Just one part of my mammoth Complete Discworld Reread project…
By the twenty-third book in the Discworld cycle, Terry Pratchett is some sort of crop rotation system, regarding his subjects. Granny, Vimes, Susan, Rincewind, Granny, Vimes, Susan, (Vimes), Rincewind… OK, so Jingo dropped in an extraneous Vimes, but the pattern’s pretty clear and inevitably the next book had to be Granny. [And after that, it’ll be Vimes. The Truth will plop in out of sequence, but then it’s Susan and Rincewind again, before the new Maurice book takes the place of Granny…]
So we get another Witches novel for Discworld #23, almost as a matter of course. The problem is, as with The Last Continent, it’s not clear that Pratchett really had any great plan for this installment. Or rather, that’s the superficial problem. The deeper problem is that it’s just not clear that there is anywhere at all for these characters to go from here.
Now, that’s not to say that Carpe Jugulum doesn’t have its positives. It has a lot of positives! It’s well written, it’s funny, it’s got great character work, and it’s got some barnstorming scenes. Read in isolation, it would probably seem a much better book.
But I’m not reading in isolation, I’m reading it as Installment #23, and that’s a high hurdle for any book to cross. When you read it as Installment #23, it becomes impossible not to locate the novel within the context of its series. And this one feels like, basically, Lords and Ladies only with vampires. Or rather: take the plot of Lords and Ladies, then add the setting from the early part of Witches Abroad (which will again be revisited in The Fifth Elephant), take some preaching about religion from Small Gods and repeat some comments about vampires made all the way back in Reaper Man. Mix chaotically.
It’s not that Pratchett didn’t have any ideas here. On the contrary, he had some great ideas. But he didn’t really work them out and he shoved everything together all in one book. Just look at the protagonist characters: you’ve got Nanny, and Agnes, and Granny, and Oats, and a bit of Verence here, and a bit of Magrat there, and repeated visits to Hodgesaaargh, who is trapped off in his own little plotline… I know Pratchett often plays with a bunch of different plots at once, but I also know if often doesn’t really work. The plots here are mostly more connected to one another – different sides of one big plot, as it were, rather than separate threads altogether – but to be honest that doesn’t really help. Because we need everything to come together at the end and be important, and there’s just not enough narrative room. Why are the villains ultimately defeated, and by whom? In five different ways! By five different people! Wait, no, six! And that’s not including some minions of the villains being defeated for entirely unrelated reasons off to one side!
It feels almost as though Pratchett is intentionally lampshading the over-stuffed nature of the book. Much is made of the way there are now four witches in Lancre rather than the traditional three (Magrat may not longer fully count, but she still sort of does). Four witches is just too many, that’ll never work out. And indeed there are too many witches for this book, and too much stuff for this book.
It’s an exciting book, because it repeats the trick from Lords and Ladies of having the natural climax occur halfway through the novel. But although that trick was exciting in Lords and Ladies, it also probably contributed to a weak ending, and the same happens here as well. In order to top the middle of the book, the second half is just Epic Moment after Epic Moment, and while each Epic Moment is indeed Epic, there comes a point where all the Epic just becomes wearying and repetitive. It feels as though every page, everybody is shouting just a little louder than the page before…
And a big part of that unfortunately is the villains. Modern-thinking vampires (sorry, vampyres, it’s the modern way) are a good idea. They’re funny. They even manage to be quite menacing at times. But they’re also fundamentally silly. Überwald is, fundamentally, silly. It invites broad pastiche, which is not Pratchett’s best mode. But more importantly, Pratchett is trying to write one of his biggest, most dramatic, most epic novels of his career, and he’s trying to build that great powerful fortress on a foundation of, let’s face it, comedy clown custard. It’s just hard to really fully invest when the drama is founded on silly, old, derivative, slapstick-and-silly-voices humour.
That also brings out another of Pratchett’s perennial weaknesses: inconsistent villain strength. Often his enemies are defeated far too easily, with the author relying on legerdemain and panache to make the reader feel satisfied in their defeat, rather than using logic and pre-established weakness to make the defeat make sense. This is one of the worst cases of that (although there is a clever idea in there too), but in this case the problem isn’t limited to the end, but persists throughout. On the one hand, the vampires are the hopeless, camp idiots that the broad pastiche suggests they should be, and that all the other vampires we’ve seen in the other 22 novels are, but on the other hand they’re also portrayed as more or less gods, or more powerful even than gods, able to control the weather on a whim, to fly above the clouds, and to control the minds of all humans with barely an effort. But the same character cannot be Sauron’s big brother and the grandpa from the Munsters at the same time. At least, an author trying to present such an amalgam needs to do a much better job of it than this – Pratchett just lets the vampires here be as powerful or as weak as the plot (or the joke) demands.
