Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett

(Part of my ongoing project to re-read all the Discworld novels.)


I’ll say it upfront: I’m disappointed. Firstly because Men at Arms follows a blisteringly brilliant run of Pratchet, from the final section of Witches Abroad, through the whole of Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, and stopping off at the non-Discworld Only You Can Save Mankind (which, OK, isn’t actually brilliant, but is much better than a lightweight children’s novella about computer games has any right to be) along the way. And secondly because I remember it as one of my favourites, and have been really looking forward to it.
And in the early going, I have to say I was worried. Men at Arms shows some disturbing signs of author burnout; in particular, it’s battered and beseiged by a constant stream of terribly, end-of-pier-quality jokes, with half the lines feeling like set-ups for an obvious punchline. It also doesn’t help that this book is sodden with movie references. Pratchett’s always been into bad puns, and Guards! Guards!, this novel’s predecessor, was packed both with lines from films and with a high rate of punchlines, but in Men at Arms, particularly early on, the lines have lost their zing, and lines that would be funny in their own right, delivered without warning, become tiresome in the middle of… routines. It feels like an attempt to get back to the zany humour after the relatively Big and Important Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but I didn’t feel it really worked. There were several laugh-out-loud moments in this book – but most of them weren’t actually the overt ‘jokes’.
More – and in a way less – importantly, this is the first time I felt some editing was required. There’s a handful of occasions when things happen or are said that seem out of character, or that contradict other things (in particular, one confusing and almost certainly mistaken passage where the watchmen are deliberating that really shook my confidence that the author was totally in control).
And yet… disappointed I may be, thanks to my impossibly high expectation, yet I did end up really liking this book.

men at arms black
Why? Well, let’s be honest here, one big part of the reason is very obvious, unavoidable, and I guess not entirely generalisable to all readers: it’s got a sexy, kickass, smartarse tomboy werewolf girl in it, and thus I am genetically unable to dislike it. To give that bias a veneer of respectability, it should be mentioned that Pratchett handles her extremely well: the tomboy heroine trope is hidden within a realistic and complex personality, and the way he writes werewolves makes me want to go read more werewolf novels, taking as he does more from real wolves and less from stale folklore.
[Tangent: I think feminists would generally like Pratchett. He writes a lot of strong and diverse female characters – Witches Abroad, for instance, has a large but almost entirely female cast. But I do wonder how some elements toward the end of Men at Arms would play with that audience…]
But there’s more to it than just her. Another big part of it is the plot, which may start off a little unsure but is rocketing along by the second half – although Pratchett is not at his best here in integrating some of the tangential elements. The weight of this is largely borne by the character of Corporal Carrot, a man who is ‘simple’, but not ‘stupid’. Carrot is an incredible character (arguably the greatest hero character in Fantasy), and this book is probably his showpiece.
That’s why I remember loving it: two of Pratchett’s best characters getting plenty of screentime (plus Vimes, of course, though he feels a bit marginalised here), a plot that ends up being fun, and some great moments, images and lines. Unfortunately, while it’s not exactly a trivial or superficial book, it doesn’t feel that it has the depth of recent installments, and the plot isn’t robust enough, and the jokes not funny enough, to fully plug that gap, and the experience of re-reading the book couldn’t entirely live up to that aggregate memory of all the great moments. A book like Small Gods has great moments, but is a great book because those moments are just the polish on something that underlyingly has no major flaws, no bad bits – Men at Arms has the good bits, but lacks the same foundation, and must rely a little more on audacity and charisma to pull you through, to cast a glamour over the reader.
I don’t want to sound too critical. Read in isolation, I’d have been thrilled with this book. It was one of my favourites, and I’m sure I’ll go back to thinking of it as one of my favourites soon, once I forget the ropier details. It’s certainly more than worth reading; indeed, from anyone other than Pratchett, this would be a fine book. Perhaps even from any time period of Pratchett other than this one. But coming as it does after two of the best books in the series, it’s hard not to make invidious comparisons. And this book… isn’t quite at that level, I’m afraid.



Adrenaline: 3/5. The later portions are fairly exciting, but it’s a bit slow to get going.
Emotion: 4/5. Unfortunately, over-familiarity has blunted some of the emotional impact of the book – not helped by Pratchett’s unwillingness to let certain scenes breathe, his determination to press on with the plot. So to be honest this was a 3. But I’m marking it up to a 4, because I remember being much more affected by it on previous readings.
Thought: 3/5. Largely eschews big themes and ideas in favour of narrative, though of course between the philosophical musing and the hidden allusions to spot – and this time a murder mystery as well – Pratchett is never a brainless read.
Beauty: 3/5. Some fantastic images, some great lines… but also some quite bad lines.
Craft: 4/5. It’s hard to pin it down, but I just didn’t think Pratchett seemed on top form here, or completely in control. Too many jokes were misses, too many moments made me question the characterisation, I found it too easy to spot when we were going done a rabbithole that had nothing to do with the plot and was just shoved in to provide an excuse for some scene or other Pratchett felt like including.
Endearingness: 4/5. A bit of ropiness prevents me from loving the book. I do, however, love two, maybe three, of the main characters, so reading this will always be a pleasure.
Originality: 3/5. Like Guards! Guards! before it, this one does rely heavily on established narratives; that makes sense for it, as it’s often using those narratives satiricially, or at least parodically, but it means it doesn’t have quite the sparkle of novelty that some of Pratchett has, and at times it’s even a bit predictable. But there’s still enough of the Pratchett spark to make it feel like it’s own thing.
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. I may be being a bit harsh here, thanks both to reading it in its place in the series and to having probably read this one more often than the others. Maybe, for instance, that 4/5 for endearingness should be pushed up to 5/5, if I factor out my being a little jaded at this point. And that would probably be enough to push it up to ‘Very Good’. But either way, it’s on the edge of Good/Very Good. Which I may be disappointed with in the moment, but is no mean accomplishment in the bigger scheme of things. A little perversely, my individual scores actually suggest that this is a worse book than Guards! Guards!, which I’d never have said if asked – then again, maybe that’s fair, maybe Men at Arms is a less robust book that I just happen to think of as better because I prefer its style a little (I know others who think Guards! Guards! is among the best in the series, for instance).

(Yeah, sorry for the terse review. After fourteen Discworld novels it gets hard to find things to say about them, unless they’re particularly standout examples for better or worse.)


Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre

Dreamsnake is a 1978 SF novel by Vonda N. McIntyre, who is apparently best known as the author of numerous Star Trek tie-in novels.

I find that fact a little hard to process.

Dreamsnake won the Hugo, the Locus, and the Nebula – one of only thirteen novels in history to achieve the trifecta. Dreamsnake was the seventh. In this accomplishment, McIntyre followed Niven (Ringworld), Asimov (The Gods Themselves), Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama),  Haldeman (The Forever War), Le Guin (The Dispossessed), and Pohl (Gateway). This novel is therefore one of the greats in the panthon of science fiction.

But to be honest, I find that fact a little hard to process too.

Dreamsnake is nowadays rather less remembered, McIntyre rather less famous, than most of the other authors to have achieved that level of acclaim. And that, I can understand. Not because of the quality, per se, but because this is a novel written in 1978 – not only accidentally, but essentially. In fact, this is a novel that’s a full-length (if we take a very generous interpretation of ‘full’) expansion of a short story originally written in 1973. Essentially 1973. The date of composition was, to be frank, my overwhelming impression of the book. It would be hard to imagine any book more ‘early seventies SF’ than this one.

And that’s to blame, I think, for many of the failures of the novel. And yet it’s also what underlies many of its triumphs.

Dreamsnake is a book that has both failure and triumph within it; that’s no surprise, that’s true of a lot of books. What makes this one a little perplexing, however, is that it succeeds at the difficult things, but goes astray on the easy ones.


Problems first. It makes perfect sense that the novel is an expansion of a short story – it has that tentative and limpid quality that one often finds in these cases, as though the author wanted to show us more but didn’t really know how to turn vignette into plot. As a result, what we get remains more vignette than narrative, which limits the extent to which the story can emotionally connect, and to which it is able to thrill. More of a problem, the author did not commit to the idea of an extended short story, but unsuccesfully tried to construct a narrative arc – so what we get is a series of sketches, of episodes, logically and causally linked but melodically detached, and as a result the scenes constantly teeter on the brink of dull repetition. Any given episode would have worked well as a short story (indeed I gather than three or four of them did), but all strung together I felt there wasn’t enough progressive narrative to distract from the similarities. There is a certain child-like “and then…” quality to the construction.

