Goodreads

I meant to say before, but I may as well say now, while I remember: I’ve joined Goodreads, under the name “Wastrel”. Anybody wants to friend me, they are more than welcome! I don’t seem to know many people on the net who are on goodreads, and even fewer in RL (and frankly, I prefer to keep those two seperate), so I’m rather missing out on a large part of the point of the site. So, friend me. Or at least say hello or something!

Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

This is getting to be a habit. A new Pratchett comes out, I read it, I get nostalgic for the old days, I worry about whether the old days were only ever in my memory, and so I go and read something else by him. Only this time I cut right to the chase. I’m struggling with a painful (in a good way) book, the nights are drawing in and it’s getting cold… so I read Hogfather.

Hallelujah!

I wasn’t wrong after all. This is the real Pratchett. And boy, he’s good.

Hogfather, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a Discworld novel about Christmas. Santa Claus (or his Discworld equivalent, the Hogfather) is under attack by the dull, life-hating Auditors of Reality, through their chosen tool, the mad, childish assassin Mr Teatime (it’s pronounced teh-ah-tem-eh. He’s very clear on that point). With the Hogfather out of action, somebody needs to step in, and that task falls to the ever-helpful (and always eager to explore alternative careers) Death, he of the scythe and the CAPITAL LETTERS VOICE. And his un-elflike assistant, Albert.

Let’s start with the bad. This is a mess of a novel. There are essentially four different storylines: Death delivering presents and learning about the true meaning of Hogswatch (Christmas); Death’s grand-daughter (don’t ask), Susan, trying to put things right; Teatime and his merry band of criminals having fun in a strange location; and the Faculty of Unseen University, trying to deal with some of the peculiar household gods that are popping into existence as a metaphysical result of the whole affair. The first three storylines intersect only briefly, while the fourth touches on them barely more than tangentially. The four storylines can only go together by explictly bending the laws of time and space, and as a result of shoving them all together we miss the most important bit – we see hardly any of Teatime’s actual assassination plot (no, hearing about it in hindsight doesn’t count).

Right. Got that out of the way.

In defence of the book, I’ll say this first and foremost: it’s hilarious. The Faculty subplot in particular, irrelevent though it may have been, had me uncontrollably laughing out loud on half a dozen occasions (which is impressive, given the short length of the book), fully justifying its otherwise unjustifiable inclusion. Runner up prize would have to go to the brilliant double-act of Quoth the Raven and the Death of Rats, but there are laughs on almost every page.

It is also very dark, and really very creepy. One of the central theses of the book is that childhood is not a comforting time, but instead is much like adult life written in larger letters, and this sort of high-contrast long-shadowed aesthetic is obeyed by the book itself, which contrasts the humour with quite a lot of killing, a frightening psychopathic serial killer as a villain (and a bunch of murderers as, paradoxically, the ones we sympathise with compared to him), and a number of nightmares come to life. And if this all sounds a bit silly – well, it is, but it’s also a serious essay about the meaning of life (particularly, about the role of symbols and convention in constructing meaning). This puts it a bit at risk of being twee, but I think he stays just on the right side of preaching. What’s more, the central themes (childhood and symbolism) are only the most important and consistent of the dozens of observations on life, the universe and everything, which range from funny to intelligent to both. This, frankly, was a surprise to me – I’d remembered that Pratchett’s musings had been more interesting in the past, but I’d forgotten just how much more numerous and varied they were.

I don’t really know what else to say. There’s not a lot to analyse here, because it’s a short book, and it flagrantly ignores any attempt at structure (while nonetheless feeling quite complete and self-contained and right). And it’s very good.

Oh, and he’s extremely erudite. There were some very clever in-jokes, referencing both his own work and the real world. He’s the kind of author who benefits from annotations.

I suppose I might wish it were longer. And I think the ending could have been better – as it is, it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

Nonetheless: I’m not sure that Hogfather is the best book Pratchett’s written, but even if it had been the only book he had written, it would make him an author worth keeping an eye on. Never again will I doubt the heights he has achieved or suspect his reputation in my mind as being the result of nostalgia. No, he really was this good.

Adrenaline: 4/5. The short scenes, quick cutting, high stakes, creepy darkness and sheer exuberant energy of the writing made it a gripping read. No, perhaps, thrilling – it’s too disordered for that, without a big enough climax. But gripping.

Emotion: 2/5. A possible complaint is that it’s not a very emotional book. I was never really upset, or really elated. I like the characters, but I don’t feel for them all that much.

