Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

My on-going complete Discworld re-read goes on…


I was really eager to review this one the moment I finished it. Then I didn’t, because of Stuff. Now I have that frustrating feeling I get when I know there’s much more to say than I can actually remember right now…

I suppose we could start by noting that this book moves the ‘City Watch’ sequence firmly into series territory, effectively completing the trilogy begun in Guards! Guards! and continued in Men at Arms. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out here that in the first thirteen books (up to and including Small Gods), you can only really say that six of them continued sequences, and two of those are debateable (Equal Rites was about Esk, not Granny, and neither Lancre nor the other witches appeared, so Wyrd Sisters is only tangentially a follow-up; similarly, Mort was about Mort, with Death only a secondary character, so Reaper Man could be said not to be a follow-up – it’s actually got an almost better claim to be a sequel to Moving Pictures, but the Faculty are only a B-side plot in both of them). Of those 4-6 repeats, 3 of them were Rincewind books, and one wasn’t even intended to be part of the main sequence at the time. None of the books other than The Light Fantastic were outright sequels. In the next 13 books, however, eleven or twelve are follow-ups (you could use the same Mort/Reaper Man argument to say that Soul Music is an original, since both its lead characters are new), and even the one inarguable original (The Truth) began life as a Watch novel, repurposed to a debateable degree of sucess and featuring cameos from the Watch cast.

So we’re comfortably into a stage now where rather than expanding his world Pratchett is settling in. I think I’ve said before that I find this a big problem with later Discworld books… but it’s certainly not an issue here. Maskerade and Feet of Clay continue to deepen and explore their setting, which has not yet become ossified to the point of becoming restrictive and over-familiar. Instead we get the best of both worlds: a setting, and characters who are familiar and yet still have more to show. Both books may lack the sheer genius of Pratchett’s best entries (which in my opinion, so far in the series remain Small Gods and Lords and Ladies), but they have a really impressive solidity to them and a thoroughgoing fineness of quality.

Particularly worthy of mention in Feet of Clay (and again reminiscent of Maskerade) is the sophistication of the plot. The novel has to interweave four different plot threads – if you count major character arcs, it’s at least five and maybe six – all in the space of (in my hardback copy) less than 300 pages. The only thing more amazing than how tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to do this is how much more tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to appear to do this.

Because one problem with this book is that it doesn’t really work. It’s all set up as an intricate little plot, but really (as often in Pratchett) it’s a bunch of tangentially related stories that don’t, in the end, wrap up anywhere near as tightly as they should. One reason why Pratchett is a brilliant author, however, is that to a large extent he’s able to get away with this by making it seem as though everything fits together perfectly and isn’t entirely reliant on immense coincidences. It’s a sort of narrative legerdemain that almost takes the breath away just by itself. This is all one story… even if, when you try to get down to explaining, logically, how and why everything connects, it all seems a bit tenuous. I remember it as being brilliantly plotted, and once I forget the little details that crop up when you’re actually reading it, I’m going to go back to remembering it that way again in no time at all.

It’s hard to overstate how good a writer Pratchett is at this point. I was immediately struck by his brilliance when I opened the book: this, dear reader, is how you begin a novel. There are five scenes in the first twelve pages. In those five scenes, Pratchett establishes the tone of the book, establishes a complex setting both in general and in some of its parts (although of course the reader would benefit from having read earlier works, Pratchett does make sure to be accessible to first-time or forgetful readers – another reason for his commercial success), sets up what looks like the main plot, sets up two or three subplots while he’s at it, delivers a brilliantly effective character study of a lead character, sketches out efficiently and enjoyably two or three other important characters, gives us some distinctive vignettes of lesser characters, dazzles us with witty turns of phrase, inspires us with intriguing aphorisms… and is funny, too, and yet also menacing and serious.

Pratchett ought to be taught in class as an example of how to write. He may not perhaps be the world’s most literary author, either in his prose style or in his depth and originality of content, but he’s unimpeachably good at the raw business of telling a story well. That’s often overshadowed by how badly some of his stories go off the rails and out of all control… but while his early works seemed naive in their plotting, by this stage in the sequence his failures are all the fault of his own o’erweening ambition. The only thing standing in the way of him writing a brilliantly crafted story is his own need to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a book of this length and style. As a result, we get books (and this is by no means the worst of them, not in the slightest) that perch on the edge of working and rely to varying degrees on the goodwill of the reader not to quibble with them too much. Fortunately, Pratchett is extremely good at generating goodwill… (which is why I really like Reaper Man. Logically speaking, it’s an utter mess of a novel, a novel that could be taught in class as a demonstration of how not to tell a coherent story, and yet for me it works… in part, I have to recognise, just because I really want it to).

