Terry Pratchett’s most recent Discworld novel, Snuff , is available in paperback at last. Here’s my review from November 2011:
One of the small goods I’m proud of having accomplished with this blog is introducing people who might not otherwise have found their way to them to the Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett’s series of comic fantasies set in a magical world where wizards, witches, trolls, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and talking dogs mix and mingle in a society suspiciously like 21st Century Earth without the technology, brought to life in energetic and games-playing prose reminiscent of Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, and whatever author whose plots, tropes, style, or characters Pratchett happens to be bending to his own satiric purposes at the moment. And routinely, people eager to get started will ask me where to begin. There are, after all, thirty-nine novels in the series, so far.
There are several good paths into Discworld. One is to start with the very first book, The Color of Magic, and work your way through chronologically. Another is to pick one of the series within the series---Pratchett has been alternating telling several long, interconnected stories---and read each of those in order, but then you have to decide which mini-series to start with. Rincewind and the Wizards? The Witches? DEATH and his granddaughter Susan? The City Watch? Or the newest entries, the adventures of the former con artist, Moist Von Lipwig?
Lately, I’ve been recommending starting by reading, not in any particular order, the best of each mini-series, Interesting Times (Rincewind), Maskerade (The Witches), Hogfather (DEATH), Feet of Clay (The Watch), and, the one I’m coming to feel is the best of all the books, so far, Going Postal, starring Moist Von Lipwig---and seeing which series and sets of regular characters take your fancy. Although the books are interconnected, characters cross over and cross back, and some subplots are continued from book to book within mini-series, most of them stand by themselves and contain enough exposition that you can pick up all you need to know as you go.
So it almost doesn’t matter where you start. Almost. I can tell you where not to start.
Don’t start with Pratchett’s newest, Snuff .
That’s not because Snuff, which continues the adventures of the Watch, isn’t any good. And it’s not because you need to have read all the other Watch books first (which, word of warning, is the case with Night Watch) to follow the plot, although it would probably help if you’ve read at least the previous Watch novel, Thud!, and maybe the first one, Guards! Guards! It’s because I think you need to have read at least enough of the Watch novels to have gotten to know and love the character of Sam Vines in order to tolerate the way Pratchett overuses him for the first half of Snuff.
Samuel Vimes, Sir Samuel Vimes, Chief Constable Sir Samuel Vimes, commander of the Watch, the Ankh-Morpork city police, also Duke of Ankh, thanks to his marriage to the Lady Sybil, also Blackboard Monitor, a title of great honor bestowed upon him in gratitude by the Low King of the Dwarfs, product of the streets, reluctant aristocrat, congenital democrat, ferocious upholder of law and order, doting husband and father, and policeman from the smoldering tip of his cigar to, literally, the soles of his boots, is the hero of the Watch books. And such is the strength of Vimes as a character and so central to the Discworld series are the Watch books (which is why I sometimes recommend that neophyte readers start with them) that his presence is felt, if only in being sorely missed, in the majority of the of books in which he doesn’t actually appear---a good case can be made, although it wouldn’t be made by Vimes himself, who’d insist he’s just doing his job as a copper, that he’s the hero of the whole enterprise.
Snuff is more focused on Vimes than any of the other Watch novels and it’s hard not to think of it as a valediction. Pratchett has Alzheimer’s, fortunately a more slowly degenerative form and he’s been able to keep working and plans to keep on working---he’s said to already have two more books in the hopper---but there’s no telling when things will catch up with him and so it seems that with Snuff Pratchett is, not saying goodbye to his best and favorite character, but attempting to givie him his due. Snuff is like a testimonial dinner, except that there’s a problem. For long stretches, the only person giving speeches in Vimes’ honor is Vimes.
Vimes spends more time thinking and musing and brooding and lecturing on the problem of being Sam Vimes than Hamlet spends on the problem of being Hamlet. The difference is that Hamlet is a sensitive and self-doubting young man in serious trouble while Vimes is a querulous, cocky, defensively self-confident middle-aged man whose job is to make trouble for others who’ve earned the attention of the police. A young prince poetically worrying about the state of his own soul is a somewhat more sympathetic figure than a fifty year old police chief grousing profanely on the state of others’.