Thought: 4/5. Not a great philosophical essay, but it’s got sophisticated ethical themes, and a whole host of astute observations that at the least encourage the reader to see the world in a new way, and sometimes are actually thought-provoking as well. Add to that the unpredictable (and somewhat metaphysical) plot, and this may be fun but it’s certainly not brainless fun.

Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett may not construct sentences that make you gasp out loud at their beauty, but he’s a consistently elegant and graceful prose stylist, and in Hogfather that prose is turned to the service of stunning  images and an elegaic humanism.

Craft: 4/5. It’s able to make me laugh out loud, ponder a little about the human condition, and yearn for somebody to get a poker through the heart, often all in the same page. The prose is great, and the fact the plot is able to fit together at all is a testament to Pratchett’s feel for balance and form. On the other hand, the plot IS still a mess, and some scenes aren’t as good as they might have been, particularly the ending. There are also a handful of scenes that should have been cut entirely.

Endearingness: 5/5. How can you ask? It’s really funny. Plus, childhood! There’s not an objectionable moment to be found.

Originality: 2/5. OK, nothing about stealing Christmas is all that unique, though this is certainly a unique take on the idea.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. I’m a little torn on whether this is Good  or Very Good, but I think I’ll opt for the latter. It’s at the low end of Very Good, admittedly, but I think it qualifies. And now I want to go and re-read all those other classic Pratchetts…

The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986, the same year as Watchmen. Together, these two graphic novels redefined (so I’m told) the nature of comic books, begat hundreds of emulators, and are frequently listed side-by-side as pinnacles of the art form.

I don’t read comic books, and never have. Curiosity, and having friends who do read comic books have allowed me a vague idea of comic book history and tangential familiarity with many names, characters, concepts and storylines. Even for somebody as ignorant as myself, it’s clear that after these two experiments, the following decade was filled with dark, brooding, ultraviolent antiheroes, often with improbable and faintly homoerotic depictions of male musculature: the so-called “Dark Age” of comics.

Well, I’ve now read Watchmen and I’ve now read The Dark Knight Returns, and I’ve learnt that the critics are right: there is quality and sophistication here, and the origin of that Dark Age.

Unfortunately, the quality and sophistication are in Watchmen, and it’s The Dark Knight Returns that everybody copied.

The Dark Knight Returns is a four-part graphic novel following the activites of a certain Bruce Wayne, billionaire, ten years after he has retired from his second life as “Batman”, a vigilante roaming the streets and rooftops of Gotham City by night, doing good and fighting crime. His friend, Jim Gordon, is about to retire; a gang known as the Mutants is wreaking havoc on the city; and his old adversary, Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, is about to be released from a psychiatric institution after a course of treatment funded by Wayne himself. Needless to say, his retirement will not last for long.

Superficially, there are many similarities between The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. In both, aging, retired heroes return to action; in both, ‘superheroes’ have been outlawed; in both, the central characters are brutal, psychologically damaged, and excessively violant; in both, the greatest superhero on earth is working for the President of the United States. But Watchmen is set apart by three things: good writing, stylish and intelligent cinematic art design and layouts, and above all a nuanced and ambivalent understanding of humanity.

The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t have any of those things. Its characters are motiveless and inscrutable – where the villains in Watchmen have understandable, human, even possibly justifiable motives, those in DKR just kill people because they’re Like Totally Mad and Really Really EVIL (™). The heroes have no particular motives either – or even personalities – they just do as the plot demands of them. Batman, true, does brood about his origin story, but it only tells us what happened to him – we don’t really get the sense of why this billionaire dresses up like a bat and beats people up, when there are so many other things he could be doing to improve the world. Beyond of course, knowing that he’s Damaged (™) and Traumatised (™). [In particular, I couldn’t but compare the cut-out ‘something bad happened once so now he’s a Superhero, apparently’ origin unfavourably again the  psychologically acute and believable origin of Moore’s Rorschach. Miller’s explanations always seem to end with a sort of handwaved ‘ya know? yeah?’ and a reliance on our knowledge of the laws of cliché, compared to Moore’s depictions of genuine human motivations. That’s when Miller even attempts explanation. Why does Robin become Robin, for instance? Well, ya know, her parents are liberals, and, like, you know, BATMAN, so, I mean, yeah? Things are sort of juxtaposed in a way that makes it believable that she might act that way – but we never see what enough from her thoughts, words or actions to tell us exactly why she does. And Robin is one of the most fleshed-out characters! Almost everybody is a blank cipher]

