The Short Version: Sam Vimes is finally taking a vacation. Although he’s not quite sure what that means, per se. The country seems… incomprehensible as compared to the city. But a copper is a copper and there’s something not quite right out near Ramkin Hall. Before long, Vimes is caught up in local politics and goblin nonsense and there’s even a riverboat chase involved! So much for vacation.
The Review: I’ve always been a stalwart fan of the way Terry Pratchett can blend real world issues with the truly unique sense of humor that populates the Discworld series. The best books are either the ones that are just straight-up funny or the ones that tackle an issue with aplomb. Sometimes there’s a lack of aplomb or a lack of the funny (Monstrous Regiment was lacking, to my mind). This is also not to say that I disliked the earlier books that riffed on various plots from Shakespeare and the Greeks (Lords & Ladies is terrific) but as Pratchett has gotten older, he’s started to turn his hand to social commentary.
This is the first book that I can remember (granted it’s been many years since I started the series and there are like 40 books) that, while quite funny, tips the scales in favor of the social issues. Sam Vimes has always been a complicated and conflicted character – easily one of the best creations to ever come out of, well, anyone’s mind – and his development has been a joy to watch. After the events of Thud!, we’re seeing a Vimes who is having to deal with more complicated problems than the young street-wise copper could ever have imagined. Here, he tackles slavery in startling fashion and also raises the question of “when the law hasn’t caught up yet, is it right to be preemptive?” I’m watching The West Wing from the top again and in 1999 they were dealing with that question – we’re still dealing with that question today, too, in American politics. Isn’t it wonderful to see humanity’s most talented fantasist-humorist (is that the right term? I think I made it up) dealing with that question alongside more ‘serious’ outlets?
I will say that the funny is slightly lessened in this book as compared to others. Sure, there’s still something laugh-out-loud funny every few pages – but there’s a real seriousness to the tone of the book and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t catch me off-guard. I let this book jump my #rooster2012 reading list because I wanted something reliably light and funny – and while I was of course rewarded, I found that the book demanded more from me than I expected. Even the scenes of Sam watching Young Sam and reflecting on what it is to be a father… there was an incredibly human shading to all of it that touched something deep inside of me.
The plot is actually, upon reflection, a little complicated. There’s a small subplot that seemed only to serve to shake up the Watch a bit (whatever will happen without Nobby in Ankh-Morpork?) and I wasn’t sure of its importance, really. Also, there’s a whole bit with a bench of magistrates who are (predictably) terrible old-timers – and I found the book toying with a Hot Fuzz sort of plot (copper comes to the country, everyone’s outwardly happy but he uncovers big secret plot led by town council) and then somewhat abandoning it. If I had one criticism of the book, it’s that things seem to get out of Vimes’ scope as he narrows in one specific target. He plays snooker well – but the beginnings of the book have it like he’s playing simultaneously on multiple tables before deciding which game was most important. There just seemed to be a slight lack of clarity to the role the magistrates played and the reasoning behind their actions.
The flipside of this is that perhaps Sam didn’t need to know exactly what was going on – because there were more important things to deal with. The goblin trafficking and subsequent message about the rights of sentient beings was all the more shocking because we like to pretend that we don’t need to hear it anymore. Slavery ‘ended’, racism is ‘fading’, we’re all headed towards a ‘harmonious future’ – but anyone with a brain knows that to be false. Slavery still exists all over the world, we just look the other way. Racism is alive and well, even with a black President (perhaps even moreso because of it…). The harmonious future only exists in science-fiction or in the world simply ending and thus having done with all of us. So you’ll forgive me, then, for possibly hyperbolizing the fact that Pratchett has done an amazing thing here: he’s made an issue seem important again. In a fantasy novel. Without telling you it was coming and before you’ve realized it was upon you, you’re swallowing it down like a pill hidden in delicious applesauce. Bravo, Sir Terry.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Simply excellent. The cast of characters is unique and fantastic as ever, with even the small supporting folks being distinct. In that regard, Pratchett will be held up in the same regard as Dickens for creating so goddamn many individual named characters. The plot is smart and moves quickly (although I will say the scenes on the Fanny do run a bit long at times) and Vimes makes such a strong stand on civil rights that you can’t help but cheer for him. Literally, I cheered. Several times. And I laughed, quite a lot. Even when the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, you can be assured that Terry Pratchett will make you laugh – and then remind you that everything’s probably more alright than you thought. And if you’re lucky, he’ll slip a lesson in there too.