Well, better late than never. I read this one a little out of sequence because I couldn’t find my copy (it turned out to be almost exactly where it should have been – it’s sometimes easier to find things when they’re in the wrong building than when they’re four inches to the left of where you expect them to be…). Which frankly I regret a little, since I’d have liked to read this in its own place. But I’ve read it now.
Guards! Guards! feels like a landmark in the Discworld series, the first book that really throws us into the living city of Ankh-Morpork (every previous book had at least a cameo appearance from the city, but this is the first one to be set there for the whole book), and in the process the first book to introduce us to those most essential of Ankh-Morpork citizens, the Night Watch (and, of course, in passing to C.M.O.T. Dibbler). But more than that… it’s actually a pretty good book.
The first innovation Pratchett makes here concerns his central character. Pratchett has an unfortunate, though comforting, tendency to make all his viewpoint characters fundamentally the same. This isn’t so noticeable reading them in isolation, but when you go through a stack of them, it’s hard to read about Rincewind, Eskarina, Mort, the Fool, Pteppic, Victor and all the others and not join the dots. If Pratchett turned around and said that all these characters were only facets of a single ‘hero with a thousand faces’, ‘eternal champion’ archetype, it would be perfectly believable. But in Guards! Guards!, Pratchett tries something a little different. I’m not sure whether he does it intentionally, but it seems to me that what he does in GG is take his standard Everyman and bifurcate him. On the one side we have the naive-but-not-stupid, unconventionally charismatic, basically likeable, thinks-in-strange-ways romantic softie hero – and that’s Carrot. And then on the other side we have the cynical, wise-cracking, half-despairing but indomitably stubborn and bloody-minded runt of the litter – and that’s Vimes. Ultimately, I think Pratchett’s Everyman is just The Outsider (specifically the intelligent outsider, the geek); in GG this is split into two, to give us Outsider-as-Newcomer, who views everything with trust and wonder, and Outsider-as-Victim, the guy the newcomer turns into when people have worked out his weakness and are taking turns beating him up. [Of course, for the book to work, there has to be some wish-fulfillment in the characters – so there are hints that the naïf is not as stupid as people think he is (which will be explored further in later books), while the victim Vimes, who begins the book in an alcoholic stupour metaphorically beaten down by The System, is just waiting for a reason to stand up and tell the bullies where to shove it].
This shouldn’t work, because it should be taking a cliché and breaking it up into two purer, more simplistic, less interesting clichés. But in fact it works brilliantly – perhaps because both characters end up more flawed, more pitiable, whereas elsewhere there’s a tendency for Pratchett’s protagonists to become slightly bland, smarter-than-thou Mary Sues.
The characterisation is not an unconstrained success. Vimes leaves behind his drunken starting position too quickly, and with too little effort, undermining the character’s arc; while Carrot remains a cipher, albeit an intriguing one. Their colleages, Nobby and Colon, are simple caricatures. Sybil is well drawn, but ultimately a limited character; the villains are far too villainous and with far too little exploration. Noteworthy is the role played by the Patrician, played in a way that exaggerates his brilliance to beyond human levels, but that also strongly suggests that the man is, beneath the veneer of civility, ultimately insane.