More worryingly, there is almost no ambivalence here. It is clear that Batman’s methods are violent and direct; it is also clear that his actions have many consequences, some of them negative. These things are admitted, as though in passing, but there is no real consideration of them. People just debate Batman in the background. It’s as though Miller knew he had to address these issues, so had some talking heads fill time talking about them, but he didn’t really care, so when push comes to shove the debate takes second place to punching people in the face. The apparent neutrality of the discussions is also undermined by Miller’s relentless mockery of, even demonisation of, liberals. The ‘anti-Batman’ side are all idiots, lazy cowards, and assorted strawmen drawn from conservative fantasies – the portrayal of mental health professionals in particular is shocking. It’s true that to some degree this seems to only be one instance of the general Millerite thesis that everybody in the world is contemptible vermin, with the exception of a small group of ubermenschen identified by their love of punching people in the face: where Watchmen makes a point of humanising its bystanders, valorising them, lamenting their tragedies, DKR reduces them to cardboard insects. The central moral of the novel appears to be that the general populace is a herd of cattle that must be lead and guided by a Strong Ruler – all the violence and depravity is the result of people thinking they can make their own decisions, rather than having a Strong Ruler to look up to. The ubermensch, on the other hand, have the exact opposite problem: they are letting untermensch control them. They should instead aspire not to be like the government stooge Superman, and more like the strong-willed psychopath Batman, or like the lunatic terrorist serial killer, The Green Arrow. When a looting crowd is pacified and transformed into an army of civic responsibility, it is not, as it would be in the hands of other authors, a heart-warming moment of shared humanity, but instead a quasi-fascist organisation of the proletarian by a big strong violent billionaire on horseback. The President, meanwhile, is villainised not because he’s evil, or because he’s blinded by ideology, or because he’s blood-thirsty or stupid or reckless, or even, per se because he’s heartless, but primarily because he’s a weakling.

The fact that all this ubermensch/untermensch thinking and adoration of strong command structures and personal charisma seems slathered over with a gloss of latent racism and conservativism (the underling-villains all sound like an 80’s white man’s notion of what black ‘jive’ is like, although of course the big villains, Two Face and the Joker, and the one clever henchman character, are all well-spoken, well-educated white men; a minor villain is a transexual with exposed breasts and buttocks (all painted with schwastikas) to make sure we know just what sort of person is likely to be a criminal; and the Joker’s evilness seems to be associated with more effeminacy/campness than I’m used to the character having (his first word when hearing that Batman has returned is ‘Darling!’)) just adds an even more pungent aroma. Miller is good enough that there’s no single thing I can point to that would prove he was a racist, or a fascist, or a sexist (three tangential pieces of evidence: the irritating ‘airheaded wife’ routine between Gordon and his wife, complete with damsel-in-distress moment; the fact that Gordon’s Batman-hating replacement who screws everything up is a woman promoted to a man’s job – though to be fair, all her sins really spring from liberalism, and if only she could set that aside and embrace the idea of Ubermensch keeping order in the streets with private tanks, it’s made clear she could be a competant and effective administrator; and the fact that the only really positive female role isa girl who dresses up as a boy and adopts a boy’s name and goes out looking for fights). But on almost every page there’s an indefinable scent of the repulsive, the bigoted-at-heart, even if there’s enough brain on top to stop him from saying anything too alienating.

Of course, being odious doesn’t make it bad. True, the combination of unthinking adulation for violent vigilantes and contemptuous hatred for the government and for the untermensch that allow it to exist carries a horrific whiff of Oklahoma City about it – but being a semi-deranged Nietzschean quasi-fascist doesn’t, per se, make Miller a bad writer. No, the problem is that he lacks any doubt. The fact that he allows the opposition to be heard and doesn’t discount those views out of hand raises him above the worst writers, but his inability to take those concerns seriously prevents him from being among the best. It stands in stark contrast to Watchmen: from the general tenor of the book, I think I’ve got a good idea of Moore’s politics, and I can confidently hazard that both the hero and the villain would be inimical to his instincts – and yet both the hero and the villain are sympathetic, understandable. A reader can come to Watchmen with any set of sympathies for or against the main characters and feel that the book does not shout him down; DKR is far less even-handed.

Perhaps that’s not a major problem. Not every book has to be morally thought-provoking. But DKR suffers in this respect because it seems that that is the whole point of its existence. It gives us a darker, more ambiguous hero – but stops short of taking the final steps to real characterisation or sophistication. It does not resolve the moral issues it raises, but nor does it seem to think that they matter. In short, Batman is one small step in the direction of Rorschach – but only one small step. Rorschach is everything Batman is but more so: Rorschach is darker, Rorschach is more likeable, Rorschach is more DISlikeable as well, Rorschach is more ambiguous, and Rorschach is, crucially, more human. Rorschach is a human disguised as a hero; Batman is a hero who sometimes looks like a human being.

