Thursday, June 24, 2010

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

So, my confession: the World Cup is putting a bit of a damper on my reading, and my reviewing. I finished this book a some time ago. I am usually pretty careful about reviewing very soon after the book is done, but in this case, I finished the book and the next morning happened to be a game I desperately wanted to watch: South Africa vs. Mexico. It was worth it. And then there was another game -- and another -- and oh look, I finished this book last week sometime, and I still haven't reviewed the thing yet. So here it is, posted, finally.

This is not fair to the book, as I loved it. It's unsurprising, as it's written by Terry Pratchett, but I still feel it warrants a mention: this book is awesome. It took me a little longer to get into it than usual, but I think I can blame this on circumstance (Summer reading is coming. Summer. Reading. Is. Coming. summerreadingiscomingomgaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh!!!) rather than the book itself. I persevered and was well-rewarded: Guards! Guards! is now one of my new favourite books. I have noticed this happens a lot with Pratchett. Not every time, but regularly enough to spot a trend.

This is the first of the Discworld books featuring the Watch. Sam Vimes is the captain of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, a ... well, diminished, perhaps is the nicest thing we can say about them... group of individuals who are all that is left of a once proud force for law and order in that most fragrant of cities. Vimes is an alcoholic, not even really functioning anymore as we meet him. He loves his city and he's blackly, horribly depressed at what the Watch has come to since the various guilds -- The Thieves Guild, the Assassins Guild, etc. -- have been declared legal. It's an interesting commentary on what happens to those who feel irrelevant, even if they have work and a place in society. Vimes knows that what he is, and what he does, means nothing to the larger society even though it means a great deal to him. It's one of those deeper threads that often sneak their way into the Discworld books.

But then due to circumstances largely unrelated to Vimes, things start to change: a new member of the Watch actually starts arresting people, men in dark cloaks start stealing various magical trinkets around the city, and a dragon starts setting various parts of Ankh-Morpork on fire. It's this last part that Vimes really takes exception to; Ankh-Morpork is his beloved city, and he's extremely unhappy that a flying impossibility is laying waste to it.

If there was ever any doubt about which genre Pratchett was delving into here, this paragraph should lay that to rest:

Now, why did I wonder if it has a lair? Vimes thought, as he stepped out into daylight and the crowded square. Because it didn't look real, that's why. If it isn't real, it doesn't need to do anything we expect. How can it walk out of an alley it didn't go into?

Once you've ruled out the impossible, then whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. The problem lay in working out what was impossible, of course. That was the trick, all right.

There was also the curious incident of the orangutan in the night-time...

The Holmes fan in me literally squealed when she read that passage. Luckily I keep her deeply enough buried that she doesn't embarrass me in public.

So yes. Mysteries. Police procedurals. Even, to my delight, noir -- there are nods to Philip Marlowe, which having actually read The Big Sleep, I got. A lot of the hard-bitten cop/private-eye tropes show up here, lovingly made Discworld's own by Pratchett. It works really well for me. The mystery is slightly different; we know who is responsible for the dragon's appearance, but we don't know who that person is. We know a little bit about the dragon, but we don't know everything. Like anything I've read by Pratchett so far, the truth is revealed in such a careful, imaginative way that I was both awed and thrilled. There are moments of catharsis in this novel that any fiction I've read would be hard pressed to match, and yet I never felt overly manipulated. And Vimes does his sleuthing with such hard-boiled, alcohol-fueled, city-smitten zeal that I couldn't help but fall for him hard.

The other aspect of this novel I enjoyed was spending a great deal more time with the Librarian, the above-mentioned orangutan in the night-time. That is one ape I would like to emulate; I would possibly give up being human if I could be a librarian like him. I leave you with this moment of librarian zen:

Then he tied one end of the ball to the desk and, after a moment's contemplation, knuckled off between the bookshelves, paying out the string behind him.

Knowledge equals power...

The string was important. After a while the Librarian stopped. He concentrated all his powers of librarianship.

Power equals energy...

People were stupid, sometimes. They thought the Library was a dangerous place because of all the magical books, which was true enough, but what made it one of the most dangerous places it could ever be was the simple fact that it was a library.

Energy equals matter...

He swung into an avenue of shelving that was apparently a few feet long and walked along it for half an hour.

Matter equals mass.

And mass distorts space. It distorts it into polyfractal L-space.

So, while the Dewey system has its fine points, when you're setting out to look something up in the multidimensional folds of L-space what you really need is a ball of string.

Next up: a soccer book. Yes, I am serious.


Bookwyrme said...

Great review.

I *love* Pratchett. One of these days, I'm going to read the Guards books in order.

Unknown said...

Thanks! I am on my way through the entire Discworld series in order. I like that it doesn't *have* to be read in order, that it could really be entered anywhere, but that reading in order does provide a different experience. So much fun.

Aarti said...

I love this book! The Watch series is one of my favorites (along with the Death series). I am glad you enjoyed this one, and I totally understand about the World Cup cramping your reading/blogging style :-)

Unknown said...

It's a problem, all right, that giant sporting event... and how about that US team?! Very impressive so far.

I think I'm going to really enjoy this series too. The combination of detective fiction and Discworld is very hard to resist.

Jill said...

Oh, you are ahead of me again. I must catch up. I skimmed your review, and now I'm looking forward to this one even more. :-)

Unknown said...

It's sooooo good, Darla! Sooooo good. Perfect read at this busy time of year, I think. Nice to see you, btw! Your library must be busy busy?

Jill said...

Thanks, Kiirstin - it's good to be (sort of) back. The library has been very busy! But it's great to be open again, and in our lovely new building. :-)

Marg said...

I can't remember if I read this book when I first discovered Discworld or not. I do often think about rereads of this series because I often think that there are jokes that I just wouldn't have appreciated previously in my life that I really would now!

Unknown said...

Darla - That's right, I'd forgotten about the new building bit! Oh man, opening a new building right before summer -- that's a double-whammy. I went through the building opening, but it was in the dead of winter. We still had double our regular patrons come in for the first six months or so, and even a year and a half later circ is well up. Good luck with all of that!! I'm amazed you have any time/energy to read at all!

Marg - I think you're so right about that. The writing is pretty layered and some of the humour is surprisingly subtle (I say surprisingly because some of it is really not subtle at all!). I tried reading Discworld books when I was younger and couldn't even get into them. I think I had to mature to a certain point, and I suspect that means they'll only get better with age.