But that’s not the failure – it’s a problem, a limitation, but not a failure. The real failure lies in two linked issues. And one of them, the central one, is really hard to explain. How about this: there is at the heart of the book a fundamental naïveté. Strip away the trimmings, and the story is the sort of story we expect from pulp fiction, particularly YA – here I really can see the author as a popular shared world tie-in writer, because in some ways it’s the kind of writing I was putting aside as too childish, too simplistic, when I was just entering puberty. It’s a worldview: the world is divided into good people and bad people. The good people vastly outnumber the bad people, so almost all problems can be dealt with easily by just explaining why you’re right, and then the good people will nod and agree with you and do what you want – and if they don’t, it’s because they can’t, and need to be helped to improve. Perhaps a good person is doing the wrong thing because they’re afraid, for instance – so you pity them and resolve to help them overcome that fear so that they can agree with you, as any sane person would. The bad people, meanwhile, oh they’re very bad. They’re dangerous not just because they’re bad, but because basically they could do anything – I mean why wouldn’t they, they’re bad. If you’re particularly insightful you might give some psychological reason why they’re bad people, probably involving childhood abuse, and as a result you may pity them, but here and now they’re just bad people, and the reason they do bad things is because they are bad people, and thus are fundamentally uninteresting, because bad people are just a sort of vermin who occasionally make obstacles for good people, they aren’t really people themselves. Then again, nor are the good people, because being good is similar to being perfect, and all the good people are wonderful people with so many talents and virtues, and maybe just one or two minor handicaps sprinkled in to act as obstacles and provoke the occasional bit of angst. And of course, when two (or more, this is the seventies!) good people meet, there’s a good chance they fall in love at first sight, which is all very wonderful because love is always good.

I’m exaggerating here, to the point of disrespect – sometimes you have to amplify a sound in order to show it to somebody else. This is the sound I think I can hear running through this book, even if the author would doubtless reject it presented in such bald and hyperbolic terms as above.

And to be honest, it needn’t matter too much – except that in some ways the author doesn’t appear very talented. And that lack of talent – not appalling lack of talent, not the lack of elementary skills, but lack of the spark of genius that elevates a writer above the crowd and equips them to take on more difficult and ambitious challenges – manifests precisely in the ways that highlight the simplicity of this worldview. That is, in character and voice. Most obviously this is seen in the dialogue, which is competent but rarely more than that, but it extends throughout the characterisation. It’s not an incompetence, it’s a… a sort of pixelated quality, a posterisation, a lack of subtle, tactile nuances. In a more straightforward book, that set up an exciting plot and just got on with it, this would be no problem at all; I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I’m sure I’ve happily read many books that were worse in this respect. But both the narrative structure and the tone or worldview draw the eye to this area, and there’s not that much there – the protagonist herself, Snake, is solid enough, but does not stand out, and the characters around her are flat and unconvincing. They’re likeable, of course, because they’re good people, and almost perfect. But on some level, jaded as I am, I find the simplistic psychologies and omnipresent Mary Sue virtues and skills alienating, off-putting, even somewhat angering (I have a strong native antipathy to being manipulated, and I’m so clearly meant to like the good people that I want to dislike them all on principle and out of spite). And again, this needn’t be a problem either – no doubt some writers could make these fairly stock characters immortal in the memory and specific, and could texture and complicate them delicately, breaking up the outline of their perfection with disruptive camoflage. But these two problems – a lack of deftness in characterisation and a naïveté of narrative worldview – amplify each other dramatically and create a disappointingly hollow core to the novel where I wanted to find a living, beating, complicated, individual heart. Instead, it feels more like an era, in book form.

So then why do I feel conflicted about this book? Why don’t I just dismiss it out of hand?


Because the things it does do well, it does very well. The writing is not ornate, but is elegant, and evocative, particularly in its landscapes and scenes (although I confess I did become a little confused about distances and directions). That’s a big part of it. But more importantly, the author really embraces the idea that science fiction can hold a mirror up to contemporary society, and she paints a nuanced and compelling portrait of a world in some ways far more primitive than ours, and in other ways far more advanced, and uses that world to interrogate the assumptions people make about ours. Unfortunately, this book is 1973, so everything comes from an assumption of polyamorous bisexual free love and communalism and all that, which makes some of the ideological content problematic for a modern reader – in some respects too naïve, in other respects too conservative (in that it assumes it’s being read in 1973 as well). But the charitable reader will take this as not just a dream for the future but also an education in the dreams (and indeed in this case nightmares) of the past, and be grateful for a book that is willing to engage with serious questions from idiosyncratic perspectives, without feeling entirely like a political lecture. This ideological interrogation (which does admittedly become too obvious and clunking at times, but which for the most part is well-handled) is only one part of a broader success in worldbuilding – the world is eminently believable and understandable, and yet alien and strange. Indeed it’s tempting to say that this is a novel that is all worldbuilding, the plot being only an excuse for some sight-seeing – but unlike other novels of which that is true, Dreamsnake does a fantastic job with with its exposition. Rather than the information about the world getting in the way of the narrative tension, the information about the world is the narrative tension, as McIntyre masterfully drips out understanding in measured doses, foreshadowing here, teasing there, or at other times quietly letting us make our false assumptions before twisting them abruptly out of our grasp.

[McIntyre is writing in Asimov’s subgenre of ‘social science fiction’, which in this case means a ‘SF’ setting that is tantamount to fantasy. I’m not a SF expert, but Dreamsnake reminds me very much of the work of McIntyre’s contemporary in that subgenre, Ursula Le Guin – McIntyre’s not as good a writer as Le Guin, and Dreamsnake is a little less high-concept than much of Le Guin’s work, but something like it could easily fit into Le Guin’s oeuvre.]

The imagination shown in the setting, and in how the setting is gradually unveiled, is also visible in the plotting. Unlike some authors, McIntyre doesn’t take her decision to follow a broadly picaresque, landscape-painting structure as an excuse to abandon narrative techniques. Although I didn’t feel she was able to give much of an arc overall, she did produce an interesting narrative structure, complete with misdirection: to put that more plainly, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. There’s a real sense that the author is defying convention here: many things that the reader expects to happen do not happen (indeed, things the reader expects the book will be ‘about’ are not what it is in the end about), while things the reader does not expect to happen do happen, or things expected to happen at one time instead happen at another. This contributes to the weakness of the plot structure in the end – the old reliable patterns have become cliché for a reason, because they are powerful – but at the same time it adds a sense of excitement.More than excitement: fascination. It also amplifies the power of the things that do occur – in particular, I was caught off-guard by several events early on that I really wasn’t expecting at all, and brought to the brink of tears, when paradoxically I would have been more blasé had the same things happened later.

The result is a ‘quiet’ book – although there are action scenes (and indeed McIntyre handles action well, when it crops up), the emphasis is not on events but on images and thoughts. Above all, it seems like a book less concerned with fulfillment than with temptation – our imaginations are seduced into McIntyre’s world, in part for its own beautiful sake, in part for us to bring something back to our own. Unfortunately the flip side of that is that sometimes the desires it provokes it does not meet, and the heart of the confection (though not its soul!) feels a little hollow.


Adrenaline: 3/5. Some gripping moments, but in general a slow book. In particular, while the end and the beginning are very succesful, the middle portion lags a little, feeling like necessary linking material, added to make to two exciting bits fit together.

Emotion: 4/5. The characters are often too perfect and unmemorable to care about, but there are also times when the author really manages to make an emotional situation hit home. Anything that makes my eyes moisten must be at least a 4…

Thought: 4/5. On the one hand, while not radical (at least, not to any reader who is aware of the existence of 1973), the book is thought-provoking. And on the other, the freedom of the plot prevents the brain from falling into complacency.

Beauty: 4/5. Some very elegant prose, and some very striking imagery.

Craft: 3/5. What she does well, she does brilliantly. But I still can’t get over the things she does badly. It’s as though someone’s taken, say, There Will Be Blood and put in the dialogue from a teen soap opera.

Endearingness: 2/5. Although some aspects of it I really liked, overall it too cold, too light, and the characters too uninteresting (again, I do like Snake herself, but I don’t find her memorable enough to  outweigh the dull supporting characters).

Originality: 4/5. There are some familiar things here, and, as I say, the book feels extremely 1973. On the other hand, the setting, while not unique, is distinct and intriguing, and the plot really is unique.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. A somewhat peculiar mixed bag in terms of quality, although to be honest that just makes it even more interesting. And while a rating of ‘good’ may put it in the middle of the pack, Dreamsnake is worth reading because it achieves that grade in a different way. Certainly worth reading, particularly for readers more interested in intrigue than excitement.

The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (Index)

I’m bad at reviewing short story collections. I want to write about every story!
I’m also bad, it turns out at reviewing Kipling. It’s all just so interesting!
The result of this is a ‘review’ (including a couple of irrelevent tangents, because I take a stream-of-consciousness approach to reviews…) that’s longer than several of the short stories themselves.

But never mind.

However, as a result of the length of the review, I split it into five parts:
Part 1 (Introduction, literary context, first look at the Under the Deodars stories (“The Education of Otis Yeere”, “At the Pit’s Mouth”, “A Wayside Comedy”, “The Hill of Illusion”, “A Second-Rate Woman” and “Only a Subaltern”))
Part 2 (continued discussion of the Deodars stories; discussion of “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, and “My Very Own Ghost Story”)
Part 3 (discussion of “The Man Who would be King”)
Part 4 (more discussion of “The Man Who would be King”, plus “His Majesty the King”)
Part 5 (discussion of “Wee Willie Winkie”, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, plus summation and ‘verdict’)

Do note however that although I’ve put the stories into different parts in that summary, in practice I do tend to call back and forward when themes suggest it, so it’s not done purely story-by-story.