When it comes to the art and the writing, I don’t want to be overly harsh. I suppose the art is sufficient – most of the time I vaguely knew what was going on, and some pages actually looked quite memorable (though, sadly, the best picture of them all is the one on the cover). Most of the time – though certainly there were pages here and there that really had me reading a second time to work everything out (a constant issue, though this may be partly my fault as an inexperienced reader of the form, was that small panels kept having surtitles instead of subtitles, or possibly vice-versa, so that, the panels being pressed close together, I kept getting mislead as to what words went with what pictures – not that it really mattered, since the pictures were fairly irrelevent in most cases); the ‘stylish’ obsession with black and dark blue, meanwhile, gives it all a very drab, repetitive feel. But no, the drawing isn’t TOO bad. It’s just that compared to Watchmen’s clever use of focus, cutting, symbolism, symmetry, foreshadowing-and-reference, the art in DKR is prosaic and uninteresting. It feels like an amateur film, beside the Citizen Kane of Watchmen (which itself, in my opinion, only briefly touched on the real potential of the art form). The writing, meanwhile, is certainly not illiterate, but is largely cliched and… again, just uninteresting. Basically this is Dirty Harry re-written for superheroes, with a slight noir tinge about the edges.

The tone is also problematic. The drive to more darkness and more grittyness sits uneasily beside batmobiles and teenage girls in spandex [on which note: the character of Carrie is said to be 13, but is both written and drawn as though significantly older]. It doesn’t really make much sense as a world – not as a world in which there are or were half-a-dozen superheroes with godlike powers. Even Watchmen struggled here, but DKR doesn’t so much struggle as drown.

This is not all to say, however, that The Dark Knight Returns is a terrible book. It’s not. It has great pace to it (though it would be better without so many cliché talking heads] and some really interesting ideas here and there – just a pity that it focuses on the least interesting character. [Let’s instead have a book about the Superman of this world – there’s a real story to be told!] If I had come across this not having heard about it, I’d probably be telling people how good it was, albeit a bit off-putting. Unfortunately, with great reputations come high expectations. The Dark Knight Returns was a fun way to spend a morning and an interesting read, and I don’t regret reading it, and, to repeat, I did actually mostly enjoy it… but it’s not something that deserves to be talked about in reverant tones.

Now, part of that is the passage of time. I’ve no doubt that this was pretty revolutionary back in 1986. It’s violent and misanthropic and ‘cool’, and would have stood in sharp contrast to most of the comics that had come before. So, I can wholeheartedly say: if you’re living in 1985, and you’ve only ever read superhero comics and you don’t watch films either, AND you want to be surprised and to read something very different… this is the graphic novel for you! [If you can’t find a copy of Watchmen]

Adrenaline: 4/5. Good, exciting pace to it, I read through it very quickly, heart even beat a little faster now and then. If the plot were less meandering and there weren’t so many distractions along the way, it might have been thrilling. If, that is, I’d cared about what was going on at any point.

Emotion: 1/5. I didn’t care what was going on, at any point. I didn’t like any of the characters, but since there’s only one real character and he’s basically a caricature of Clint Eastwood, that’s not a great surprise. And I didn’t care about the plight of Gotham, because everybody was odious, and unreal, and basically only written as cannon-fodder anyway.

Thought: 3/5. It had some interesting ideas, and the plot wasn’t wholly predictable.

Beauty: 1/5. It’s graphically dull and miscomposed (with some exceptions), the writing is mostly clumsy, and the sentiments are obnoxious.

Craft: 3/5. Well, he manages to maintain interest and excitement, which is pretty important. Some bits are clever. Kudos for trying something so different in the genre. And actually, well done for raising some of the moral and theoretical issues and for acknowledging the different sides of the argument. But still, I can’t say this is unusually well-crafted (though I do think Miller has the talent to write something unusually well-crafted – this just isn’t it).

Endearingness: 2/5. I don’t utterly hate it. It was a fun read. I can see myself reading it again, if I’m bored some time and in a particular mood, sure. Not at the top of the pile, though. In fact, this is a borrowed copy, and I doubt I’ll buy it myself.

