But… but… but that was much better than I remember it being!
N.B. I have skipped Hogfather, partly because I reviewed it already before starting this re-read project, and partly because I might just read it again at Christmas anyway, which isn’t long now. So I’m moving past it, and may return to it at Christmas if I feel like it.
So, Jingo. Probably my most hated Discworld book. I wasn’t looking forward to this. And yet… it’s weirdly good.
Now that said, I know exactly why I’ve always had a problem with it. There are two main issues here:
- Pratchett is incredibly patronising here. Most of the time, Pterry is even-handed and nuanced; but when there’s an Issue he has Opinions about, no legitimate opposition is admitted. One gets the strong feeling that he simply does not understand The Other Side on some issues, and so assumes out of desparation that they must be deaf, or stupid, and in either case in need of some LOUD SLOOOOW LEKSHURING. Here, the island of Leshp rises out of the sea in a slightly Lovecraftian and strangely prophetic re-imagining of the 1831 appearance of Graham Island (prophetic as about five years after the book was written it was believed that Graham Island would return again, and it was promptly and pre-emptively claimed for all eternity as the territory of Sicily; so far it’s still underwater, but flags and ownership notices have been lowered down onto it through the water). Instantly, idiot fishermen become nationalists – fathers complain of foreigners stealing ‘their squid, while their sons groan-inducingly express confusion over how the squid can belong to someone when they haven’t been caught yet. Immediately after that we see the crowds of idiot commoners in Ankh-Morpork who have all turned into mindless nationalists wanting war. The second part of this problem, as this suggests, is that Pratchett always has a rather derogatory view of the poor – he praises them, but sees them as salt-of-the-earth kinds who need to be lead by proper elites with braincells. One reason, after all, why so many of his characters seem like strong, intelligent characters is that they’re surrounded by a morass of morons. Most of the time, this isn’t a big problem (most stories by any author make the protagonists smarter than the average farmer, otherwise the story wouldn’t work), but when he veers into politics it becomes objectionable. Similarly, his views on minorities: while I must admit some sympathy for his skepticism toward lobby groups and his emphasis on freedom for the individual rather than concessions toward this lobby group or that, his expression of this attitude is often rather… well, Pratchet clearly read a lot of 19th– and early 20th-century literature when he was young, and on this issue it shows. It’s not just the jokes here about feminists and civil rights activists, it’s the way he depicts foreign traditions as traps to confuse the English tourist – OK, so sometimes they are, but here the emphasis is less on the mercenary side of this and more on the idiocy of those who insist that other cultures are different. This is Pratchett’s version of tolerance of other cultures: of course Johnny Foreigner isn’t a backward primitive, that’s for show, and anyway the really important Johnny Foreigners are all Omar Sharif and have a perfect English accent and act like perfect Englishmen.
OK, that’s being harsh – there is recognition here that the Klatchians are civilised quite apart from their Ankh-Morpork educations and accents, and hey, quite a lot of foreign ruling elites have had Etonian educations. It’s just… it’s not what he says so much as the tone-deaf, tub-thumping way in which he says it. Left as a note in the background it would be a bit ridiculous to have a problem with this stuff, but it is not the part of his worldview that he should be bringing front-and-centre if he wants to not piss people off.
[Maybe I’m a little extra-sensitive right now, though, having just read Interesting Times, which has many of the same problems]
- The plot is useless. It’s set up as an OK mystery thing, albeit a dull one, and then there are various threads, and then… it ends. Pretty much the whole book is, from the point of view of the ultimate plot, completely pointless. Now admittedly some of that pointlessness is lampshaded and made into a character feature, but still… it’s pointless. And then a god comes out of a machine and fixes everything.
So why do I say it’s much better than I remember it being? Well, the form may be poor, but a lot of the material is excellent. Take out the annoying political set-up and the last third or so of the novel (a mixture of dodgy politics and people wandering around waiting for a plot that makes sense), and what we basically have is a big chunk of scenes of the Watch that Pterry thought were funny but that didn’t fit into the previous books. [Disclaimer: I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it’s how it feels]. And he was [hypothetically] right: they’re funny. And having less of a plot around to get in the way is actually a massive bonus, because we get to see the characters ‘at rest’, as it were.
As a result, as well as being very funny, this may be the best view we ever get of the Watch as people, and in particular of the relationships between them. We get scenes of Vimes and Sybil (“I’m just going out to kick some arse, dear”); we get some much-needed scenes of Angua and Carrot. We get Colon and Nobby. Breaking away from the established duets, we even get Angua and Nobby – not only on screen, but second-hand through Nobby, and it’s interesting the different perspective Nobby has of her (his Angua anecdotes include her casually reading through an illustrated sex manual that Carrot accidentally acquired, and her suggesting that “nudity is the traditional costume everywhere”; Nobby has something of a one-track mind).
