Thursday, December 07, 2006

Night Watch - Terry Pratchett

The Discworld is a strange and conflicted place. It was never intended as a consistent piece of worldbuilding - the first few books were little more than a loose collection of fantasy pastiches, and most of the characters and settings were introduced purely for their comedy value, or the particular fantasy cliché that needed to be satirised at the time. Possibly because he's run out of jokes, Pratchett is now trying to use the same setting for more serious plots and character development, hurriedly papering over the cracks in the internal logic. Sometimes this falls flat on its arse, as with Thief of Time, a book-long cringing apology for all of Discworld's timeline errors (I'll probably review that eventually, when I can stand to reread it). Sometimes it works extremely well, as with the superlative Night Watch.

Sam Vimes has been the star of many a Discworld novel. From his relatively humble beginnings as grizzled, bitter Watch Captain in Guards! Guards!, his rise to Dukedom has been meteoric... and extremely reluctant, as deep down he's still just an ordinary copper, etc etc. Ah, that ironic little adage, "Be careful what you wish for..." - chasing down a murderer across the rooftops of Unseen University during an electrical storm, he is unwittingly propelled several decades into the past, where he has to put all his down-to-earth coppering skills to the test in the corrupt pre-Patrician Ankh-Morpork of yesteryear...

The setup may seem a little contrived, but apart from the presence of the History Monks trying to clean up the broken timelines, this is actually a very straightforward story. The insane and paranoid Lord Winder is imposing his arbitrary tyranny on the city, which is bubbling under with revolution. The cops are incompetent, corrupt or downright evil, and it's up to Vimes to take the place of his old mentor John Keel and keep the city as safe as he can until he finds a way back to his own time - this includes protecting the younger version of himself, who has only just joined the force.

The uprising itself is very well handled - it's no glorious revolution, just a muddy little incident in the city's past, only remembered by the few who were there, and it's nicely framed by the opening and closing scenes of the survivors paying their respects. There's a touch of Pratchett's Usual Vimes Storyline ("will he succumb to his baser instincts and become just a murdering thug? Oh no, he's controlled himself again") but it's not overplayed and certainly isn't the main theme here. The political intrigues with young Vetinari and his aunt are less well developed, but again, they don't take up too much space; most of the action is on the streets, where a few good people have suddenly found the strength to stand up and fight back.

The Discworld series may be declining in quality, but you'd never guess it from this book. It's not as funny as the earlier ones, but then it's not really supposed to be - this is Discworld coming of age, with a story that's moving and triumphant and only slightly silly. There should be more books like this - I'd recommend it even for people disillusioned with Pratchett.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love this book, it one i will always come back to read over.

this was a great review, thankyou.

2:06 pm  

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