Originality: 2/5. Oh, I don’t doubt it was original at the time, for the genre. But even at the time, there was nothing here that hadn’t been seen twenty years before, if your world is bigger than just comic books; and these days, everything in it is cliché. Sure, on an intellectual level I can say ‘well, you know, Miller actually helped to create those clichés’, but that doesn’t make it more enjoyable to read.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, But With Redeeming Features. Don’t think I’m saying it’s got no redeeming features. Enjoying a book and thinking it’s a good book are two different things. I can see how somebody could like this book. It’s just that they would have to be a particular person, and they’d have to want something very particular from it. It just doesn’t have the breadth and depth of a genuinely good book.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

I expected to hate this book even before I began reading it. In my opinion, Pratchett’s best was in the early nineties, and I don’t think there’s been a really good Discworld book (outside the YA series, which I haven’t yet read) since Night Watch in 2002. In particular, I thoroughly disliked the last Watch book, 2005’s Thud!, and the thought of another entirely Vimes-centric novel, with heavy re-use of the Summoning Dark idea, did not fill me with delight.

And yet I bought it in hardback the moment it came out. Alack my indefatigable optimism.

As I started reading Snuff, I was horrified, and not in a good way. I rapidly downgraded my estimation of modern Pratchett from ‘tired, repetitive, unmagical, mostly pointless’ to ‘can no longer write’. Pratchett’s prose has always been the soul of his novels, and within pages it became evident that the soul had been ripped out. Exchanges had become ponderous, stilted, out of character – and dull. It’s not something you want to see from a favourite author, particularly not when the spectre of mental decay looms so unspeakably large in the shadows.

But actually, I really enjoyed this book.

The writing is never at the summit of what Pratchett has been capable of, but the first twenty, thirty, fifty pages are not representative of the quality of prose in the bulk of the book. I don’t know why they’re so bad – let’s say for the sake of charity that they represent the rust being shaken off as the machine gets going after long disuse. Because there is something brought to life here that I haven’t seen in Pratchett’s books for quite some time. I’m not sure what, but it’s there.

For the most part, Snuff doesn’t undo the flaws of recent Discworld books, but instead sidesteps them. It is still tired at heart, and repetitious – much of the levity feels forced and familiar, the central ‘theme’ of the novel (Vimes’ struggle with his own dark side) has been around since at least Men at Arms and possibly Guards! Guards!, and dominated both Night Watch (where it was welcome but overdone) and Thud! (where it felt like a reheated re-serving of Night Watch without the style and panache), while the once-wonderful world of Ankh-Morpork feels increasingly static and quotidian – unmagical. But all that matters rather less this time around, because we have something we haven’t had for quite a while – a jolly good story.

This is the great virtue of Snuff : it’s a book worth writing, not just because (as I feel has been the case with some Pratchett) it expounds a moral point or furthers his worldbuilding plans for the Discworld, but because it’s a jolly good story.

Snuff is a mystery-thriller. Vimes arrives at his wife’s (now his) country mansion for a relaxing holiday, only to find that Something Is Wrong. He’s not sure what, and he’s not sure what he can do about it, but there’s clearly Something Wrong, and he’s determined to Get To the Bottom Of It – as much as his wife will let him, of course, and in between dealing with his son’s newfound obsession with animal poo. The story that plays out is a slow-at-first but constantly accelerating tale of detection as Vimes must get to the bottom of the mystery, unravel the conspiracy that maintains it, and finally Put Things Right, culminating in a thrilling action scene.

In this, at least, the old Pratchett is back. The old Pratchett constructed tightly-plotted, tense, exciting, clever novels, and in this Snuff stands in sharp contrast to recent Discworld entries, which have felt at times as though the plot has been an afterthought to give the characters something to do.

This is also old-school Pratchett in its erudition. Like the great Discworld novels before it, this one will send the hardcore fans scurrying to compile the references, but this time it all feels less accidental, more purposeful. In many ways, this is a book of homage, with Pratchett’s debts to earlier authors proudly paraded – Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and PG Wodehouse are particularly prominent, among others – as well as several quiet nods to his own previous work (most noticeably, the Zoons get a passing reference, 36-odd books after their previous appearance).

Another plus point for the novel is that the world –and the cast – seems far fresher, more lively, more vital, than in some recent books. This is largely possible through the familiar mechanism of putting Vimes in a new location: this time, the strangest and most fantastical location imaginable, the English countryside. Blending the grimy world of Ankh-Morpork with a hint of the unfamiliar, and isolating Vimes to solve the crime (almost) on his own, Snuff’s approach is strongly reminiscent of that of Night Watch, no bad thing at all (if only Pratchett would swallow his own sense of a progressing timeline and give us more prequels in the A-M of twenty or fifty years ago!). The far-less-succesful subplot set in the city re-iterates what a good idea it is to avoid setting anything in Ankh-Morpork again.

