on the characteristics of religious fundamentalists, while trolls correspond with disaffected urban youth. Street fighting between these groups is not just a fiction. Pratchett’s dwarfs could be seen as certain Muslim clerics; his trolls on nasty drugs could be seen as black youths – and that is quite another matter.
He could be accused of racial stereotyping, or of trivialising highly complex and incendiary issues. Vimes (increasingly, you feel, an alter ego for the author) comes up with some robust solutions to these intractable matters, helped by the rosy hue of a comic conclusion. But the issue remains: does the fact that this is a fantasy novel mitigate the way it unquestionably refers to the real world? I would suggest that no final identification is possible, but it’s a near thing.
Next time you dismiss Pratchett as light reading, consider Thud! It’s extremely funny, but it’s also very near the knuckleduster. W.H.Herbert in Scotland on Sunday
The 31st Discworld novel begins with a thud-the sound of a club crushing the skull of influential dwarf leader Grag Hamcrusher. Tensions between dwarves and trolls has been high for centuries, so when a troll club is found lying nearby the murdered Hamcrusher, a villainous troll is the obvious suspect. But the dwarf’s death is not so simple, and Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch must investigate the murder and discover the truth…lest renewed tensions between the dwarves and trolls tear his city apart. While some of these characters have appeared in previous Discworld volumes, newcomers to the series should have no trouble following and enjoying this audiobook. Like all of Pratchett’s work, Thud! is infused with wit and good fun throughout. Briggs, a 2004 Audie Award winner, enlivens the humor with his exuberant and masterful narration, and his pleasant British brogue is a joy to listen to. A man of many voices, Briggs flawlessly handles the wide variety of characters, which range from slow-witted trolls and gruff dwarves to arrogant lords and non-blood-sucking vampires. Canon reading for fantasy-fanatic audiophiles.
Publishers Weekly [This refers to the Audio CD edition.]
‘Where there is trouble, you will always find a troll.’ How true. How observant. How Pratchett. In his 34th Discworld novel, Terry Pratchett is at the top of his game, taking on honest cops, vampires, loyalty, fatherhood, and, of course, historic battlefield reenactments to create yet another irreverent, adventure-filled yarn. Gleefully finding both the parody and distinctive voice in each character, Stephen Briggs has a rip-roaring time creating a cornucopia of goofy British Isle accents. Briggs adds the right vocal tension and gravity at the right times as Commander Sam Vimes and the City Watch (a police force that dons ‘one size doesn’t fit anybody’ helmets) attempt to bring the murderer of four subterranean dwarfs to justice before another interspecies game of Thud! becomes all too real. Wonderful fun.
B.P. in AudioFile [This refers to the Audio CD edition].
Unwilling to get caught up in the fact that he is the duke of Ankh-Morpork, Commander Vimes still shaves himself and runs the Watch as well as he can. Lord Vetinari forces him to get involved in politics, though, because the Watch is incurring serious expense as it grows, and because his multicultural efforts have forced him to hire a vampire as a member of the Watch. Vimes has a lot on his plate, anyway, what with the upcoming anniversary of Koom Valley (a battle between trolls and dwarves that is part of an age-old war), an unsolved murder that reveals the limitations of the Watch in dwarfish eyes, and the theft of a valuable painting from the Royal Art Museum. On top of everything he does as part of his job, he must make it home at six o’clock on the dot every day to read to his young son. Everything is connected, of course–even Sally, the vampire taken on by the Watch. Unsettling secrets are revealed about the true history of Koom Valley, and in a basement in the city, dwarves and trolls are playing the game Thud!, a miniature battle of Koom Valley, together. As always, Pratchett’s latest Discworld yarn is funny, fast-paced, the kind of satire that explores serious issues while making readers love it. Regina Schroeder in Booklist
One problem with writing a comic series is that the later books have to include all the brilliant inventions from the earlier books, leaving less room for new brilliant inventions, which are, after all, the reason for writing the series in the first place. Terry Pratchett wrestles with this problem in his latest Discworld novel, Thud!, and mostly pins it to the mat.
Just how many Discworld novels are there by now? I would guess at least 30, though the actual number seems to be as difficult to locate as Unseen University, a magician’s college founded in Ankh-Morpork, principal city of the principal continent of Discworld, about 15 years before Hogwarts and a much tougher place in which to matriculate.