Speaking of whom: the book finally made me realise what I want from Discworld. I want a Watch book from the perspective of Angua. Why not? She’s clearly the smartest of them. She’s with the possible exception of Detritus the most physically intimidating of them. Given that she’s constantly fighting back the temptation to kill and eat people, she’s probably the most frightening of them when the chips are down. Her sense of smell is basically a superpower. She may not know the city as well as Carrot or Vimes, but that can be an asset, and she does know parts of it that they don’t know; she’s also the most level-headed and sensible of the bunch; and she’s the one who treats her work as a (morally good, and important) job, rather than as some sort of divine mission, her viewpoint is lighter and a better opportunity for humour. I want an “Angua Investigates” series, damnit! Instead, she has to be sidelined book after book, because otherwise it would all become much too easy…
That said: the comfort Angua shows here, both in the city and with Carrot, is puzzling; Men at Arms, Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant would otherwise form a clear character-arc trilogy for her, but Jingo is just sat in the middle there with no relation to anything. It sort of adds to the impression of Jingo as something churned out of spare material to meet publisher’s demands (it’s not just crammed with good jokes, it’s also got a bunch of plot ideas that individually lead nowhere and aren’t really central to the book, as though Pratchett has just shoved in all the ideas that he couldn’t make work by themselves).
[Come to think of it, another problem with Angua reveals a problem in a lot of Pratchett: we come to the character near the end of their story. Most of what would conventionally be Angua’s story is already over by the time we first meet her in Men at Arms – we just get to see her wrapping up those last issues. Likewise, Vimes has a long history that has made him who he is today – but we only get the last moments of it in Guards! Guards! and everything after that is just polishing. That’s a big part of what make Night Watch so appealing: we actually get to see the story rather than just the consequences of it. And again, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg – they’re near the end of their fascinating lives, and so much of the interest in the characters is the hints of where they’ve come from. That in turn is a big part of what makes Lords and Ladies so good – we get much more explicit consideration of their histories. Of course, seeing behind the curtain is always exciting with established characters, but I think it’s even more the case in Pratchett, where the characters seem divided into those who have had a story (Angua, Vimes, Granny, Nanny) and those who are filled with the promise of being at the beginning of their story (Susan and the other youngsters) or of having a bigger story up their sleeves for the future (Carrot). Come to think of it, that may also be why Maskerade is a minor stand-out in its own right: we get to actually be with Agnes as she lives through an important part of her story.]
Aaaaaanyway. Everything I disliked about Jingo is still there… but it’s much less of a problem than I was expecting. Hold your nose at the very beginning, and waft in plenty of fresh air toward the finale. Once you get past the intense patronisation, the slight whiff of some unpleasant assumptions, and the complete absence of anything resembling an adequate plot or ending, Jingo is actually very funny, and gives us some much-needed time with our beloved characters in a slightly less rushed context.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Not a thriller, thanks to inadequate plotting. However, Pratchett keeps things going at a brisk pace while still keeping it comfortable, and there are just enough dangling plot hooks to pull the reader through by the curiosity.
Emotion: 2/5. Does just the minimum in terms of conflict and emotion and whatnot. I didn’t find myself strongly engaged at any point: there’s little sense of risk at any stage, and the apparent stakes are too big to be taken seriously at this point in the series. We already know by now what Pratchett will and won’t do.
Thought: 2/5. There are some good lines, and a little murder mystery in the middle of it… but for the most part it’s better if you actively avoid thinking too much for this one.
Beauty: 3/3. Again, some good lines, and a couple of bits of nice imagery, and more importantly Pratchett halfway through his cycle is too good to leave anything positively ugly lying around.
Craft: 3/5. Both the plotting and the tone are off in this one; there were a couple of odd possible errors, and I was unconvinced by a few character notes. In most ways, a sub-par effort. On the other hand, the comedy was actually in good form, and the bad character notes are balanced out by some perspicacious ones, which we probably wouldn’t have gotten to see in a more plot-centric outing.
Endearingness: 3/5. Despite the irritations, this was probably a 4 when I was reading it… it’s a funny, light read. But it’s been pushed down in retrospect, largely because he doesn’t stick the landing.
Originality: 3/5. The plot structure is fairly original and unpredictable – which may be part of why it doesn’t work, but also had its benefits. On the other hand, some characters and jokes are starting to get a little worn by now.
OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. It was a bit of a roller-coaster of judgement, to be honest: within a page, I’d remembered why I hated it, but then a little way it I was really enjoying it. The weak ending, however, caps a weak final third that doesn’t really know where it’s going in my opinion, draws the attention back to the weaknesses of the book, and makes it hard to call it genuinely good. This is – despite its ostensible Serious Themes and High Stakes – a particularly light and disposable installment of the cycle, with surprisingly few ramifications for any of the characters. It’s enjoyable enough in places, but there are no great stand-out scenes, and it’s the bits I didn’t like that are sticking in my memory (which may be why I’ve become more negative on it even just from the beginning of this review to the end – but it’s also because I think I began surprised by how non-terrible it was, and as I went on I came to admit how non-great it was too).
But then, it’s important to remember the standard it’s being judged against: a Pratchett book is always going to be judged by the standards of Pratchett books. Contrary to my thoughts going into this re-read, this probably isn’t the worst of the Discworld books, but it’s definitely below par for Pratchett, and particularly at this stage in the cycle. On the other hand, a below-par Discworld is still usually an enjoyable book in its own right, and I am comfortable calling this Not Bad.