And yet – there are also things quite wrong with this book. Again we see an obsessive need to moralise and preach – Pratchett has always been politically and ethically vocal, but in the earlier works it was more subtle, more about how individuals should comport themselves and less about declaiming programmes of political policy. Here, Pratchett re-adresses issues of English class and multiculturalism raised in Unseen Academicals – more subtly and to better effect largely because there’s enough plot here to get in the way of the more shouty elements of the subtext. Which is a good thing, since fifty pages in I was really doubting whether I wanted to read a fantasy book about the plight of the Roma and the Irish Travellers. Don’t get me wrong, I almost always agree with Pratchett’s political views, I just don’t think his books should focus on them. It’s not what he does best. The political agenda is also made uncomfortable by the occasional reminders that Pratchett – for all that his heart is in the right place – has a positively archaic attitude at times when it comes to patronising minorities. His cameo impersonations of Vietnamese are cringe-inducingly racist, and the fat and jolly black woman called ‘Precious’ isn’t much better. Pratchett, of course, is not a racist – quite the contrary – but he’s clearly from a generation in which even non-racist people could acceptably make their eyes go slitty and put on a silly Chinese accent in public, in a way that is quite alien to modern sensitivities.

A bigger problem is that the characterisation is lavished solely on one character: Sir Samuel Vimes. Unfortunately, we already know Sam Vimes inside and out, so it feels like a lot of wasted effort. Meanwhile every background character is a silhouette – at best devoid of depth, and frequently painfully controlled by the dictates of the plot. [I find the continual idiot-meets-Vimes-and-in-moments-they-discover-hidden-potential characterisation frustrating to say the least]. I don’t understand the obsession with Vimes. Yes, he’s a good character – but we’ve seen everything he has to show. He’s limitless in abilities, adamant in will, and unimpeachable in virtue (which makes the continual ‘inner darkness’ theme feel weak – we know he won’t succumb, because he’s Vimes, and Vimes never loses… on which note, I’d like to see, if we must see more of Vimes, more of the decade-as-a-drunk Vimes, and how he got there), and we know him already. The Watch is full of interesting characters. Of course, having an annoying weakness for unconventional romance, I’ve wanted to see more Carrot + Angua since Men at Arms, but it’s not as though there aren’t other options as well (and more can easily be introduced if necessary).

Actually, that’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me before. A big reason Discworld is becoming stale, I think, is that the same characters are being re-used, rather than new characters introduced. At a quick count, in the first 18 novels, there are around-about 14 main characters (as in, that are the central character of the book, one per book (except I counted one each for the two storylines in Reaper Man) who were either introduced for the first time or that moved from supporting to lead status. In the remaining 16 novels, there have been, at a rough count, 4? I suppose you could say 5, if you count both the leads in Unseen Academicals. There’s nothing that demands, per se, that new leading characters be produced (most of my favourite Discworld novels do not introduce new leads) – but I think it’s a good illustration of the tendency away from the novel and exciting toward the repetitious and familiar. We’ve been reading about Vimes since 1989. I love Vimes, and I can see why it’s hard for both author and readers to let go – but he has nothing new to offer. [The only exception is his son – ten years from now, when his son is old enough to be a character in his own right, I think Vimes would become interesting again].  A simple fact: Vimes has been in all of the last seven non-YA novels. 11 of the last 16. Since 1994, we have never had more than two books in a row without Vimes in them. Enough with the Vimes!

It’s also not funny. There were a most a handful of ‘ha!’ moments, and the only brief chuckle was from a footnote that seemed to be a direct authorial insert. He doesn’t remember how to use footnotes, either. He puts them in because it’s expected of him, but they seem superfluous, lacking that manic distract-you-from-the-story quality. At least one of them was an ordinary paragraph just put into a footnote for no reason, with the next paragraph after the asterisk following on grammatically and semantically from the footnote, not the preceding main text. There’s nothing wrong with not being funny, of course, but it feels like one of Pratchett’s greatest weapons has been blunted. If there hadn’t been a great story attached, I’d wonder what the point of the book was, since it isn’t funny and it isn’t that insightful either, though lots of words are devoted to appearing insightful and funny.

The plot, meanwhile, while good, is not entirely satisfying in the end, all being wrapped up far too nicely and off-handedly. The balance of the book is also somewhat thrown off by the fact that the climax occurs fifty pages early than it should do.