Anyway, there it is.

The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (V)

Finishing off the review – this part is longer, but I didn’t think it was worse splitting it in two. So, this is all, folks!


“Wee Willie Winkie” has similar themes, but more success as a story in its own right, probably because there’s more substance to it. As I noted earlier in comparing the ‘Rickshaw stories with the Deodar stories, Kipling’s attacks on society work better when they’re veiled behind some pretext; and here we get the pretext of the Afghan Wars. Wee Willie Winkie (not only does Wee Willie Winkie go by a nickname, but he gives everyone else nicknames as well…) is a child who lives in an army camp, and his father cannot distinguish between child-rearing and military discipline. There’s plenty of questioning of English society here, and plenty more questioning of British political tactics, as this is a border post continually shot at by Afghans. The distinction between English and native is again questioned: an easily-crossed river is all that divides helpful, civilised, loyal Pashtuns from howling fanatic semi-human Afghans, and individuals may cross from being one to being the other with ease; meanwhile the child protagonist, six years old, still cannot master proper English pronunciation, but is of course entirely fluent in Pashto and two other ‘vernaculars’. In that regard, it recalls the English nurse in “His Majesty the King” – English in every way, but that she has her “ancestral home” in Calcutta.

[Sorry, tangent: in the same passage there’s a wonderfully evocative description of someone who has left India: they “went over the sea to the Great Unknown”. The Great Unknown is called ‘Home’, but only really in the sense that people talk of dying as ‘going home’ to heaven. Kipling’s audience back in the Great Unknown may be reading his entertaining little stories of India to get a glimpse of what is alien and strange, but for Kipling it is England that is the foreign country. Many of his countrymen in India would be born, would live, and would die, without ever glimpsing the Great Unknown. And yet the Unknown is everything to them. Nobody really knows anything about the Unknown – most people only saw it as children, if at all, and those who left as adults don’t want to talk about it – yet it is the locus of all hopes and dreams. In “The Man Who Would Be King”, for instance, it at times appears as though the thrones of all the earth count for nothing but the chance to be introduced first at a society event back in the Great Unknown. All the petty jockeying for social status in the hill towns – they may not always mention it, but the whole of their lives amounts to imitation of the third-hand reports of the fashions of Home, in a vain attempt to go up one tick in the ranking of society back Home, even if they never actually get to go Home (do note that capital letter, by the way). I suggested above that the Empire is a religion – here, England itself is a religion. It seems (and I’m thinking here also of the newspaperman in “The Man Who Would Be King” forced to stay up into the early hours of the morning on the offchance of hearing by cable that some minor celebrity in Europe may or may not have died) as though India is almost a purgatory, or worse, a life on earth, in some terrible Calvinist earth where everything is vile and unsalvageable, and England is the far-off heaven to which all can aspire (and from which some have been exiled, and which many or most secretly dread the discovery of). Kipling sometimes reads like a militant atheist, an atheist who is so furious in denying his god, his England, that he ends up sounding more pious than the true believer.]

“Wee Willie Winkie” is perhaps even more robust in critiquing British Imperialism than “The Man Who Would Be King”, because the twee little tone and the lisping child protagonist inure us to the bite. We almost don’t notice the description of English policies toward the locals: “that regiment are devils. They broke Khoda Yar’s breastbone with kicks”. We’re so caught up in the petty travails of our child hero that we don’t take in the full impact of the explanation of why the Afghans do little more than make a token show of sniping at the English from the hills – it’s because if they did anything more serious, the English “will fire and rape and plunder for a month, till nothing remains”. Yup, Our Heroes are safe in their occupation of the conquered lands, because if anything goes wrong Our Heroes can just rape all the women and beat people to death and set fire to all the families. Yay! Oh, there’s no equivocation here, it’s right there in front of us: British rule is founded on rape and murder. But that’s OK, because isn’t little Winkie sooo cute? Yay for a happy little children’s story!

Oh, and I also loved this moment where a helpful hero explains gender and class politics to young Winkie, in a kindly way: “you see, one of these days Miss Allardyce will belong to me, but you’ll grow up and command the Regiment.” I’m not sure who to pity most – the man who says it, who may possess Miss Allardyce but who can never have a position of command and will never be more than a well-uniformed servant of his betters, Miss Allardyce who has to turn into a possession, or poor Winkie, who will have all the responsibility of being in charge of a regiment, whether or not he wants to be or has any aptitude for it, and probably will never have even the disturbingly-financialised-and-only-partly-consensual sort of genuine romance that Miss Allardyce and her beau may look forward to, instead drifting into his fate as one of the “remote and silent people… among a wilderness of pigeon-holes”.

But it’s a happy little children’s story. “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”… isn’t. Oh dear god is it not. Among all the stories I have read, ever, this may just be among the least nice. Oh, I’ve read far, far more explicitly horrible things. And I’ve read, explicit or not, things that were just a lot more nasty on an absolute scale – even a couple of the stories in this book have much more absolute unpleasantness than this one.

But the difference is that those are stories. There’s an element of detachment the reader develops about the brutal and fantastical things that happen to strange fictional people in faraway places. “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” is different for two reasons: firstly, because it is sufficiently low-key, detailed and realistic to be really viscerally believable, and, more than that, directly relatable to (most of us have never been in a bayonet fight, so while it must be terrifying we sort of have to take it on faith – we’ve all been children, and even those of us who had happy childhoods can probably imagine all too easily an unhappy one that might have been). And, secondly, because it’s not just realistic… it’s real. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but this is Kipling’s autobiography of his abusive childhood. Knowing that makes it twice as hard to read.

Let’s not get into the details here, because this really is something it’s better to read for yourself. And in a way it’s the most important story in the collection. In one way, it’s important because more than anything else you could read, this may just explain Kipling to you, or at least how Kipling saw himself, or how he saw himself at the time he was writing this. And in the other way… well, the British Empire is all very well, but the Empire fell. Yes, we still have people in camps being shot sporadically at by Afghans, but in most respects the world has changed considerably. But we still have children. We still have bullies at school; we still have neglectful or sadistic parents; we still have teenage delinquents. The superficialities may have changed, but this remains a story with a burning relevance to the modern world.

Probably the most peculiar thing about this horrible story is the way that Kipling condemns only one character, or maybe two. Everybody else, there are excuses made. Most strikingly, Kipling’s parents are here presented in a very sympathetic and blameless light; indeed, his mother is virtually a saint here… but at the same time, he fails to provide any adequate excuse for their abandonment of him, other than that society and duty made it convenient. The actions of his parents and his attitude toward them seem not to connect. How can Kipling not be filled with rage and betrayal when he thinks of them? How can he be so sympathetic toward them? Well, when you look at other parents in his stories, in stories where perhaps he was more able to distance the characters from his own experience, it’s hard not to think that here is an author with serious issues toward his parents. But he doesn’t express them in the autobiographical stories. Is it, perhaps, that he can’t? It’s an unjustified leap, but it would explain a lot if Kipling felt resentment toward his parents but felt that he ought not to. It would make sense not only in helping to explain his behaviour in this particular story, but perhaps also his approach elsewhere. I said above that Kipling is remarkable in how much effort he goes to to find a way not to condemn almost all of his characters, and I do wonder how much of that stems from his childhood experiences, and from feeling some need to love and accept people for whom he may have held very mixed feelings.

“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is at the heart of Kipling’s career, I think – indeed, it explicitly notes how bad experiences and the attitude they teach, the mark they leave on the soul, can never be erased, no matter how good the life that follows. Kipling phrases this in terms of ‘Hate’ and ‘Suspicion’, and indeed that seems a pretty fair description of the young man we can imagine writing these stories: a young man on the one hand filled with hatred and suspicion, particularly toward unfeeling social rules and toward authority figures, and yet at the same time filled with a sense of obligation to always be fair and impartial and not to condemn. It’s a fascinating tension in his writing, and having read this story I can’t help but see all his other characters at least partly through the lens of his own childhood experiences. Perhaps it’s even wrong to imagine he’s talking about Empire at all…

It should also be pointed out that Kipling pretty much admits that his childhood gave him what might loosely be described as a ‘fuck you’ attitude toward everybody else; and in this regard, I have to link together his later analysis of his literary career as a series of elaborate lies, of literature as only being an advanced form of lying, with his not merely pathological but aggressively subversive, hostile, lying in “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, as well as to his later claim that in order for his work to be acclaimed by some, it must be offensive to others. Kipling may be a man who makes excuses for people and tries to see both sides of the argument, but he is not by any means a conciliatory or consensual personality. That childhood hostility is still simmering through every one of these stories – he’s like a soldier looking for a war to fight.

