Category Archives: Discworld

Books in the "Discworld" series by Terry Pratchett.

Review 79: Guards! Guards!


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.

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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!
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Guards! Guards! on Wikipedia
Discworld on Wikipedia
Guards! Guards! at Amazon.com
Guards! Guards! on Wikiquote
Terry Pratchett’s website

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Review 40: Lords and Ladies


Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Elves.

When you think of elves, what do you think of? The tall, fair-skinned beings of Tolkien’s Middle Earth? The ebony warriors from Dungeons & Dragons? Delicious cookies?

Not on Discworld. On Discworld, the Elves are folk of legend, and dark legend at that. People there remember the elves, although not very well. They remember through old wives’ tales, about leaving milk for the fairies and not going near the standing stones. Ask someone in the kingdom of Lancre, and they’ll think of elves as you and I think of elves – pretty, wonderful, magical…

Ask Granny Weatherwax and she’ll tell you the truth – that the Elves are not of this world, and don’t belong here either. She’ll tell you that when the barriers of the worlds grow thin, when the crop circles start to show up, the elves will be waiting, readying themselves to come back. For theirs is a parasite universe, a land of ice, and they desire ours for their… entertainment.

Such is the setup for Lords and Ladies, another one of Pratchett’s darker Discworld books. There is still his customary humor, of course, which would be sorely missed were it absent. But it’s also got a philosophical edge to it, as many of his books of this period do. It’s about faith in stories, and knowing the difference between what is true and what you wish were true.

It’s circle time again, where crop circles are appearing everywhere, and the parallel and parasite universes are coming into closer contact, and Granny Weatherwax knows that she is going to die.

Or is she? She can’t be sure….

Esme Weatherwax is the consummate witch. Tall, thin and bony, she’s the kind of woman who can wear the pointy black hat of a witch and dare you to think she’s anything else. She’s strong of mind, never afraid to speak the truth, the best witch in Lancre and not slow in admitting it. But many years ago, she was a headstrong young girl who was offered power by a mysterious woman in red who stood in the center of a stone circle. The woman promised power and freedom, but could not leave the circle. Rather than take the easy way to witchcraft, Granny worked, learned, and grew old. Which is always for the best.

As is the case with many Pratchett books, there are multiple plots that all center around the Elves and their newest attempt to gain the Discworld as their own world. Magrat Garlick, the third witch (because there must always be three) is going to marry Verence, the king of Lancre and a former Fool. Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, is attending the wedding and at the same time remembering his days in Lancre chasing after the headstrong young girl who grew up to become Esme Weatherwax. And Granny herself is remembering things that happened to all possible Esme Weatherwaxes, and for someone as sure of herself as she is, is having a serious identity problem.

Something needs to be said here about the three witches of Lancre, recurring characters as they are in all of the Witches books of the series. Normally this would be done chronologically, upon reviewing the first book in which they appeared, but I want to do it now. Besides, I haven’t read Equal Rites in a long time, but it’s on my list.

Granny is as I have said – the unofficial chief witch of the region, who has attained the status of being almost mythical in the village of Bad Ass. She is feared and revered, but only because she is always who she is.

Nanny (Gytha) Ogg is Esme’s polar opposite. She has a face like an apple left in the sun too long, her youth is filled with enough tawdry encounters to make a fraternity lose its breath, and her fondness for bawdy tunes (such as the ever-immortal Hedgehog song) has made her a figure of legend. But like any witch, Gytha is not to be underestimated. She can think faster than most anyone, and do so around corners. She’s the grounding influence for Esme when Esme gets too high on herself, and while being fearsome in her own right, she is one of the more approachable witches Lancre has to offer.

And then there is Magrat Garlick, the third witch. She is the soppy one, the romantic one, the one with the collection of occult jewelry and a library in her cottage. She’s the youngest, the least experienced, but not without potential. And while the other two witches may treat her like an ignorant stripling, they only do so because that’s how you become a witch – by learning things, not by being told things.

But now Magrat is going to be Queen, and there are only the two witches. And the elves are coming….

This is, as I have said, a darker book. We get an interesting look into Granny Weatherwax’s psyche – who she is, what she fears – and it’s a little chilling. The reader is used to the utterly unflappable Granny Weatherwax, so to see her, well, flapped is kind of disturbing. At the same time, though, it makes her more human than before, which she needs to be if she is to defeat the elves.

This book also offers a good look into the human need for fantasy. The elves anchor themselves to the Discworld by belief – if enough people want the elves to come, then they will. But the longer they stay away, the more time we get without them, the more they become what we think they are. Stories. Myths. Cute magical critters who are to be watched, but not necessarily feared.

We need our stories to get us through the “iron times.” Yes, we need elves, to help us escape from our lives from time to time, just as we need witches and wizards and gods. But we don’t need them here. Here, in the real world, we have only ourselves to count on, and we need to be strong enough to do that. Stories are good, in their place. But never mistake a story for the real thing.