Like, for instance, those first five scenes. What I didn’t notice at the time is… they’ve got nothing to do with one another. There’s a seemingly random exchange between two people, which is intriguing but tells us nothing. There’s a little bit about nothing at all to do with anything, just a descriptive passage about the nature of the world – light-hearted but interesting. There’s a brief passage about a different person dying, which is obviously a Bad Thing, and played very earnestly (but strangely). There’s a whole run of pages about another man having his morning shave and reflecting on newfound matrimony – psychological and sombre, but ending with some menacing levity. There’s a nice man writing a letter to his mother while feeding his dog some sausages in a café – gentle mood, overtones of irony. After that it’s off for a dialogue between a murder victim and Death, which is mostly played for laughs but is obviously quite serious in content – and could be tied back to the earlier death scene, except that the tone is entirely different – and then some jokey scenes about job interviews and police work and so forth. This is a mess! This shouldn’t work!

At yet it does. If you’re not concentrating, you don’t notice that these scenes have nothing to do with one another in content or in style. Quite the contrary – it all feels as though it makes sense, like a grandmaster carefully setting out the pieces one by one.

In the end, I think he’s bluffing (if you’ll forgive my mixing my sporting metaphors). Pratchett does enough to sketch out his plot in its essentials, and he makes it all feels as though it makes sense, but… well, if any other author tried to present that as the solution to a police procedural, the reader would not be buying. But fortunately, trying to be critical of Pratchett novels is like trying not to buy one of Mr Dibbler’s famous meat pies. No matter how much your mind tries to tell you that there’s only one rational response to this, your body ends up eating a sausage-inna-bun and wearing a pink sombrero…

Another thing that struck me while reading this novel was the political ambiguity Pratchett indulges in. Now, Pratchett may be the world’s best example of an author with mass, cross-demographic appeal. He’s read by children; he’s read by academics. He’s read for a quick laugh and for a moving experience. He’s read by women and by men. He’s read, above all, by a really vast number of people. And this should immediately make people pay attention and ask what it is exactly about Pratchett that makes his appeal so broad. And there are a lot of parts to that answer, and some of them I don’t know; but here’s one that came to me when reading this book:

Politics need not be a problem for his readers. More than that, politics can be an asset for him in selling his books. Which politics? Any politics!

If, like me, you’re a liberal, you probably see Pratchett as a liberal. I mean, just look at him from a feminist point of view, for a start: he hasn’t just created some of the best female characters in fantasy, he’s written entire books with almost entirely female casts and nobody has even noticed because it feels so natural when he does it. His books are constantly embracing ethnic diversity, both in their casts and explicitly in their pages – Feet of Clay more so than most, with Vimes even delivering a scathing attack on the Sherlock Holmes school of deduction on grounds of bigotry, pointing out that any attempt to draw such rapid deductions about people from little evidence relies on a bigoted and close-minded assumption about the uniformity of life (in fact he calls the Holmes idea “an insult to the glorious variety of human life”, which is about as strong and direct as Pratchett’s writing gets). People are far too wonderfully varied to calculate.

And yet I wonder whether, if I were a conservative, I wouldn’t see Pratchett as a fellow traveller too. Take the occasional race-based humour, for instance: I find this a little awkward, particularly when it’s clearly based on real-world racial stereotypes, but I’m quick to defend him, as everybody is. That’s just a silly little throwaway joke – more a pastiche of racist humour than an actual jibe! That’s not a joke at all, it’s a parallel and a commentary on the history of race-relations that uses real-world stereotypes to set up an assumption that he can then challenge… That’s just a joke about some liberals taking themselves too seriously. I mean, clearly he’s one of us, look at all the good stuff he says!

But I do wonder how many Daily Mail readers might, for instance, read Pratchett’s skewering of anti-discrimination pressure groups (the Campaign for Equal Heights makes ridiculous claims of discrimination, but it’s OK since it’s made up entirely of local humans, with actual dwarfs largely ignoring it) as, well, a normal right-wing attack on Political Correctness Gone Mad, rather than, say, a passing swipe at the zealotry of a minority of liberal individuals who, as it were, believe more in the church of liberalism than in its faith. Do those readers view Vimes – who is, frankly, underlyingly a bigot, but who supports liberalism to some degree thanks to a combination of pragmatism, general empathy, and a bloody-minded desire to spite the rich and powerful that leads him to favour underdogs even if they are from some disliked minority – as an unproblematic hero, rather than the good but compromised, complicated hero of an out-of-date generation? Do they view Carrot, then, as a pleasant but naïve idealist? Do they take the way that Pratchett’s minorities, despite facing persecution and sometimes violence, almost always prefer to just grumble through by themselves without outside assistance, as a model for how real minorities ought to behave?

It’s one thing to engage in dog-whistle politics. Pratchett sometimes seems to be blowing dog whistles for both the right and the left… and I say that not so much to criticise him (although I did feel that the Jewishness of the golems was played up a little bit too much, given the importance of the only-care-about-money-and-contracts aspect of golemness to the plot), but rather to admire his dexterity. I don’t know if he does it intentionally or if he’s just that conflicted/complicated, but Pratchett manages effortless, almost unnoticeably, a display of saying-what-they-want-to-both-sides that most professional politicians couldn’t dream of emulating! He’s the Bill Clinton of fantasy authors… (err… talking there about Clinton’s broad appeal, ambiguity, and incredible charisma, rather than, you know, the other… stuff).