And it’s no doubt significant also that Punch, the Kipling-substitute in this story, is… well, obnoxious, frankly. [N.B. of course Punch is Punch; Judy probably is really Judy, but Punch is a male, so has no real name, just a nickname, or in this case two]. Kipling puts very little effort into making himself seem likeable at all – he’s ridiculously spoilt, arrogant, superior. Kipling seems again to be almost trying to justify the way he was abused, showing us how much he deserved it, while at the same time bitterly angry, and at the same time refusing to back down one inch. Kipling the author, like Punch the child, has turned out as somebody who when challenged for being one step over a line instinctively wants to take two steps further, even if he’d never intended to cross the line in the first place. Some may be amused that one particular way in which we are shown the obnoxiousness of Punch/Kipling is through his overt racism and classism, which Kipling portrays as ignorant and childish. But you get the impression that if there’s one way to make Kipling do something ignorant and childish, it’s to tell him he mustn’t. Throughout this collection, every time Kipling’s said something racist or sexist or classist, whether as a narrator or in the voice of a character, there’s been a feeling of iconoclasm about it, a young man, or a child, farting loudly to see how uncomfortable it makes the hypocrites around him.

[Not to give away too much about the plot, but it does also help explain, I think, Kipling’s adult attitude (blasé and yet fascinated) toward death]

Finally, I can’t let one thing go without mention: I didn’t think Kipling would ever have a ‘kickass’ moment, but here it is. It’s when Kipling abruptly stops talking to us and instead begins a paragraph “O Punch”. It feels as though we’ve made it through the fire, and have arrived at the Kipling of the Just-So Stories. It would, of course, be more than a decade before he wrote them, but with the advantage of hindsight it’s a powerful foreshadowing moment of what was to come. And at the same time it gives those later stories an added poignancy – Kipling, we may think, is not just talking to a child, but to himself, or at any rate trying to make a childhood right to balance out how his own childhood went wrong. It feels so bittersweet to think of him addressing a child with O my best beloved after reading this story, and so defiant in its way for him to want to achieve intimacy and honesty and closeness with a child specifically through the ‘lies’ and literature that were for him the product and cause of alienation and isolation. I don’t think I’ll read ‘O best beloved’ again without hearing at least a little echo of ‘O Punch’ about it.


But there’s one more story here. “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”. This was… hilarious. People will probably try to tell you that this story is an adulation of war and violence and imperialism. I can only assume the same people say the same about Blackadder Goes Forth. The story may be deadpan, may be superficially supportive of imperial policy, but the bile and scorn are slapped on thick, and Blackadder’s Melchett would look the greatest general in the world compared to anybody in any position of authority here. The irony kicks in within the first page, with “the soldier, and the soldier of today more particularly, should not be blamed for falling back. He should be shot or hanged afterwards, to encourage the others; but he should not be vilified in the newspapers, for that is want of tact” (my italics), and doesn’t let up. You just stare in bewilderment at the words going by, and eventually you have to either have a fit and set fire to the book, or burst out laughing. I have to conclude the latter was the intent, because there is no subtlety in the irony, and a man not being ironic would be unlikely to adopt the epigrammatic, flippant, Wildean style that Kipling uses. [“The ideal soldier should of course think for himself – the Pocket-book says so. Unfortunately, to obtain this virtue he has to pass through the phase of thinking of himself, and that is misdirected genius.”]

But like all good irony, it’s true from both directions. Kipling’s views on the army are probably what he thought, may well be good military theory – but that doesn’t mean he’s not being ironic in how he utters them. Likewise, Kipling commits wholeheartedly to the adventure and tragedy of his story, despite the continual flippant asides that seem to render the entire enterprise worthless.

It’s a simple story. We’re back in the Afghan wars (or as Kipling puts it, the long crusade to “half-educate everything that wears trousers”), this time headed for an actual battle. And here we see what we were missing in stories like “The Man Who Would Be King”, because there’s nothing second-hand here, we’re thrown right into the action, and it’s brutal and thrilling and vividly real.

Kipling was a hugely commercial writer; and he was also the youngest Nobel Laureate ever (and in a time when the Nobel committee still took the clauses about pacifism and ‘idealism’ seriously). And “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” is a great demonstration of why – it’s because Kipling is an author who is deeply ironic in the true sense, an author who is writing for many different audiences. I’m sure a large segment of duller and stuffier old military men in his day would have been nodding sagely over this story and its ruminations on military theory and what’s gone wrong with the army of today, not noticing the ironic tone. Others, perhaps the Nobel committee, would read it as a stylish, witty deconstruction of military hubris and a condemnation of the class system. And then there are others who would just have read it for the darn good bayonet fight, which is grippingly written no matter your politics.

I do want, though, to briefly point up just one thing: the idea, raised before, that the English are the weak ones. Specifically, here we see the inferiority (in some ways, at least) of the middle and upper classes toward their own lower classes, as well as their inferiority compared to other races. This combines with the theme I’ve also touched on of denying the differences between the races, because here the army is divided for us between the ‘white’ soldiers and the three groups of non-‘white’ soldiers: the Sikhs, the Gurkas, and the Scots (as in the other stories, we see again that colour, like nationality, is a matter of behaviour, not identity for Kipling – just as pagan Kafirs can fundamentally be ‘Englishmen’, the Scots are as barbarian as any Gurka despite the colour of their skin and their native language). These three are presented as terrifying and dangerous, the men who do this killing stuff for their business (and for fun), rather than the silly little English playing games they don’t understand. The Gurkhas and the Sikhs have their own barbaric religions and strange customs, but worst of all of course are the transvestite Scots, who have… Presbyterianism…


Anyway (the heavens be praised!) I’ve run out of things to talk about now. I’m sorry that the above was all so unstructured and rambling – I wrote it off the top of my head, over a long period of time, and I’m perfectly aware that what I should do now is go back and edit it into some sort of presentable shape. But I’m buggered if I’m doing that, frankly I’m surprised I’m not just deleting the file and setting fire to the computer. This is why I don’t read short story collections. I don’t want to even think about Kipling for a long time now…

But I should end by bringing a few things together. By having a, what might one call it, oh I don’t know, some sort of actual review, perhaps?

Here’s some bullet points instead:

–          if you try this book and don’t like the early stories, persevere. The society stuff is the weakest – not because Kipling doesn’t have real points to make, but because he makes them better when he can disguise them in a plot, and when there are more topics to hand than just people being silly

–          worth bearing in mind that Kipling was stupidly young when he wrote these, and some seem much more sophisticated than others

–          Leaving aside the literary quality, which is variable (but sometimes very high), they’re fascinating stories just for the glimpse into life in Kipling’s day. Kipling was famous as a ‘journalistic’ writer, and clearly is portraying a more intimate, less idealised, conception of society than most of his contemporaries. In particular, he’s unusual in taking the lower social classes seriously, although these particularly stories only occasionally feature them – when they do appear, they may be given dodgily-written accents , but they’re people we very rarely get to meet at all in the work of other writers, so I think we should appreciate what Kipling shows us here

–          I don’t think I got around to mentioning it above but one interesting thing here is just the language itself. When he’s being formal, it’s fair enough, but sometimes he becomes informal, and reflects the informal language of his day. And this is… difficult. Here’s a relatively easy exchange:

  • One character: “I took the Hawley Boy to a kala jugga.”
  • Other character: “Did he want much taking?”
  • First character: “Lots! There was an arrangement of looseboxes in kanats.”
  • Me: “…”.

–          Or how about this one:

  • “Say, old man, how you got puckrowed, eh? Kiswasti you wasn’t hanged for your ugly face, hey?… Hya!… You go down-country. Khana get, peenikapanee get – live like a bloomin Rajah ke marfik. That’s a better bandobust than baynit get it in your innards.” Well quite… (don’t worry, most of the writing is a lot more obvious than this… though I was struck by the extent to which the colloquial language of the military in particular is, while usually understandable, subtly and continually different from modern idioms.

–          which of these are worth reading? I’d say:

  • ‘The Hill of Illusion’ is a beautifully tragic conversation
  • ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’ is a great story on many levels, both gripping and funny
  • ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ is really sad, and tells you a lot about the author. These three are probably the must-reads, in my opinion.
  • ‘The Phantom ‘Rickshaw’ is worth reading as more or less a perfectly executed Victorian ghost story
  • ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes’ is worth reading because it’s really strange and unsettling
  • ‘A Wayside Comedy’ is not a comedy, but is a very good little relationship drama
  • ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ you probably should read, because it’s an all-time classic and is filled with themes you could think about, even if it’s probably not the best story of the bunch
  • Those seven are probably enough. But you may as well through in ‘My Very Own Ghost Story’ and ‘Wee Willie Winkie’, which are interesting in their own ways
  • ‘His Majesty the King’ is well-written, but rather slight
  • To be honest, I wouldn’t bother with ‘The Education of Otis Yeere’, ‘A Second-Rate Woman’ and ‘Only a Subaltern’ unless you’re a completist or really interested in the setting or author. Or really like the style, but other authors do it better.
  • ‘At the Pit’s Mouth’ is outright bad, although not entirely worthless even then.