The problems inherent in an amassed back story – very like, I think, those clanking boxes Dickens’s Marley had to tow through the afterlife – are best shown by a comparison between the current installment and the first book to introduce Discworld, The Color of Magic. There the basic structure and what we might call the rules of engagement were laid out. Discworld, in a universe not quite parallel to ours, is, as the name suggests, a giant disc, containing continents and oceans and many populations, and resting on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on a giant turtle, who is swimming steadily, relentlessly, across the universe.
If this picture seems familiar, you have seen it in some art from the Indian sub-continent, but Pratchett purloins the concept and goes his own way with it. In The Color of Magic, Ankh-Morpork is a dangerous, seedy, bloody city, whose rulers learn that a tourist has come from some other part of Discworld to take in the sights. Once the disbelief dissipates – Ankh-Morpork never had a tourist before, nor ever expected one – the city fathers realize that, if they can keep this tourist alive, they just might have the beginning of a new industry. With this wisp of a hope, they hire a failed magician, a dropout from Unseen University, to follow the tourist around and, if possible, keep him from being slaughtered. That’s the setup, and the whole novel is ingenious, brilliant and hilarious.
Terry Pratchett himself is still ingenious, brilliant and hilarious, but by now he has a lot of baggage to lug along. The hero of Thud! is Sam Vimes, an earnest young man who in an earlier book married a wealthy aristocrat, Lady Sybil, which would make him Duke of Ankh-Morpork if he were willing to accept the role. For now, though, he is the local police chief or, to give him the proper nomenclature, Commander of the Watch. And the Watch, instead of the ragtag, corrupt, defeated few hopeless cases who, way back in The Color of Magic, wouldn’t even be asked to help keep a tourist alive, is now a serious modern police department suffering from, as so many police departments are these days, political correctness.
An equal opportunity employer, the Watch contains, in addition to Sam Vimes and a few other humans and sorta humans, an array of trolls, dwarfs, golems and one girl werewolf, and is about to integrate their first vampire, a shapely lady named Sally, whose elegance appears to be borrowed from Bela Lugosi’s tuxedo.
The primary tasks of this cleaned-up Watch are two: forestall a riot-cum-war between the city’s dwarfs and trolls, and solve the murder of a dwarf in a tunnel under the city. The looming riot, if it occurs, will be yet another re-enactment of a battle between the two groups hundreds of years ago, up in the wild country of Koom Valley, a battle out of which both sides emerged feeling betrayed and thirsting for revenge. If an echo of the Balkans comes to mind, I don’t think Pratchett would object.
The working out of these two problems, with many asides for Pratchett’s corkscrew brain to riff on the material, is the meat of the book. By the end, the members of the Watch even seem to believe they’ve solved the murder, though I confess I still haven’t. But that’s all right; the riot is averted, and the farmers and the cowboys – sorry, the dwarfs and the trolls – can perhaps be friends. Sally the vampire is becoming girl chums with Angua the werewolf, and peace temporarily stalks the land.
But the plot of a Discworld novel is never the point. The asides and the general goofiness and the imagination run amok are the point, every time and this time, too. And if, for instance, Carrot, the shy six-foot-tall dwarf (you had to be there), seems by this episode to be overstaying his welcome, that’s also okay. All in all, the only thing to be said about a Discworld novel is: Read it. You’ll like it. Donald E. Westlake in Washington Post’s Bookworld
Funny, poignant, complicated and character-driven. Locus
A delight from beginning to end. Fantasy & Science Fiction
Anything in a Pratchett story is capable of being transformed into something else – from a joke to a profound observation, from a fact of our social world to pure and lively fantasy’ A.S. Byatt, in The Times
You hardly need to review Pratchett nowadays . . . you know you can rely on him to be witty and quietly wise, and his creations have taken on a life of their own . . . . A series that seems to re-invent itself by natural evolution every time. Starburst
Thud! is a book for those who like an action-packed adventure, the mysterious and the mystic, but also enjoy the Pratchett wit and cynicism and are looking for a good read.
Ben Allport, Year 11, King Edward VI Aston School, Birmingham, in Books for Keeps
Background illustration © and by courtesy of Marc Simonetti