So anyway. Where does that all leave us with Feet of Clay?

In the heat of the moment, a little bit frustrated. It was so close to being genius, but very slightly wasn’t.

On the other hand: it’s so close to being genius. You get a mystery (several mysteries in one, I guess) that isn’t top-drawer but that is intriguing and generally satisfying (and I have to say, I was very impressed with Pratchett that I didn’t realise the solution to the poisining mystery until it was revealed, despite it being, in hindsight, really obvious). You get plenty of comedy. You get political and social issues (and despite what I’ve said above, this is perhaps the most overtly liberal of the Discworld novels). And you get a whole heap of character development stuff. There’s even good material for Sergeant Colon!

Adrenaline: 4/5. Not quite as explosive as some entries, but effectively tense throughout.

Emotion: 3/5. Not as high-stakes emotion-wise for the characters… but the characters are so strong, and so empathic, that you can’t but invest in their progress.

Thought: 4/5. Clever plotting, plus Issues. Not exactly ground-breaking, but a good thoughtful book.

Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s writing is a delight, and there are also some really striking scenes here.

Craft: 5/5. Seems strange giving top marks given that I think the plot is deeply flawed – but the details of the plotting, the prose, the composition, the direction of the attention, the humour, the character work, the descriptive vividity, the multilingual puns (Pratchett can drop jokes for the lowest common denominator and for those fluent in Latin with equal ease – or, in the case of Vetinari’s family motto, for those fluent in Latin and also familiar with mid-20th century American politics*). (Dear lord, how many people on earth are erudite enough to make that ‘Rats chamber’ joke?). Everything is just of such a high quality I can’t but give it full marks.

Endearingness: 5/5. Funny, likeable, fun, impressive. And plenty of time with really likeable character.

Originality: 4/5. The parts are, of course, taken from elsewhere, but it’s all put together in a really interesting and unique way.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Could almost have been brilliant, but I didn’t feel it was quite there. Nonetheless, it’s a seriously good book! Comparing this one with Maskerade, the two are very close in quality, imo – I think the difference comes down to whether you prefer a little more outright comedy, as in Maskerade, vs a little more complexity and character work in Feet of Clay. Personally I’m going for Feet of Clay, but I think it’s a toss-up. They’re both a small step behind Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but it is only a small step.

*Rudolph Potts, baker: quod subigo farinam. That one still sets me giggling!

7 thoughts on “Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

  1. Nathan says:

    I said it at the time, say it again. I was shocked by how good I found this one to be because I had tagged it in my mind as ‘just another watch’ book. The interweaving plotlines were a thing of beauty.

    I have thought about his politics a few times as well. Obviously it is hard to fore U.S. politics with an English book but I try. I see him as more liberal than not but he certainly is an expert on playing both sides. In Night Watch he talks about the whole ‘if you take away weapons only criminals’ thing. The city only runs because of an almost mythical authoritarian figure.

  2. Yeah, I’d meant to mention the benign dictatorship and the ‘ends justifies the means’ theme throughout. Plus of course the Vetinari motto (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it) is theoretically a reference to a left-wing politician, but is also pretty much a perfect conservative slogan.

  3. Motoflou says:

    I love what you’re doing here, it’s great. I just recently started reading the Discworld books, and your list has helped me decide what to read when I want to break away from the Night Watch or Death series (which are what the two I started with). For instance, I finished “Men at Arms,” but didn’t necessarily want to keep going with the same series, so I think I’ll give “Pyramids” a try next. Keep it up!

  4. Thank you! It’s great to know my reviews are having some small practical consequence…

  5. […] other Watch novels, there is a sneaking suspicion that the myriad of threads don’t come together (as the excellent Vacuous Wastrel has also observed) but it does not matter given how you hurtle through the plot. Like our other times with the Watch, […]

  6. Anonymous says:

    Is your entire understanding of conservatism “they like racist jokes”?

  7. *checks politics degree*
    No, it isn’t, actually. But jokes about minorities and their attempts to gain power and acceptance for themselves are often – though certainly not always – dogwhistles for reluctance to give such people power and/or acceptance, and that is much more often found in conservative ideologies (after all, if they wanted to radically reform society in favour of such people, they wouldn’t be conservative any longer).

    Specifically, I think that Pratchett has considerable sympathy for what might be called an old ‘High Tory’ worldview, as seen in his depiction of Vetinari, his attitudes toward capitalists and social climbers, his defences of feudalism (albeit not of the aristocracy as a class), his skepticism toward Whiggish progressive movements and so on. This is probably something he inherited from the authors who shaped him: Chesterton, Tolkien, etc. He does lack the religious perspective of orthodox High Toryism, and is more socially liberal, but in a way that just connects him more to the original, Restoration-era proto-Toryism. Although I don’t believe that Pratchett was JUST a High Tory – just that that was a prominent strain in his thinking, alongside (sometimes contradictory) others. As was a certain curmudgeonly quality, which also explains some of this.

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