I don’t really know how to judge short story collections (by the average? by the best? by the mode?), but here’s a stab:

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some of the stories are quite gripping, but others are very slow, so I guess this is fair
Emotion: 3/5. Deep emotional engagement isn’t the point of most of the stories, but when it is Kipling’s more than capable of wringing it out
Thought: 3/5. I’ve obviously thought quite a lot about these stories above, but that’s because I’ve chosen to, not, in most cases, because the stories made me. But at the same time, Kipling does try to make his stories interesting
Beauty: 3/5. Mostly fairly prosaic, but he does bring in some really beautiful descriptions when he feels like it.
Craft: 4/5. Some of the stories clearly show a very young writer who still has some rough edges. But all show great talent, and some are really well-made stories. You can almost see Kipling growing as a writer before your eyes, if you juxtapose some of these tales.
Endearingness: 2/5. There’s a lot here that’s interesting, but there’s relatively little here that’s, well, endearing. This isn’t a collection of stories about likeable people having pleasant adventures and everything ending heroically and well. Most characters are grey at best, and are in any case usually at a considerable distance from the reader. The world is grey and grimy and sarcastic, and a great deal of tragedy happens.
Originality: 5/5. Some stories do feel too derivative, particularly the social satires. But there are also a lot of stories here that I can’t imagine being written by anybody else, and there’s considerable variety in tone, in form and in content. Kipling may only have been in his early twenties when these stories were published, but anyone reading them must surely have been in no doubt that the author was not simply a talented entertainer but a true original voice.

OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. This is I suppose what you’d expect. On the one hand, Kipling is a Nobel Laureate whose work is still popular a century later, so you’d expect a fair amount of quality, especially as one of these stories is among his most famous works. Yet at the same time, this is only a small collection of stories published as a young man, long before the peak of his career, so it would probably be to much to expect polished brilliance right from the off. The result is a collection that’s well worth reading (and, after all, the entire thing’s only 200 pages!), both for the literature and for the historical interest, but not a book I’d rush out to buy if I lost my copy tomorrow. “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is, however, probably a must-read for anybody who really wants to understand Kipling as a person.

The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (IV)

The review strikes back… don’t worry, almost finished now.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is a big topic, because it’s essentially a microcosm of British Imperialism – and it’s important to note, in light of the general sentiment toward Kipling, that he presents all this in extremely problematic terms. He seems willing to approve of the genuine ambition to improve the lot of ‘backward’ peoples, yet he also undermines notions of the irreconcilable otherness of the native, while at the same time suggesting that much evil, as well as good, can come from dragging the native down to the low and conniving level of the British, and questioning how – and in what ways – succesful integration can ever occur. Above all, he locates the causes of imperialism, and of how that imperialism runs it course on the ground, in the psychology of the individual invader as the ultimate self-made man. For all that the British system attempts to eliminate the individual, reducing each man to a surname, rank, and posting, turning barbaric, prejudiced, semi-animalistic humans (like the Rajah of Degumber) (and can I tie in here the earlier discussion of high-school fashion police? Because the criticism directed at the eponymous ‘Second-Rate Woman’, and to a lesser degree at other social failures, particularly in the Deodars stories, is precisely that by failing to keep up with the latest fashions – by failing to conform, by remaining as  a distinct and identifiable individual – she lowers herself to the level of a ‘Thing’ or a ‘creature’: to be uncivilised in even the most minor way is to be an animal, a thing less of pity than of horror and fear. If a woman can wear he supplément incorrectly, what else might she be capable of doing? Referring to somebody by their first name? Eating babies? It’s the thin end of the wedge!)… where was I? The problem with all this darned parentheses is that I come out of them with only the mildest awareness of my surroundings… oh yes, there I am… for all that the British system attempts to eliminate the individual, converting bestial human beings into sublime, impartially rationalistic agents and mechanisms of orderly governance, in the home and in the empire, for all that it seeks to transform flawed people into what are essentially flawless avatars of Empire, through whom the Empire’s will flows into the world, Kipling insists that men and women are always no more and no less than men and women. (In this light I’d draw the attention back to the ghost stories, the pinnacle of unreason, of “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” and “My Very Own Ghost Story”; it’s also worth pointing out in passing, I think, that “The Man Who Would Be King” is very much framed and presented as a ghost story with no ghosts). Even the great men who expand the bounds of the Empire are doing it only for their own reasons – and they are not always good reasons. Nor, of course, are they necessarily bad reasons. Dravot and Carnehan (and indeed the narrator) are, like many Kipling characters, not easily pigeonholed into moralistic categories. They are portrayed as brave, clever, hard-working (in their own way), and ultimately noble and valiant of heart, with considerable capacity for altruism and a firm (if warped) moral compass; and yet at the same time we never forget that these are deceitful, avaricious, vainglorious, naïve, manipulative, coercive, lustful (in many ways) and potentially extremely brutal men.

And that’s one of the problems of the story, because by the end I really didn’t know who to root for. In some stories, that would be good – in longer stories perhaps, where sentiments can develop more fully and leave the reader conflicted – but here I just felt detached.

Which brings me to the other side of the matter. Because as well as a nexus of themes, “The Man Who Would Be King” is also a story on the page… and unfortunately that side of the thing fails to live up to the other. It’s a tale that grows in power once the reader has finished reading it, or at least a tale that works better in the mind than on the page.

A lot of this is the fault of the structure. As I said above, this is a ghost story, so there is a great deal of attention paid to provenance. As a result a good third or more of the story has passed by, explaining to us the details of who the narrator is and how they came by this story, before we actually come to the events themselves. This first part of the story is actually the best written by far. In fact, parts of it are extraordinary – I’m thinking here particularly of the couple of pages where Kipling autobiographically describes, with both clinical detail and poetically suppressed passion, the life of a newspaperman in India. Strange to say, but it’s both the most artistically sophisticated and the most emotionally unaffected passage in the book, and is almost worth reading the story for by itself. Yet none of this does much to advance the plot.

But then we get the real story, and here I think the changes in the nature of narrative are painfully clear. Because think how this would work these days. A man tells the narrator a story – and we go inside his eyes, as it were. The man talks in a way entirely out of keeping with his normal manner – it’s an established artistic license that narrators, if the stories are sufficiently long, have all the linguistic ability, and garrulousness, of the author, allowing us to see the events almost first-hand. But Kipling doesn’t do that here. Instead, we get more or less what that sub-narrator would actually say. Which means that details are skipped over en masse, events are told in overly dry and matter-of-fact ways, and both the imagery and the emotive impact are far less than they could be. On the one hand, I do appreciate what Kipling is doing. In keeping with what I said above about individualism, he’s continuing to emphasise the individuality of his characters, he’s keeping the focus on his sub-narrator as a person, not letting us forget him to pass on over the the meat of the adventure itself. But on the other hand, it’s problematic as a narrative, because so much of the import and significance of the story is handed over to the reader by an author who seems to be washing his hands of the matter. Rather than cooking us a meal, he hands us a bunch of ingredients and a picture of what the finished product’s meant to look like and says “here, see if you can make anything out of these”. In part, this is an artefact of the era – both older forms of storytelling in general, and that fin de siècle experimentation with limitated perspectives, replacing the Victorian omniscient narrator with personal and embedded narrators (the layers of provenance here reminded me very much of Conrad writing a little later on – and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that both authors, much of whose work is carefully channelled through the persona of narrators, are both at times accused of sharing the opinions of their narrators; I wonder how much of this is our modern unfamiliarity with the distancing conventions both writers employ (in other ways, of course, Conrad and Kipling are probably at opposite poles, no pun intended, having responded to their outcast statuses in very different ways; indeed, the foreword to this edition notes, in mentioning Kipling’s liberal use of the word ‘nigger’, that political condemnation of that word among the intelligensia began from within Conrad’s circle about a decade after these stories were written, although Conrad himself famously used it in the title of his The Nigger of the Narcissus)); in part it is probably a device on Kipling’s part, both to frame what should be a historical or political story as instead a story of the ‘macabre’, a ghost story, and hence a work granted a greater political and ethical licence by his audience, and to firmly ground his demythologising of Empire in the flawed nature of individuals. But whatever the reason, and however much I may understand and sympathise with the stylistic decision, I still find it problematic as a way of telling a story. This, of course, says as much about me as about Kipling: grown used to modern authorial spoonfeeding, I find myself frustrated by a story with such potential that seems not to explore it fully. What is going on here, however, is that I think I’m probably meant to do that exploring myself – not just in the sense of thinking about the things Kipling hints at, but even in the prosaic sense of having to put a lot more work into imagining these scenes than I am used to.

Perhaps this is a good time to point out that the film (1975, written and directed by John Huston, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, scored by Maurice Jarre, cinematography by Oswald Morris, nominated for 4 Oscars, and those names alone add up to 8 Oscars and 21 nominations…) is really, really good; which is easy to believe as you read the story, because this is a brilliant story to adapt for film. So how much you get out of it depends on how willing you are to work at it: if you try to imagine how you might film the story, it’s pretty impressive, but if you sit back and expect Kipling to do your imagining for you, it is likely to fall flat, even by the standards of the era.