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‘But all them things exist,’ said Nanny Ogg.
‘That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.’
– from Lords and Ladies
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Lords and Ladies at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Lords and Ladies at Amazon.com
Discworld at Wikipedia
Lords and Ladies annotations
Lords and Ladies at Wikiquote

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Filed under Discworld, elves, fantasy, humor, satire, Terry Pratchett, witches

Review 06: Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

This was the first Pratchett book I read, and I’m glad of it. While it has the humor and satire that is inherent in all of the Discworld books, it also has something else – something to say. It was evident, even from the first time I read this book, that Pratchett had put some real heavy thinking into it.

This book is, as the title suggests, about gods. Where do they come from? Where do they go? What keeps them moving? Ordinarily, gods don’t like this sort of question. People who think are not what gods look for in followers. Gods want people who believe. That’s where their power comes from. Gods with many believers are strong, great gods. Armies of priests and worshipers attend to their every needs, the sacrifices are plentiful and their dominion is vast. A great God wants for nothing.

A god with no believers, however, is a small god, a mindless thought blistering through the firmament, searching with single-minded fervor for one thing: a believer.

What happens, then, when a Great God finds out that, while he wasn’t looking, he lost all of his believers? That’s the thrust of this tale, the story of the Great God Om and how he became a tortoise for three years. It’s about the difference between what is real and what is believed in, and how much difference that can make at times. It’s about fundamental and trivial truths, and how to tell them apart. It’s about eagles and tortoises and how much they need each other.

Above all, it’s something of, in my opinion, a statement of faith. Many people ask me if I am religious, and I tell them no. That’s partly due to this book and the thinking that it made me do. Spiritual? Sure. Religious? No.

This is, as I said, the story of the Great God Om, who discovered, about 300 feet above the ground, that he had been a tortoise for the last three years. Before this mid-air revelation he had been just chewing at melons and wondering where the next lettuce patch was. Suddenly, all the self-awareness of a Great God was put into his head, as well as the knowledge that he was probably about to die. Om had intended to manifest as a bull or a pillar of fire – something much more majestic and Godly – but for some reason, that hadn’t worked. He had become a tortoise.

Now, in the presence of Brutha, a novice in the Church of the Great God Om, the god remembers who he was, and discovers that he’s in a lot of trouble.

The Church of the Great God Om. There’s something to talk about. Many people believe, upon reading it, that it’s an allegory for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The Omnian Church permits no heresy. It permits no sin, no disbelief. Violating the precepts of Om and His Prophets can lead to death, in a lingering and painful manner. The Quisition cannot be wrong, for was it not Om Himself who put suspicion into their minds? It’s a tactic that has been used by many religions over the years, often to justify acts that they know their god would not approve of.

I don’t believe that Pratchett was trying to take a stab at the Catholics in this book. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence that the Omnians and the Catholics bear a few points of similarity. A rigid hierarchy, for example. A penchant at one point or another for extracting confessions by any means necessary is another. It’s all very efficient and effective.

There’s a problem, though, as is pointed out by Brutha late in the book: if you beat a donkey with a stick long enough, the stick becomes all that the donkey believes in. At that point, neither gods nor believers benefit. The only people benefiting are those wielding the stick. Instead of becoming a tool for inspiration, the church becomes a tool for terror. People do not obey their god out of love – they obey their church out of fear.

This is the kind of church that could produce the Deacon Vorbis, head of the Exquisitors. He is one of those men who would turn the world on its back, just to see what would happen. He is everything that is wrong with the Church and, unfortunately, it seems that he is in line to be the Eighth Prophet.

In other words, Omnia is not a nice place to live. Its church is vast, its god is small, and neighboring nations want to take it down a few pegs. It’s up to Brutha and his God to change the course of history.

As I said, there was a lot of thought put into this novel, as well as Pratchett’s usual hidden research. For example, Brutha is called a “Great dumb ox” by his classmates, due to his size and apparent lack of intellect. The same epithet was thrown at Thomas Aquinas by his classmates, and he was canonized less than a century after his death. Like Aquinas, Brutha is not dumb. He is simply slow and careful in how he thinks, and his measured pace leads him far more surely to the truth than the hot-headed and passionate men who march with him.

Some people read this book as an attack on religion. Others see it as a defense of personal faith. I think Terry had a story to tell, and perhaps a point to make. The beauty of books such as these is that they can be whatever you want them to be. For me, it came as a kind of defense of gods. Humans, the book suggests, need gods. Now there is a growing atheist community out there who disagree with that idea, and I can definitely see where they’re coming from. As I’ve said many times, I’m not entirely sold on the god idea yet. But the gods that are rampant in the Discworld aren’t the kinds of gods that the atheists and the true believers fight over – the omnipotent creator of Everything. They are gods who are controlled by humans, who exist with humans in a kind of co-dependent relationship. Humans need gods, and gods need humans. In its way, this kind of theology makes gods more… realistic to me. I can’t say for sure whether a god or gods exist, but if they did, I think I could live with this kind of arrangement.

What this book definitely is, in any case, is good. Very good. If you haven’t read it, do so. If you have read it, do yourself a favor and read it again.

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“Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Laste the Godde Dies.
Ande this maye notte be noticed.”
– from the writings of the philosopher Abraxis, Small Gods
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Annotations for Small Gods
Small Gods at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Small Gods at Wikiquote
Small Gods at Amazon.com

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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, gods, humor, morality, religion, sins, Terry Pratchett, theology