These quibbles, I hope, demonstrate that I continue to have serious concerns about the direction of Pratchett’s work. However, even a nostalgic reader like myself must concede that there is an admirable vitality about the work that may not bring it to the level of his greatest books, but at least raises it above the level of his recent novels (again, I haven’t read the Aching books). It also shows concrete directions that Pratchett can take to re-enliven the series: make sure there is a good story, and take us (and the characters) out of our comfort zone.

So, in conclusion: it’s a step up from recent fare, and I’m glad I bought the book at once, and read it instantly. I’ll almost certainly do the same for his next book (unless, perhaps, it’s Raising Taxes). If I seem critical, it is to some extent because I hold Pratchett to a higher standard than I would an author with whose earlier and better work I was not familiar. This book is fun, exciting, enjoyable, and a step in the right direction. It is not, however, devoid of flaws, which remind us why a change in direction is needed.

Adrenaline: 5/5. Not perfect (the end is anticlimactic and the beginning is poor), but I read it within 24 hours, and would have read it in one sitting had obligations not intervened. It’s a slow and steady build-up to an explosive climax, which is the best scene I’ve read in Pratchett since… a long time ago.

Emotion: 2/5. I found it hard to care: about Vimes because I know him so well already and knew he was in no danger (the idea of bringing his son along was a great touch though, and certainly should be explored further if Pterry really must return to the character), and about anyone else, because… there was nobody else to care about.

Thought: 3/5. Meh. Nothing very deep or complicated. But the mystery element kept the synapses active.

Beauty: 3/5. Meh.

Craft: 4/5. Good plotting and construction, and mostly OK prose with some good bits. Let down by some bad bits (particularly the beginning), the lack of punch in the ending, and the fact that it seemed a little cardboardy around the edges.

Endearingness: 3/5. I enjoyed it, it was fun, I would read it again. The lack of novelty and the lack of emotion mean it wouldn’t leap to the top of the pile.

Originality: 2/5. To be fair, it doesn’t set out to be original – it’s almost an homage, both to Discworld itself and to mystery novels.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Not as good as I’d dared to hope, but a lot better than I’d feared. Promising.

 

Alternative History of Europe, VI

The Wars of Religion

Eleanor of Lancaster married Charles of Oldenburg, younger brother to the King of Denmark, a Protestant, and throughout her long and prosperous reign she enforced religious tolerance (at least for moderates), and allowed the rise of a prominent faction of Protestant nobles. On her death in 1588, she was succeeded by her son, Édouard II the Kind, who was by that time of advanced years himself, and mostly mad, and the kingdom was ruled by his Protestant advisors, against the wishes of his wife, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. This was tolerated, because the king’s eldest son, Charles, was known to be a devout and pious Catholic. The decisions of the Protestants – including their decision to aid Protestant princes in Germany against the Wittelsbach, Catholic Emperor – were endured, and most of their decrees reversed with the advent of Charles VIII the Pious in 1590 as King of France, England, and (through his mother) Scotland.

Difficulties arose in 1605, when Charles himself succumbed to a bout of insanity. The king’s Protestant younger brother, Chrétien the Slow (named not for his mental faculties, but for his deliberate and cautious nature) took it upon himself to act as regent – imprisoning his elderly mother in the process, and exiling his sister-in-law, Joan. Catholic forces – and those angered by Chrétien’s puritanical attitudes toward corruption and decadence, and his refusal to fight against Protestants in Germany – overthrow him in a coup in 1606, and the regent only escaped by pretending to be a simpleton servant (an ignominy with which he was forever after lampooned). The following Catholic Regency, lead by Joan of Aragon, persecuted Protestants and supporters of Chrétien. The persecution stopped with the return of Charles to sanity in 1610, but its damage had been done.

Meanwhile, other wars were breaking out across Europe. In the east, John the Infidel, King of Hungary, had orchestrated the so-called League of the Devil, a three-way alliance between Hungary, Venice and the Ottomans designed to protect all three against Catholic aggression; at the same time, Catholics in Germany and Italy rallied to the side of the Pope in his Holy League to rescue Catholics now being persecuted by John and by the Doge.