There’s still a lot that could be said about “The Man Who Would Be King”, which, let’s face it, in style and in content could almost have been written for a history-of-literature syllabus. But I’m bored now, and have written already more digressive paragraphs and superfluous parenthesese than one man should be expected to effluse in a single year.

[Diversion: is the extent to which my ‘reviews’ become rambling stream-of-consciousness meanders through every thought that pops into my head a function of the text, showing how a particular text has incited thoughts in me that are too difficult for me to set in line with gentility and grace and a sense of proportion, or is this instead governed by some exogenous factor? Given just how long it’s  taken me to write this ‘review’, there’s clearly more to it than just diet or overstimulating television, but I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all down to the text… interesting, will have to observe the subject more fully in future…]

So, (*sigh of relief*) let’s move on.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is the last of the ‘Rickshaw stories in this collection; the final four stories all come from the collection Wee Willie Winkie. As with Deodars and to a lesser extent ‘Rickshaw, this is a thematic grouping: we’ve had all-out social satire, we’ve had social satire through the medium of ‘macabre’ (or at least creepy) stories, and now we’re onto social satire through the window of childhood.

There are, as I say, four stories in this section: “Wee Willie Winkie” itself, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “His Majesty the King”, and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”. It’s an interesting quartet, because the stories form interesting pairs: “Winkie” and “Drums” are both stories about politics and war, but “Winkie” and “King” are both stories about the naïvity of children, and “King” and “Black Sheep” are both stories, in different ways, about child abuse.

…well, let me clarify that. Because really, all these stories are about child abuse. It’s tempting to think, in fact, that all of Kipling’s stories are about child abuse. But I’ll get back to that. For now, enough to note that while I don’t know just how abusive Kipling’s childhood really was (and now the review I guess comes back to its beginning, because that childhood stops being merely a background curiosity at this point), it’s clear that in his memory it was unambiguously hellish, and it feels as though the abuse he suffered was like a bell struck with a hammer in his early life, the echoes and reverberations of which continue to sound in hollows and on reflective surfaces throughout his life.

“His Majesty the King” is the most simplistic of the stories – it’s about a young boy raised by servants in India, barely communicating with his parents, and in theory it’s about the juxtaposition between the incomprehensible lives of adults, filled with bitterness and recriminations and pettiness, and the relatively carefree lives of children: it’s showing ‘us’ how stupid – and perhaps even evil – we appear to children. But it’s hard to avoid feeling it’s really about how the Victorian system of parent-adult relations is, or at least can be, hideously toxic. His Majesty’s parents (sorry to be repetitive, but note again the lack of personal names. His Majesty does have a name, but he’s mostly just His Majesty. A fine preparation for an adult life in the civil service or the army, where he will again have no name) are not outright evil people, are not really condemned at all, but are… well, my spine creeps at the thought of them. Here’s how the child’s world works:

“At the door of the nursery his authority stopped. Beyond lay the empire of his father and mother – two very terrible people who had no time to waste upon His Majesty the King. His voice was lowered when he passed the frontier of his own dominions, his actions were fettered, and his soul was filled with awe because of the grim man who lived among a wilderness of pigeon-holes and the most fascinating pieces of red tape, and the wonderful woman who was always getting into or stepping out of the big carriage.
To the one belonged the mysteries of the duftar-room, to the other the great reflected wilderness of the Memsahib’s room, where the shiny scented dresses hung on pegs, miles and miles up in the air, and the just-seen plateau of the toilet-table revealed an acreage of speckly combs, broidered hanafitch-bags and white-headed brushes.
There was no room for His Majesty the King either in official reserve or worldly gorgeousness. He had discovered that, ages and ages ago…
…These things were beyond the province of His Majesty the King. He only knew that his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work for a thing called the Sirkar, and that his mother was the victim alternately of the Nautch and the Burrakhana.”

This is a child who hugged his mother once, and was immediately sent to the nursery as punishment.

I should point out here, I think, the thing I mentioned earlier, about equating the Indian with the English, not in order to make a point about the treatment of Indians, I don’t think, but to undermine the sense of dignity of the English. Note the repetition in two successive paragraphs of “wilderness” – but these “wildernesses” are the very peaks of English civilisation! The “wilderness” of organised bureaucracy, and the “wilderness” of fashion and high society: there can be no doubt, I think, that Kipling believes that his society has become lost. Note how Kipling equates the mysteries of the orient for the English, shown in the use of so many words from other languages, with the mysteries of adulthood for children. On the same page we are told about a longstanding grievance between His Majesty’s parents – it is a described as a skeleton, and then we are told that somebody has “trained it into a household god”, an equivocation of the superstitious rituals of the east with the bitter and dehumanising rituals of the west that would probably manage to offend both sides of that equation.

And do note there also how the lives of these “remote and silent people” are effectively dehumanised, deindividualised, by society: they have no life, no identity, beyond their place in society. What a horrifying expression it is, “his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work”, if you take it literally. Because I think Kipling does mean it, if not literally, than at least very seriously. His father is absorbed into his work, like a rogue liquid is absorbed into a sponge. And again, isn’t this a turn of phrase redolent of religion? There is some god called the Sirkar, and through its mysterious works the individual worshipper is absorbed. The Englishman becomes one with the Empire. His son is left behind.

Anyway, sorry to be fanciful there. I think my point is that, as a story, “His Majesty the King” may not work all that well – both we and the protagonist are both too far removed culturally from what is going on (ironically, time has moved the reader from the side of the adults to the side of the child, as the adult world described here has become increasingly alien (an amusing inversion: if, as I suggested above, their adults behaved like our children, it’s not too farfetched to suggest that our adults behave much like their children)) – but it is nonetheless a fascinating glimpse both into the society of the day and into the perspective of Kipling as an author.

Oh, but I do want to say in passing: the descriptions of the King’s parents may be awful, but Kipling doesn’t condemn them outright. Kipling doesn’t, on reflection, ever seem to condemn anyone outright. I’ll get back to that. Instead, here’s a thought: this is one of several stories in the collection that suggest that the horribleness of social relations forms a knot that can only be cut through with the most terrible weapons – only times of crisis and fear and pain can smash through the elaborate edifices of absorption, “dull, rankling anger” and “savage contempt”. This is again a fanciful thought, but: is one of the reasons Kipling seems so sanguine at times about war and plague and so forth the belief that death, and the threat of death, is the only thing really powerful enough to teach us about what really matters in life? Repeatedly in this collection, death and the threat of death is almost a divine light shone into murky waters.

Falarandru: biology of an alien species

Another of my alien species, following on from the cuilco and the diophel. Here’s the biology to start with – I suspect I won’t write up posts about the culture right away, but since I’ve written this I may as well post it. I’ve experimented with the idea of doing it in a slightly more structured way this time, as you can see.


Name: Falarandru

Body Plan: vertebrate tetrapods, with tails

Stance and Gait: falarandru at low levels of alertness most often adopt a quadrupedal stance – the rear legs are bent, but as the arms are much shorter than the legs, this still leaves the hips higher than the shoulders, and the head in a low position. Most of the weight passes through the legs, with the arms lent on lightly, on a thin pad on the outer side of the hands. Due to this stance putting their heads so low (and thus impeding their senses), falarandru also spend time in a bipedal stance, though often seeking to lean on supporting items to transfer part of their weight through their arms. Their typical stance leans forward somewhat, with slightly bent legs; they are, however, capable of a fully vertical stance for periods of time. Originally employed to increase the field of vision and to intimidate, vertical stance has historically been approved of by many falarandru cultures, as it has been taken to indicate alertness and good health. Excessive use of this stance may, however, promote back problems. In general, all stances promote back problems in falarandru to some degree, so falarandru at rest will vary their posture periodically. They may also squat, crouch or kneel.
Falarandru primarily move bipedally – at slow speeds or in rough or uncertain terrain, this is by walking or running, but when rapid movement is needed on reliable ground, hopping is preferred, though this can only be sustained for limited periods. Quadripedal walking may be used when stability and balance are particularly necessary, and for short periods carrying heavy loads.

Dimensions: falarandru are typically between six-and-a-half and seven foot tall (there is relatively little variation), in vertical stance; their tail is around six foot in length.

General Appearance and Behaviour: falarandru have an astonishing tail – long, prehensile, and strong. They also have relatively strong legs, to provide rapid bursts of acceleration, and in particular have very large muscles at the rear of the legs and at the buttocks, as well as at the base of the tail. Apart from these areas, however, they are gracile in appearance, with relatively thin bones, minimal musculature, and little fat. In particular, their arms and upper bodies are much weaker than those of a human – a fit falarandru may be able to grab a branch or bar and pull themselves up onto it, but they cannot hang by their arms for very long, cannot bracchiate, and are poor throwers. Where strength is required, their legs are used rather than their arms – for instance, falarandru bellows are operated by the legs. They are primarily evolved for brief, explosive burst of activity – they are very fast, but have poor physical stamina. Their psychological stamina, however, is impressive – they are able to endure discomfort and boredom for long periods of time while remaining motionless. Evidently, they are evolved from predators who relied primarily on ambush, though they also have generalist traits.

