Sunday, November 06, 2011

Up to It

Okay! Now that I've finished reading Terry Pratchett's excellent new Discworld novel, "Snuff", I believe I can go back to my standard reading habits for the next few years while I wait for another batch of glorious new books to descend.

Snuff isn't just a Discworld novel, but a member of the most prized strain within that corpus, known as a Watch/Vimes book. I've enjoyed all Discworld, but the books set in Ankh-Morpork are always the best, and the Watch books (along with the nascent Moist books) tend to contain the highest proportions of things I like: Vetinari, CMOT Dibbler, Nobby Nobbs, the media, hordes of chaotically coexisting races, and more. I have to say that Snuff isn't my favorite of the Watch books - it's probably towards the middle of the pack, or maybe a bit lower - but still one of the more enjoyable Discworld books.


It's pretty amazing to consider, given the sheer number of entries within Discworld, but the series does maintain overall continuity, with each new novel set chronologically after the ones preceding it. In many cases, such as novels with the Witches, this tends to have a subtle effect, since events tend to return more or less to the status quo at the end of each book. However, Sam Vimes has gotten a really incredible arc throughout the course of his series. He regularly gets promoted to higher positions of responsibility; the Watch regularly adds new, and memorable, characters, who become permanent parts of future books; Vimes always grumbles against admitting a new race to the ranks of the Watch, only to admit a book or two later that they're among the most useful coppers; and over time he has sobered up, gotten married, and had a son. In Snuff, Young Sam is now old enough to walk on his own, and is quite talkative, particularly on the subject of poo.

Snuff really only has two failings, so I'll get them out of the way now. First, it badly needed more editing; particularly in the first third of the book, there are an embarrassing number of mismatched quotation marks, typos, and places where the word used is simply wrong. (For some reason, a publican is repeatedly referred to as the "landlord," a term that certainly must refer to Vimes.) Secondly, while this is a Watch novel, it continues the recent trend towards dispatching Vimes to a far-off locale, and so there's a shortage of Ankh-Morpork humor to be found, and much less of the other Watch members than we would usually see. There is some tradeoff here - in particular, we get to see a born-and-bred city boy's perception of life in the country - but on the whole, life on the Plains isn't as target-rich as life in the city.

Sam is ostensibly on holiday, but sure enough, he stumbles into evidence of a crime, which may be connected to a larger conspiracy. He reasonably suspects, but we can never prove, that Vetinari was responsible for his dispatchment here. We do eventually get some brief time with other Watch personnel - Carrot serves as interim Commander (and manages to complete all of Vimes' tardy paperwork within one day); Fred gets infected in a very minor plotline that gets loosely tied in with Vimes' investigation, and Nobbs, Angua, Littlebottom and Wee Mad Arthur all help him get better. Wee Mad Arthur's parts were the best of the bunch. I still haven't read Pratchett's children's novels Wee Free Men, but it sounds like he has retconned Wee Mad Arthur from being a gnome (which he was at the time of Night Watch) into one of the Nac Mac Feegle. I approve of crossovers, particularly in a universe as broad and varied as Pratchett's, and we get a bit of dialog explaining the Feegle and their habits. Honestly, the whole section with the Watch felt a little extraneous - it could have been cut entirely and the main Vimes story would still have made sense - but I'm glad that Pratchett kept it in there, because I love those characters so much.

Other than those quibbles, though, I had a great time with the book. Moving to a new location allows Pratchett to introduce a larger than usual new cast of characters, which allows for some nice speculation as to who can be trusted and who is guilty. We also see much more of Vimes' home life than I think we've gotten before; instead of pecking Sybil on the cheek before he rushes out on a pursuit, we see several long exchanges between the two over dinner, in bed, and at a variety of social functions. It's quite funny (and Pratchett is still the master at the two-level double-entendre), and further enriches our understanding of already well-developed characters. It's a hoot to see Young Sam growing up, too; he seems well on his way to combining the most admirable qualities of his mother and his farther, while often baffling both of them.

The Watch (and Moist) books tend to contain Pratchett's most pointed and effective satire, and you can usually summarize a book pretty accurately by identifying which humanistic theme it conveys. Thud! was about race relations, how mutual distrust grows over time, and how to break the cycle of retribution. Night Watch was about the division between the Law and Power, and how the civil authority's highest responsibility is to the institution of the law itself, and not to the officials on top. I feel like Snuff doesn't really break open a new theme, but mingles several from earlier books. That sense of division between power and law is a strong one, this time playing out in a small tight-knit community rather than the chaos of an urban rebellion. It feels like the treatment of the goblin race is the latest of a process that has previously been played out for trolls, golems, vampires, and werewolves. The goblins' problem seems to be that they are sub-human (unlike, say, the vampires, where the problems was that all were seen as dangerous), and so people can get away with treating them like animals. As usual, we learn to differentiate from the mass of "the goblins" and get to know one or two in particular, see their admirable qualities (while still getting to laugh at their unusual habits), and eventually one becomes a member of the Watch and Discworld moves one step closer to racial harmony.

One oddity of this book: Death never makes an appearance. I hesitate to say that it's the first book where he doesn't show up at all - there are a LOT of books, and I could easily be overlooking something - but we almost always get a glimpse of him, even if just for a sentence or two. It's a puzzling absence; my immediate thought would be that Pratchett's current situation would discourage him from wanting to get too close to Death, but he's been quite vocal in real life about getting comfortable with death, so it doesn't seem like that's a likely reason. Maybe there just wasn't room for him, or maybe Pratchett wanted specifically to focus on life (particularly as seen in Young Sam) rather than death.


I'm delighted that we got another chance to meet Vimes and see how he's doing in the world. He has been the most consistently enjoyable member of the widespread Discworld saga, and this entry does not disappoint. Like all of Pratchett's best books, this one made me chuckle, made me think, and made me feel. It's a worthy addition to the series.

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