Guards! Guards! is hugely ambitious. To really work, it would have to do a lot of difficult things all at once. On the first hand, it has to work as a parody of a crime story. This is amusing on the surface, with plenty of references both subtle and unsubtle (and possibly more lines from films than even Moving Pictures), but isn’t quite there. For one thing, it’s never really clear what sort of crime story it’s meant to be, vacillating between film noir and some sort of action thriller, with excursions into mystery and police procedural along the way. On a second hand, it has to work as a parody of a fantasy novel. Again, this provides some laughs along the way, with allusions both general and specific (in particular, a climactic scene perverted from The Hobbit), but it doesn’t entirely convince. This novel may be the point where Ankh-Morpork decisively tips from the original sword-and-sorcery city we meet in The Colour of Magic into the larger-than-life Victorian London we become familiar with later on, and the juxtaposition here feels too jagged. I also found the final ‘solution’ to the novel’s ‘problem’ to be too broad a joke, belonging in some more simplistic comedy novel. On a third hand, it has to work as the most realistic and most emotionally compelling character study Pratchett has yet attempted. As I outline above, I don’t think that he really pulls this off either, though it’s certainly an impressive attempt. And then again, on a fourth hand, it has to work as a comedy – and a Pratchettian comedy is already a complicated thing, combining allusions both hidden and parodically obvious, wordplay both literary and head-slappingly puntastically stupid, overt (albeit often subverted – I found that “loam” joke far funnier than I should have…) punchlines, irony, and black humour. That’s the part of the novel that’s most succesful, but it’s also the part that’s most limited, particularly given the relatively constrained nature of the novel (one setting, a short timespan, a limited cast of characters), which means that there’s only so many jokes that can really be made.
And yet, as a whole, it does work. I think it’s because the novel is so dense (in a light and fluffy, though serious and moving, way) that at any one time it’s always likely to be succeeding in at least one dimension. Indeed, the biggest problem I found with the novel was that it was so intense, packed with jokes and with barely enough room for the plot to fit in all its twists, that by the time I was reaching the end I actually felt a little tired. And while I’m talking about flaws, the ending wasn’t one of his best – Pratchett allegedly doesn’t plan in advance, so his books often seem to trust to luck when it comes to wrapping everything up, and this time things don’t really quite land. The climax doesn’t feel climactic enough, the protagonist doesn’t feel proactive enough, and in keeping with the pace of the novel (the entire thing is barely 300 pages) the ending feels far too brusque and peremptory.
But in the end: the biggest reason Guards! Guards! doesn’t manage to be what it wants to be is that it tries to be something that probably no book could have succeeded in being. The book it wants to be just isn’t a book that’s possible. So take away what it’s trying to be, and look at what it is. And here’s what it is: an exciting page-turner, with great and loveable characters, continual and original humour to meet a wide range of tastes, a thick fatty layer of erudition and allusion under the crispy skin, more than a touch of genuine and engaging emotion (though I felt the ending veered too far into mawkishness at times), and a dazzling assault of images, metaphors, inspirations and analogies.
In the final analysis, I’d put this in a similar bracket to Pyramids – as one of the books that first shows the reader what Pratchett is capable of, even if there may need to be a little more polishing before he reaches his full potential. It’s not just the necessary backstory for Men at Arms and Feet of Clay, it’s a really impressive little novel in its own right.
Adrenaline: 4/5. Never totally nerve-wracking, but he does a good job both with the tension and with the action scenes.
Emotion: 3/5. Could have been more, thanks to the characters, but the fast pace and dense humour have a distancing effect.
Thought: 3/5. Not one of Pratchett’s more intellectual outings.
Beauty: 3/5. The prose is of course excellent, and the imagery, but the more ‘mundane’ plot and ‘grittier’ setting rub a little of the glamour off the work.
Craft: 5/5. No, the craftsmanship isn’t perfect – in particular, I don’t think the ending quite worked as well as it should have done. But that’s pedantry. The writing ability, the humour, the overwhelming (but rarely offensive or egotistical) cleverness of it all, the characterisation, the ability to wring any emotional impact at all out of what on paper ought to be a broad parody-farce, the juggling of multiple perspectives and plotlines… there may be things Pratchett could still learn from some other writers, and I’m not trying to set him up as the greatest author in the world or anything, but there’s almost nobody out there writing who couldn’t learn things from Pratchett.
Endearingness: 4/5. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t quite love this one, maybe because I didn’t feel I had enough time to sit back and enjoy the characters. I did really, really like it, though.
Originality: 3/5. One of the more obviously parodic Discworld books, at least in theory, although the execution is of course inimitable, making it the rare parody that succeeds both as a parody of a genre (or several genres) and as a sincere work within the genre itself.
Overall: 5/7. Good. On the borderline of being Very Good, but… I don’t know, maybe it just doesn’t have quite the weight and depth of the best Discworld novels.