Diet: falarandru are omnivores. Their favoured foods are sweet – fruit, honey, tree sap – but they are also meat eaters, consuming everything from small invertebrates to other predators, and ‘in nature’ both hunting and scavanging. They have difficulty digesting any but the softest leaves or shoots, although fresh leaves and shoots are part of the diet, as well as roots, nuts and seeds.

Skin and Pelage: falarandru are almost entirely covered in fur. The only fur-free areas are the underside of the tail, the soles of the feet and palms of the hands, and an area extending from the base of the tail, between the legs, and including a small midline area of the lower abdomen (but excluding the penile sheath of males and juveniles), as well as small areas of the face immediately around the eyes and mouth. Infants hatch without fur, before rapidly growing a thick, black or dark brown coat, which in turn is moulted and replaced by mature fur when the child develops into an adolescent. Mature fur is of four types: very short, sparse fur, found on the face and armpits; the fur of the lower legs and feet, which is relatively coarse, thick and long to provide additional insulation when walking through snow; display fur of the tail-tip and tail-crest, which is soft and long (up to several feet in length in healthy adult females, if left uncut); and typical fur. Typical fur is short, soft, but dense. Mature fur begins a golden yellow, with ventral fur (aside from the fur of the penile sheath) slightly paler than dorsal fur; as the individual ages, the paler parts of the fur turn white, while the yellow parts become darker and redder, passing through yellow-orange and ending a dark red-orange. This process is controlled by exposure to the sun, so those who live in sunnier climes are typically darker and redder in colour. The fur of the lower legs is darker and less vibrant in colour, while the display fur of the tail may combine white, yellow, black and orange fur at any age, in an unpredictable pattern. Typical fur may be slightly uneven in colouration, with slightly darker and lighter patches, but this is not normally immediately noticeable, and does not form striking patterns. The skin, meanwhile, is a dark chocolate brown, or in some cases black.

Tails: the tail of falarandru is worthy of special attention. It is prehensile, with a furless underside, and may be used to lift or manipulate light objects; it may also be used to aid climbing or to give additional support when standing, but it cannot bear too much weight. It is used sometimes for throwing, but only light objects, and both speed and aim are poor. It is, however, very flexible, aiding not only in manipulation but in balance, and in high-speed cornering. Movements of the tail are an important part of non-linguistic communication and are incorporated into most forms of sign language, while the tail may also be held out in a prominent location as a form of signalling within a group.
The tip of the tail has longer and gaudier fur, but this is less noticeable in most cases than the hard ‘crest’ found about a foot back from the tip and extending a further foot or so along the length, which is several inches tall/long. The skin on this crest may be consciously or instinctually retracted, revealing a sharp, razor-like cutting edge. This semi-flexible edge (constructed from many individual thin blades arranged tightly together in a line lacks the hardness or sharpness necessary to cut most plant matter, but it is perfectly adequate for delivering unpleasant cuts to animal flesh. This may be used in defence, or occasionally in predation, but is primarily used in fights between individuals. Falarandru martial arts are acrobatic – powerful legs encourage both jumping and kicking, while the powerful tail may deliver both painful slaps and vicious slashes, but is prone to spinning the tail’s owner around in the process.
This mechanism of skin-retraction is seen again and even more strikingly in the tail anterior to the crest, but for a very different reason. Here, the furred skin of the entire tail anterior to the crest may be retracted, exposing about three feet of underskin (one foot of tail is posterior to the crest, one foot bears the crest, while the foot closest to the base of the tail ‘stores’ the retracted overskin, leaving three feet of exposed underskin). This underskin is thin and filled with blood vessels, leaving it a pale pink colour; the retraction of the overskin is aided by a lubricating liquid excretion, so the underskin of the tail is also typically slick and glistening. This bizarre process serves a vital function: cooling the falarandru down. As their native climate is cold, they are generally designed to retain heat,  which leaves them prone to overheating after any exertion, especially as they do not sweat. Instead, the tail fur retracts, and the wet and blood-filled underskin is used as a radiator. Panting is also employed.

Senses: falarandru have unremarkable senses. Like many predators, their vision is better adapted for detecting motion than that of humans, and they also have more impressive night-vision; however, their distance vision is poorer. Falarandru are notably superior to humans in their sense of smell, though this is still poor relative to, say, canines.

Faces: falarandru do not have flat faces, instead possessing a distinct, albeit short, muzzle. The eyes are large and forward-facing; the ears are narrow, but the external ears are long, and are high on the head, which is taller and narrower than that of a human.

Reproduction: falarandru reproduce exclusively sexually, with two biological sexes. Insemination is internal, with the male possessing a penis protected within a ‘sheath’ of furry skin when not in use. Female falarandru give birth easily to a single large egg; the young that hatch from this egg are very small, but have fully developed senses and digestive systems, and do not require special diets, although as their jaws are weak due to their small size, they may require adults to cut up harder foodstuffs for them into swallowable chunks.

Development: falarandru grow rapidly in infancy; they also develop intellectually very quickly, with infants being intellectually fully capable in only a few years, although learning some skills of course takes longer. The accelerated infant phase then passes, after eight or ten years, into a prolonged juvenile phase. Juveniles do not stop growing, but their growth is slower; fat deposits increase, as does muscle mass.
The most striking feature of falarandru development – and the reason why the juvenile stage must be distinguished from maturity – is that juvenile females closely mimic the appearance of juvenile males: they develop a penis of similar size to that of males, and are even capable of ejaculation. Male and female juvenile falarandru are essentially indistinguishable, and are not themselves aware of their own sex. Indeed, most falarandru societies have believed that femininity was simply a condition – possibly a curse or blessing, possibly a disease, possibly socially determined – that happened to afflict a percentage of juveniles; modern science has disproven these theories and demonstrated that males and females can be medically distinguished from hatching onward, although falarandru cultures typically still view this as intensely private knowledge: except where there is a vital medical reason for sex-determination, sex is left unknown until maturity; where a juvenile’s sex is known, it is rarely revealed to them, and when an individual knows their sex they do not reveal it to others. The juvenile stage ends with the development of sexual maturity – juveniles are (after the first few years of development) capable of mating, but not of viable reproduction. Again, full sexual maturity is not externally discernable; typically, males become fully sexually mature several years before females begin to have their sex become apparent. Females at the beginning of maturity have a period of transformation – increasing erectile dysfunction is followed by the gradual deepening of hollow at the base of the penis and its connection to the womb – but this may also be mimicked in its early phases by some male juveniles.
Adult females lose a degree of muscle mass, and cease growing, while mature males develop increasingly muscular physiques. Females then continue to be capable of reproduction so long as they remain healthy, although their sex drive diminishes as they get older, and reproduction can be shut down if the female is malnourished, frail or diseased. [The pseudopenis of the mature female becomes vestigial, being gradually reconnected to the body along its length inside its sheath, although the nerve endings remain]
Physical development in falarandru is primarily driven by genetics, but the social environment is also significant – in particular, the development of sexual maturity is partially triggered by the absence of mature adults in the community. This is not an absolute trigger – juveniles in contact with many mature adults will still mature themselves – but nonetheless the increasing number of mature adults in modern society does appear to have lead to a significant lengthening of the juvenile period in modern societies.


EDIT: you can now find some notes on their primitive society here.

Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett

‘Some people might say this is important’
‘No. It’s just personal. Personal’s not the same as important. People just think it is.’

Part of my on-going project to re-read all the Discworld novels in order.

Everybody knows that Small Gods is the best Discworld novel. We all know this. It is blasphemy to suggest otherwise. I even confirmed this in my last Discworld review, only a short period of time ago. And I’m not going to back down. Terry Pratchett has never written a novel better than Small Gods.

However, he did write Lords and Ladies. And Lords and Ladies…. may well be… well… better than Small Gods.

Now, Lords and Ladies is not Small Gods. The techniques may be the same, but the key is entirely different. It’s almost hard to think of them both at the same time, so different are they in their atmosphere. And at heart, this is because Small Gods is a book about the desert. It’s about sand, and rock, and an excess of sky, and no water. It’s about standing in the desert with no other living thing around you, just you and the sand and the rock and the sky and the no water, when the mind turns easily to profound questions of life and god and metaphysics and morality because there isn’t any world around you to keep your mind pinned in anymore, and it’s about dying for no reason other than the fact that it’s impossible to live, in the desert. But Lords and Ladies is about the forest and the hills, it’s about trees and rivers and mossy stones and the threat of snow, and about shadows, which you don’t get a lot of in the desert, and about being surrounded all about by life, but not all of it friendly, and not being able to see the sky at all because of the trees and the mountain tops and there are places where the sun never reaches at all, and here too the mind turns easily to profound questions, but of a different king, profound questions that involve things in the woods that you can’t see, and claws, and teeth, and being eaten, and how to avoid it, and unlike the desert the forests and the hills are great at keeping your mind really focused on the mundane things like what’s behind that tree and can it see me, and it’s about dying because something has killed you and is eating you. In the desert, you can build in straight lines, and you can see to the ends of the earth, to the point where you can’t see any more solely because the earth has decided to bend herself away from you, but in the forest and the hills there are no straight lines, only spirals, and you can’t see more than five feet in any direction because there’s something in the way, and in any case you’d better stop looking so far into the distance anyway, because you really ought to be looking at that tree over there and making sure there’s nothing there that’s going to eat you.