In all the other Watch novels, Vimes is the lead character in a large ensemble of secondary heroes, major and minor villains, eccentrics, knaves, fools, saints, lunatics, and just folks with strong personalities, who include not just the other members of the Watch and the criminals they pursue but the entire population of the city of Ankh-Morpork. And he is opposed and often overmatched by a number of adversaries, chief among them his boss, the Patrician, Havelock Lord Vetinari, the thoughtful and not always benevolent tyrant who rules Ankh-Morpork with a combination of ruthless pragmatism and disinterested guile.
But in Snuff, Pratchett whisks Vimes out of Ankh-Morpork and drops him down in the countryside where he meets very few other people and none who are his match. Pratchett hasn’t come up with any new characters who can stand up to Vimes as characters and the result is usually that when they meet Vimes talks right over them.
Gently bullied by Lady Sybil, with help from the Patrician, Vimes leaves the city for his first vacation ever. He and Sybil and their little boy, Sam, head out for Sybil’s family’s country estate, where, of course, Vimes, a city mouse’s city mouse, is immediately and hopelessly out of his element.
It had been a long day and last night’s sleep in the inn had not been salubrious or restful, but before he got inot the huge bed Vimes opened a window and stared out at the night. The wind was murmuring in the trees; Vimes mildly disapproved of trees, but Sybil liked them and that was that. Things that he didn’t care to know about rustled, whooped, gibbered and went inexplicably crazy in the darkness outside. He didn’t know what they were and hoped never to find out. What kind of noise was this for a man to go to sleep to?
It’s a rule of mystery novels, movies, and television shows that police detectives can’t take vacations: wherever they go, to the mountains, to the seaside, to the French Riveria, and, especially, to country estates, they will stumble upon a freshly murdered corpse and there goes the holiday. Pratchett loves rules like that. He loves to play games with them. Throughout the Discworld series, Pratchett has made use of plots, imagery, conventions, and cliches from fairy tales, mystery novels, the plays of William Shakespeare, Conan the Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings, westerns, movies of all sorts including King Kong and Gone With the Wind---in Snuff, Vimes even idles for a few pages within the plot of Pride and Prejudice---and not always simply for comic effect. The family estate exists where the world of Agatha Christie bleeds into the that of P.G. Wodehouse and so I settled back with my copy of Snuff like Bertie Wooster with one of his beloved cheesy thrillers and waited for the bleeding, and the parodying, to start.
And waited some more.
Pages go by without even the hint of violence and mayhem. Vimes suspects something wicked is at work behind the scenes but it’s almost 100 pages before his suspicions are confirmed. Murder inevitably does out, but it isn’t done in the library with the candlestick. It’s a bloody slaughter on a hillside with a knife in the dead of night, something more out of Dexter than Miss Marple, but more to the point, it doesn’t reach back into the manor house or over to the village. It reaches into Middle Earth.
More specifically below Middle Earth. Down into the caves and tunnels where the goblins dwell in The Hobbit.
In fact, the crime involves goblins.
Goblins as victims.
Not that that should matter. A recurring theme of the Watch novels has been Vimes having to learn to accept creatures he has previously distrusted or despised---dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, zombies, and vampires---as human. It helps that Pratchett’s dwarfs and trolls are take-offs on British cultural stereotypes of the Welsh and the Scots and that his vampires, werewolves, and zombies are---or were, at any rate---human and they continue to go about the business of being human although with eccentricities like sleeping in coffins, baying at the moon, and dropping the odd limb or appendage now and then and having to have the lost body part sewn back on. But his goblins, like his elves in the Witches novels, are defined by comparisons to Tolkien’s elves and goblins. They are magical creatures, and while there is magic in Discworld, generally, in Ankh-Morpork it’s outmoded, out-dated, and obsolete except as a parody of science. A certain degree of realism pervades all the novels, naturally---they’re all satires. But the Watch novels are the most realistic. Goblins don’t fit in Vimes’ world nor does he fit in theirs.
