Sunday, December 05, 2021

the last book I read

Thud! by Terry Pratchett.

Sam Vimes just wants a quiet life. Not easy when you're the chief of the City Watch (the police force, essentially) in Ankh-Morpork, largest city on the Discworld, and not only a wretched hive of scum and villainy in all the usual ways (stabbings, blunt instruments, etc.) but with the addition of magic into the mix as well. 

Not only are there crimes to solve, but administrative headaches as well: there's been a new equal opportunities directive that dictates that Sam hire a proportion of his officers from minority groups like werewolves and vampires. I mean, there's nothing wrong with them, exactly, but they have their own ways, don't they? And those ways are not, you know, our ways, are they? So can you really trust them when the chips are down and shit gets real? Honestly, it's Undead Political Correctness gone mad. 

It's not just the City Watch who are struggling with integration: tensions are high, as they always are, between dwarfs and trolls, many of whom make their homes in the city. There is an enduring history of bad blood here, mainly revolving around the Battle of Koom Valley a few centuries previously wherein much mutual massacring was done and claims and counter-claims of treachery and ambush persist, and whose anniversary is just around the corner. So the general atmosphere is not good, and is certainly not improved any when a dwarf turns up dead with his skull caved in and a troll club is discovered nearby. Needless to say Sam and his crew get roped in to investigate, and very soon Sam starts to smell a rat. The dwarfs are a tight-knit group and resent outsiders interfering in what they feel ought to be internal dwarf matters demanding internal dwarf justice, and they are protective of the maze of underground tunnels that they have created with their mining activity (mining being what dwarfs do). And that's just the dwarfs who choose to go above ground and mingle with the surface-dwellers; there is a whole other dwarf subculture (the "deep-downers") who never emerge at all. But Sam must investigate, and down in a tunnel was where the body was found, and so down he must go.

It soon becomes apparent that some Weird Shit is going down, shit that the dwarfs do not themselves fully understand. Strange and cryptic symbols are appearing on mine walls, and there are rumours of strange disembodied voices being heard. When Sergeant Angua (a werewolf) and Lance-Constable von Humpeding (a vampire) find another way into the mines thanks to their magical powers (i.e. being able to transform into a wolf and a swarm of bats respectively) they discover more murdered dwarfs. Sam deduces that these dwarfs were murdered because they heard something they should not have and had to be silenced. Moreover, the group of "deep-downers" who were responsible for the murders have found the magical MacGuffin they were looking for (a sort of magical recording device called a "cube") and have now scarpered towards Koom Valley. Sam and his crew set off in hot pursuit

Anyway, long story short, it turns out that the cube contains a recording of some of the dwarfs and trolls who were at the Battle of Koom Valley, and it turns out not to have really been a battle at all, but a meeting to arrange a truce. Unfortunately the weather was terrible, and in the fog and confusion some fighting broke out which was only stopped when a huge flood washed everyone into an inescapable subterranean cave. The fundamentalist dwarfs didn't want this publicised, but once Sam has felt everyone's collar he ensures that it is, and an uneasy peace between dwarf and troll descends once again. And just as well, as Sam has to be home at 6pm sharp to read That's Not My Cow to his son, Young Sam. 

As I said in this post shortly after Terry Pratchett's death in 2015, I read the first seven Discworld books in fairly quick succession in the late 1980s and stopped after Pyramids. As it happens the very next book in the series, Guards! Guards!, was the first one in which Sam Vimes and the City Watch play a major role. 

So I'm in a similar situation here as I was with The Folks Who Live On The Hill: returning after a long time to the work of someone who I read a lot of stuff by in a short time back in the day. And as with the Amis oeuvre it's easy enough to recognise what I liked about them thirty-odd years later, principally: they're funny, there's always a serious point being made somewhere, and Pratchett found enough flexibility within the device of setting all the books in the same imagined world to come up with something fresh for each one. That said I've still only read eight of them (the first seven and this one, the thirty-fourth in the series) so if I'd ploughed through all of them I suppose I might have found some repetition. If you're assuming there'll now be a run-through of all the things I didn't like about them you'll be disappointed as there isn't one, really: I suppose there is perhaps just a hint of slightly unpalatable smugness here and there, and the central device (all the troll/dwarf/vampire/troll mutual mistrust is actually - get this - an allegory for racism and religious intolerance) is perhaps not quite as clever as we seem to be being invited to think it is. The last third of the book drags on a little bit as well and Pratchett, like many authors, seems to have suffered from a bit of late-career literary elephantiasis: at 439 pages Thud! is considerably longer than any of the previous Discworld novels that I've read, all of which were in the 230-280 page range. I can't honestly say I think it'd be a sound investment of your time to read all of the Discworld series, but I'd definitely recommend sampling a couple. I suspect - like the Patrick O'Brian books - it doesn't really matter where you dip into the series.

Why go back now, you ask? Well, simply because my wife had this copy of the book given to her by a friend who'd found it while clearing out a rental property and so it was passed on to me, and obviously I'm not going to refuse a free book. The exclamation mark at the end of the title makes it unusual among books that I own; the only other one in my collection which has one is Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up!. The answer to the obvious next question, i.e. well what about question marks, then, is that there are three in my collection: Who? by Algis Budrys (mentioned a few times before on this blog), Who's Sorry Now? by Howard Jacobson (which I have yet to read) and How Far Can You Go? by David Lodge. 

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