So naturally there are going to be some differences in tone.


Lords and Ladies is a new start for Pratchett. Underlyingly, this is because it represents a move away from (albeit not a complete abandonment of) the central themes of belief, stories, representation and so on that so dominated Moving Pictures, Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, and Small Gods – those themes remain an important part of the metaphysical bedrock of this novel, but the novel is not about them in the way its predecessors seemed to be. Superficially, meanwhile, the new start is not having a new start at all. This is the first direct sequel since The Light Fantastic, being set immediately after Witches Abroad (only two books before), and is the first (and I think only?) Discworld book where the author felt the need for an explanatory ‘previously on’ foreword telling us who the characters are and what happened in the previous novel – although to be honest, this isn’t really necessary, since the plots are unrelated. All you really need to know is ‘the witches have been on a trip and are just now returning home’.

That said, although the plot is standalone, this is the second outing for most of the characters, and third or fourth for some of the main ones (and in one case I think the eleventh), so it’s probably a book that benefits from knowing about the previous novels, even if detailed recall of plot points is not really required. With the exception of The Light Fantastic, I’d say it’s the least standalone of the novels so far. And I think this is significant: Pratchett has, it feels, said what he wanted to say, done his experimenting, and is now returning to established parts of his world to tell stories.

Because while Lords and Ladies doesn’t feel like it has the thematic focus of previous installments, it sure as hell has a story.

Personally, I never liked Lords and Ladies as a child. This is largely because I was an obstreperous and stubbornly tribal child, and I objected to Lords and Ladies on the grounds that it hadn’t been in my witches trilogy omnibus, and thus wasn’t a real witches book and shouldn’t be prancing around distracting attention from the real witches books, damnit.

So yes, I was an idiot. Because this is the best witches book yet. And possibly the best Discworld book yet, or ever.

[And for good measure, reading Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad out of order with the other books, due to said omnibus edition, means that I never remember just how close together WA and L&L are in the chronology]

What makes the book great? Nothing, really. That’s the point. This isn’t a book with a deep and powerful theme or anything, or one fantastic moment. It’s just… really good. With the exception of Small Gods, it’s the novel (so far) that works best as a novel, with the least filler… and the pace is far faster than Small Gods. Small Gods is reflective and deliberate; Lords and Ladies is almost a thriller, mixing elements of horror with action, broad comedy, and character development.

Put it this way: there’s almost nothing wrong with it. Most strikingly, the ‘end’ starts in about halfway into the book, after which it’s gripping – it’s the first book in years that I’ve stayed up late into the night to finish because I couldn’t put it down.

It’s exciting; and I also laughed out loud, repeatedly. It’s not Pratchett’s most subtle humour, definitely, with many of the funniest bits being ghastly puns, and it’s probably not the funniest he can be, but it’s continually amusing and occasionally embarrasingly hilarious.

But it’s also serious, and moving. For instance, many of Pratchett’s characters are old men or old women, but few of his books have really addressed what that means in human terms the way that Lords and Ladies does. In particular, this book is a showcase for Esme Weatherwax, as we get to see her from a more intimate perspective, seeing more of how she works, both emotionally and intellectually.

And yet it’s not just a Granny vehicle. All three witches have their own narrative and character arcs; Nanny’s is appropriately low-key and unpretentious, but Magrat is just as much the central character here as Granny, if not more so, and her plot and Granny’s – a young(ish) woman deciding what she wants from life, and an old woman who has to live with the consequences of her own decision long ago – entwine and complement each other beautifully.

Indeed, all three witches fundamentally share the same theme: to but it bluntly, ‘be who you want to be’.

It sounds a lot better when Pratchett says it.

In fact, it sounds a lot better when Pratchett says it. Add the melancholy air to the Important Life Lesson and a big dose of dramatic narrative… and what blooms out of that is a number of Pratchett’s greatest scenes, and in particular a number of his greatest speeches, which are just shattering in their oratory.

Of course, without a plot, this would just be a bunch of characters wandering about Being Significant, in a very boring and narcissistic way. Fortunately, we get a plot, and while it may be a pretty thin plot it’s one with great verve and pace and light and dark, courtesy of possibly Pratchett’s greatest villains. The Gentry are, I’ll admit, a shallow and thin idea, never given much profundity or nuance… but they don’t need it. They’re a fantastic concept, and the execution is suitably… well, maybe not scary, per se, but definitely creepy, and terrifying enough for the characters, even if not for the jaded reader.

But the book isn’t perfect. As usual, the biggest problem is the ending. It often feels as though Pratchett’s ‘plots’ are just a series of images which he has to find a route between, and that really is true here. It all hangs together until the climax, but the climax is frankly anticlimactic. There’s too much talking, the villains, previously so dynamic, lapse into moustache-twirling, and the conclusion neither really makes sense nor feels really earned, though it’s to Pratchett’s credit that he’s very, very nearly able to pull it off on raw emotion alone. And then there’s the protracted bit after the climax, where remaining threads are dealt with far too perfunctorily.

It should also probably be admitted that some of the subplots – well, not subplots exactly because there’s only one plot, but lesser facets of the plot – don’t really prove themselves worthy. Some sort of work but I’d like more depth; others end up feeling like red herrings (the wizards are criminally under-used, not because they’re out of place but because there’s so much of a place they could take but don’t).

And if puns irritate you, you might end up irritated. Plus there was one jokes about Jewish stereotypes that, while not actively offensive in itself, did remind me against my will of some of Pratchett’s lazier stereotype-based jokes in later books.

But I feel I’m quibbling here. In terms of a fun and exciting narrative with little slack in it, this is probably this is probably the best Pratchett had written to this point. It’s also very funny, and with a touch of profundity along the way. It may not grab the attention in the same way as the overtly intellectual Small Gods – the same way that a tiny village set amid the twisting wooded hills just doesn’t hit the eyeballs the same way the Sahara does – but I think it’s every bit as good, if not better. It would probably be widely proclaimed as a great masterpiece of fantasy writing, if it weren’t hidden amid forty-odd other highly impressive novels by the same author…


Adrenaline: 5/5. This isn’t to say it’s a flawless thriller, it’s not. But it’s as exciting as I think you could expect to be, and a cut above the books I’ve given 4 to, so I think this is justified. Once it gets going, the action really doesn’t let up until the end.

Emotion: 4/5. Not exactly emotionally devastating, but surprisingly affecting nonetheless – real, sympathetic characters, high stakes, big emotional speeches, and quiet wistful moments.

Thought: 3/5. I don’t know that it qualifies as above-par on the intellectual side, but it’s certainly not slow-witted, with some serious themes about life and possibility and identity and whatnot.

Beauty: 5/5. It’s a beautiful book, showcasing some of Pratchett’s best writing ever, and there’s really no uglyness I can find. OK, a few jokes I didn’t totally buy, but that’s mostly just taste. A bit more oil needed in how things fit together, but not really so inelegant as to be ugly. The prose is of course never less than elegant, with some real moments of beauty.

Craft: 5/5. As for the last item – a few things I can note in passing as imperfect, but nothing that merits docked points. Particularly if you sit back and consider just how structurally ambitious Pratchett has become in this era – him being 95% succesful still shows more craftsmanship than most authors succeeding in their intentions flawlessly.

Endearingness: 4/5. The one complaint I’d make here is that although the characters are very well realised, interesting, sympathetic and so on, there are no characters, and no arcs or plotlines, that I really love, really viscerally love.  That said, there’s a lot here that I like, and it’s both funny and fun.

Originality: 4/5. As is often the case, there’s underlying material here, mostly in the form of folk tales and Shakespeare, and there are also echoes of earlier Discworld books, and then again Pratchett never strays too far from the archetypal plot structures. But even without the inimitable style, the elements are arranged in a distinctive and memorable way.

OVERALL: 7/7. BRILLIANT. ‘Numerically’, I calculate this as very marginally better than Small Gods, but in all honesty the difference is easily within the margin of error. Small Gods feels both more ‘important’ and more careful, more deliberate. Lords and Ladies feels just slightly more out of control, but that can be exciting, and the more human scale is in its own way (despite the quote I lead with*) just as important as the grand vistas of the desert. Lords and Ladies is in my opinion more effective as a story, with characters and a plot – it’s a Romantic tone poem to Small Gods’ baroque sarabande. Or a deep dark wood, to Small Gods’ sea of sand.




*If the quote rings a bell for Discworld fans, the line gets used in a bunch more novels, and is more associated with a different character. Indeed, we’ll be seeing it again in the very next book…