They would fit in the Wizards’ world or the Witches’ or Susan and DEATH’s and the crime Vimes has to deal with, the kidnapping of goblins and their being sold into slavery, would have been a natural for Rincewind to tackle, ass-backward, or, more craftily and formidably, by Granny Weatherwax (particularly if the criminals were elves) or more adventurously and heroically by Susan, but Pratchett doesn’t seem to know what to do with the goblins once he brings them and Vimes together and so, after spending a lot of time describing them and their culture, he drops them as characters. They become merely a plot device.
Fortunately, two things happen that bring the story to rollicking life.
The first is that the crime reaches back into Ankh-Morpork as well as into the goblins’ caves and some old favorite characters are drawn into the plot, including the dwarf forensics expert Cheery Littlebottom, Igor, the Igor who acts as police surgeon---in Discworld Igors are a species, and all of them are named Igor or Igorina---and particularly this pair of less than zealous coppers:
Sometimes people asked Commander Vimes why Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs were still on the strength, such as it was, of the modern Ankh-Morpork City Watch, given that Nobby occasionally had to be held upside down and shaken to reclaim small items belonging to other people, while Fred Colon had actually cultivated the ability to walk his beat with eyes closed, and end up, still snoring, back at Pseudopolis Yard, sometimes with graffiti on his breastplate.
The other thing is that Pratchett, having given up on the murder mystery plot and stymied in trying to work Vimes into what is essentially a fairy tale, turns Snuff into an action-adventure novel. The story that takes over is an extended chase scene with the goblins as helpless villagers being carried off by bandits and Vimes and his small posse as the cavalry in hot pursuit.
Pratchett’s reputation is based on his greatness as a comic novelist, but he’s a great writer, period, and like another great comic novelist, Charles Dickens, he is adept at staging murders, fights, fires, storms, and all other sorts of scenes of calamity, mayhem, and destruction. The chase takes Vimes into a fight to the death with a murderer aboard a runaway barge tossed about on a river in roiling flood during a storm at night.
[The killer] squirmed out of Vimes’ grip, spun neatly and threw a punch which Vimes very nearly dodged. It was harder than he had expected, and, to give the devil his due, [the killer] knew how to defend and, perish the thought, was younger than Vimes, much younger. Yes, you could tell the eyes of a murderer, at least after they had done more than three or so and got away with it. Their eyes held the expression some gods probably had. But a killer in the process of trying to kill was always absorbed, constantly calculating, drawing upon some hideous strength. If you cut their leg off they wouldn’t notice until they fell over. Tricks didn’t work, and floor was slippery with debris of half a forest. As they kicked and punched their way across the wheelhouse deck, [the killer] was winning…
There is, of course, plenty of great comic writing. Plenty of plain good writing too. I especially liked this description of a goblin girl who’s learned to converse in Morporkian (English):
…the girl spoke as if she were pulling words out of a rack and then tidily pushing them back in their places as soon as they had been said.
And these from a bedtime scene in which Vimes and Lady Sybil fall asleep together while discussing the case:
Vimes lay back in the bed, enjoying the wonderful sensation of being eaten by pillows…
All he could see of her right now was the very tip of her nose, as the pillows claimed her…
Lady Sybil turned over, which meant---since she was a woman happily rich in gravitational attraction---as she turned, the pillow closest to Sam, acting like a gear in a chain, spun softly in the opposite direction so that Sam Vimes found himself now lying on his face. He struck out for the surface again…
Gently drifting into a nightmare world where the good guys and bad guys so often changed hats without warning, Vimes wrestled sleeplessness to the ground and made certain that it got eight hours.
Snuff isn’t where I would start if I was just starting to explore Discworld, but it’s a good place to continue from if you’ve been there, a pleasant way station to pass the time until the next book comes along, which, I hope, will be soon, with another to follow not long after that.
All the Discworld novels can be purchased through my aStore.