At first, these wars took place primarily in Italy. Naples, Milan, and Tuscany allied with the Pope to reverse Venetian gains made the preceding century; at first succesful, they were beaten back by an Ottoman invasion of Naples, until Charles the Pious entered the war in 1603. However, with Charles’ incapacity, and unrest in France, the Holy League was in the end badly defeated. In 1609, the Pope signed the Treaty of Benevento that accepted the Ottoman conquest of all Naples. In the north, Venetian gains were finally reversed with the intervention of the Germans: the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria (lead by the Holy Roman Emperor) and the Hapsburgs of the Tyrol, who crushed Venice, with the assistance of Charles of France. This stage of the war ended with the invasion of Bavaria by John the Infidel in 1615.

When Charles VIII died in 1614 after another battle with madness, he was succeeded by his teenage son, Nicholas I the Beautiful, who had married the heiress of Milan. Nicholas promptly invaded Germany to counter the Hungarian threat. A general war was then fought between on the one side the Protestant League and the Kingdom of Hungary, and on the other, France-England and the Catholic League (chiefly Bavaria-Würtemberg, Ducal Saxony, and Lorraine), lead by the Emperor. The war was an unmitigated disaster for the Catholics, and Nicholas died in battle at the age of 20, in 1619, just months after the birth of his daughter, Mary.

Mary being too young to rule, and her foreign mother too inexperienced, a regent was needed once again – and the presence of a large Protestant army in France ensured that it was Chrétien the Slow. Fearing death, Mary’s mother and grandmother fled with her to Joan’s relatives in Aragon, and Chrétien declared himself King in his own right.

In the east, meanwhile, John Hunyadi had been elected Emperor, and was now busy crushing the Poles in Silesia and Bohemia. Venice, left to fend for itself, was fighting a losing war against both Catholics and Muslims – an anti-Venetian reaction within the Ottoman court had brought them to ally with Genoa and the Pope. Chrétien, worried that this might further increase the power of the Vaudémont dynasty, invaded northern Italy under the pretext of acting as regent for his niece, Mary, who had become rightful ruling Duchess of Milan. Allying with Venice, their combined armies subjugated Milan, Genoa and Florence, before sacking Rome and destroying St Peter’s Basilica. The Ottomans pushed them back north, but in the process ground down the last of the Catholic resistance.

In 1624, however, Chrétien was compelled to return to his own country to face a threat from an unexpected direction: his own son, Édouard the Gallant, who had declared himself a Catholic and argued that his father’s destruction of Rome disqualified him from the throne divinely allotted through the office of the Pope. For years, Catholics in Britain had been in open revolt, but now the charismatic Prince took charge of the armies sent to enforce royal control and turned them into an army of rebellion, landing in Calais and marching to hold Paris. For two more years, Édouard and Chrétien fought for control of the country, before Chrétien acknowledged the inevitable in 1626 and signed a letter of abdication – from a safe distance, having fled to his relatives in Denmark.

Yet the accession of Édouard III did not bring peace. The poweful Vaudémont clan, represented by Queen Joan, did not accept Édouard as king – not only was the rightful ruler Mary, daughter of Nicholas, but Édouard was not, they said, even legitimate, as his father Chrétien was born a bastard (which was entirely possible – relations between Édouard II and his wife Mary Stuart were strained by religious differences and by his periodic insanity, and both their sons were born to them relatively late in their marriage, with rumours particularly surrounding the younger child). These arguments were intensified by Édouard’s refusal to return Milan to his cousin, and open war broke out between the two sides – reflecting ultimately a battle for supremacy between the House of Vaudémont and the House of York, which supported Édouard.

In 1629, Chrétien persuaded his Danish cousins to enter the war. Defeating and killing his son in battle, he reclaimed the throne that year; but much of France was in open rebellion against him from the start; in particular, the powerful Richard of Navarre (King of Navarre, Duke of Brittany, Guyenne, York, Mercœur, Alençon, Marche, Gloucester and Breda, Count of Poitou and Rousillon, Earl of Westmoreland, Somerset, Warwick and Cornwall, amongst other titles) controlled most of the south of the country. Chrétien managed to maintain his position until his death – but it came in 1633, after only four years of rule. Upon his death, the Catholic faction once more broke in two, and fought for another year before placing on the throne Queen Louise, daughter of Charles VIII (and younger sister to Nicholas, hence aunt of Mary).

The death of Chrétien was only one part of a bad passage of years for the Protestants. John the Infidel had died the year before, and his successor, Stephen the Cruel, was a less adroit leader. At home, the carefully pragmatic reign of John was replaced by a merciless persecution of Catholics, and abroad, his strategies lead to a gradual reversal of all his father’s gains. Most of his reign, in any case, was occupied by the renewed war against the Ottomans, who, allied to the Pope, twice beseiged Budapest.