Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
One of the dangers of reading Discworld books, of course, is that you may never stop. Much like potato chips, it’s hard to just have one and then move on to something else, especially – and this may strike some of you as a bit odd – when you’ve already read them.
There are people who never re-read books, and don’t see the point in doing so. “You already know the ending,” they might say, “and you know how the story goes. What’s the point in reading it again?” I never, ever understood that. I mean, if you have a good story, well-told, why wouldn’t you want to read it again? If it had meaning for you and struck a chord deep within whatever it is you might call a “soul,” then reading it again is almost mandatory.
I can certainly see our Straw Man’s point if the book is bad, or even just mediocre. There are plenty of books that I’ve read that I’ll probably never pick up again. But the Discworld series doesn’t contain any of them.
This one is the first in the Guards track – one of four major story tracks within the series – and it quickly made the adventures of the Ankh-Morpork city guard some of my favorite stories.
The book opens in darkness and mystery, a kind of film noir feeling that permeates the whole story (although I am challenged to think of any noir film that featured a dragon as the main antagonist – but more on that later). Captain Samuel Vimes of the Night Watch is about as low as he can go. He’s drunk, it’s raining, and he has finally seen himself for what he’s always believed himself to be. A wreck. A bum. A loose end in the city, respected by no one and nothing, with the exception of the two other poor souls in the Watch with him. If we were to cast Vimes in the movie, we’d have to cast Bogart at his drunkest.
Vimes is a mirror of his city, really. Ankh-Morpork is the biggest city on the Disc, and it embodies all the worst elements of cities everywhere. It’s crowded and dirty, a place where people would sell their own mothers for a chance to get ahead. It’s ruled by a system of guilds and merchants, an ever-fluctuating oligarchy all directed by a Patrician who wields his power with pinpoint precision. Crime not only flourishes in Ankh-Morpork, it positively thrives, regulated and controlled by its own guild.
In short, there’s no place in the city for the Watch, and no place in it for Vimes. Maybe long ago he harbored thoughts of saving his city from itself, but no longer. Now all he wants is his next drink.
He’s not the only one thinking of a better city, though. In the dark recesses of Ankh-Morpork, a secret society meets. They are a shadowy group of bretheren who believe that the only thing keeping their city from being a good place to live is the lack of a king. Ankh-Morpork had kings once, and is so often the case, the dimly-remembered past looks a lot better than the immediately visible future. And so the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Bretheren gather with a singular goal in mind – to create a king.
It’s not that easy, though. You can’t just pull some schmoe out of a crowd and say, “Here – start kinging.” There needs to be no doubt in people’s minds that this person has been tapped by destiny to become their king. Like if he, say, slew a dragon or something….
Into all of this strides Carrot Ironfoundersson, a young dwarf-by-adoption who has been sent by his foster father to learn how to be a human being. And what better way to do that, they suppose, then to volunteer for the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch? Within moments of his arrival he begins to upend the very structure of the city itself. Carrot is everything that Vimes – or anyone else – wishes they could be: honest, forthright, idealistic, the kind of man who would arrest the head of the Thieves’ Guild for stealing. He knows the law and believes in it, which makes him just the wrong person for the Watch. Or, as things turn out, just the right one.
What begins as a magical conspiracy ends up being a murder-mystery, with a giant, fire-breathing dragon as the main murder weapon. Faced with this threat to both himself and his city, Vimes and Carrot, Nobby and Sergeant Colon are the only people who are willing to put themselves between the city and the dragon. Not, all things considered, the place they most want to be, but they’re all there is.
It’s a really good book, and an excellent introduction to the Guards track of the Discworld series. It is, of course, very funny – that goes without saying in this series – but also very meaningful. It has a lot to do with dreams and ideals, and the manner in which we are willing to achieve those dreams. Some by trickery and subterfuge, like the dragon-summoners, others by sheer honesty and idealism, like Carrot. And even those who have given up on their dreams, like Captain Vimes, can be persuaded to pick them up again, dust them off and give them another go.
It’s a story of redemption, not only for Vimes, but for the city of Ankh-Morpork. Much like Vimes, the city looks hopelessly lost at the beginning of the book – all rain and darkness and death – but by the end we have a glimmer of hope that it can become a better place. A place where the law can win out over corruption and decay, and where good people, standing up against million-to-one odds, can sometimes come out on top.
And if that’s not a story that deserves to be re-read, then I don’t know what is.
You have the effrontery to be squeamish. But we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But this much I can tell you, you ape – we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.
– The Dragon, Guards! Guards!