This is a big contrast from the preceding great Witches finales. The nightmare fairy tales and voodoo of Witches Abroad may have been absurd, but they were never silly – they were intimidating and serious to the bitter end. Likewise the elves of Lords and Ladies felt like a genuine, and alien threat. Even in Maskerade, there is a grimy, human intensity. But in Carpe Jugulum – it’s all so silly! The joke about a dreaded castle with signs like ‘Don’t go near the Castle!’, ‘Last chance not to go near the Castle!’, ‘Don’t go near the coach park, 20 yards ahead on the right!’ and ‘Please enjoy our gift shop!’… well OK, it’s sort of funny, but it’s really hard to combine that sort of deflationary humour with the inflationary, melodramatic epic confrontation that’s about to happen.
Along the same lines, we have the idea of the urbane, unflappable villain – that’s great for when the villain is being menacing, but it’s a deadweight whenever we want stuff to actually happen. Characters like the Count, or indeed Vetinari, provide fantastic asides in moments of stillness, but the need for everything that happens to cut to a guy being urbane and witty makes it really hard to get excited whenever he’d onscreen.
And while I’m being annoyed: just tone it down, Pterry! OK, you have Opinions, we know. Small Gods got ranty enough at times, we don’t need the even more heavy-handed version. Pratchett’s politics here manage the trifecta of being preachy, objectionable and confused all at the same time! [In particular, I’m wearying of the Chestertonian ‘the peasants prefer it when the lords hunt them down and use them for meat, it’s better than this damn ‘democracy’ stuff!’ ranting; while Chesterton and his contemporaries did have a point about the value of traditions and the dangers of hegemonic radicalism, but the extreme ways he expressed this were not his best mode of rhetoric. And when someone takes something that already felt anachronistic and reactionary in 1915 and makes a less subtle and nuance version of it for us to read in 2015, that’s not a very nice aftertaste to leave in our minds.]
Perhaps I’d feel a bit better about the politics if at least he had a clear theme and stuck to it. But just like the plot, the theme feels like a bunch of stuff all jumbled up together.
Now, to reiterate, this isn’t a bad book. There’s a lot of good stuff here. The character development for Agnes seems… well, arbitrary and strange, compared to Maskerade (she becomes both stranger and less distinctive here), but we get lots of great Nanny and greater Granny, and it’s nice to catch up with Magrat too. The Omnian priest, Mightily Oats, is also interesting in his way, even if he is a vehicle for lecturing. The Granny stuff in particular feels like it could have been put in Lords and Ladies, which is quite a compliment. And I love both the idea and the imagery of the ‘gnarly ground’. And epic moments? Oh boy there are epic moments here, and powerful lines. Too many of them, unfortunately. On the other side, I really admired some of the humour here – the witches have always had a bawdy edge, but Pratchett really goes to town with the innuendo here, and cleverly too (there are few if any lines you couldn’t read to a child, but a lot of lines that might make a child’s parents cough).
In passing, I also appreciate Pratchett’s attempts to reestablish some worldbuilding coherence with Equal Rites, with mentions of both Bad Ass and Ohulan Cutash.
So there’s some great writing, but a lack of adequate thematic and structural planning, and it’s all built around a villainous core that just isnt’ sufficient for the task.
But none of that is the problem.
The problem is: you can’t write books about Granny anymore.
In Equal Rites, she was a cunning old woman with hidden power. In Weird Sisters, she was a serious threat to any villains. In Witches Abroad, we see a woman who could be a very serious villain herself if she wanted to be, and the match of probably almost any human on the Disc. In Lords and Ladies, she enters ‘legendary’ territory. Where on earth can you go from there? Maskerade took the only really viable route – put Granny up against people she ludicrously outmatches, slow her down by making culture shock the threat rather than villains, and distract the audience by focusing on a different character instead while Granny does her stuff in the background. Carpe Jugulum returns to home territory, and while the focus isn’t entirely on Granny there isn’t a single alternative protagonist to bear the weight of the book the way Agnes did in Maskerade. So there is no tension. Granny Weatherwax is going to win, even though it may look impossible. There’s no ‘I though that was impossible!’ moment for the audience here, because… it’s Granny. She’s legendary. She can do anything, and already has, so what’s one more impossibility?
It’s because Granny is too powerful that the vampires have to be too powerful as well. And because she’s too powerful, Pratchett has to work really hard to show other people contributing to the plot so that it’s not just ‘Granny doesn’t like something, Granny stomps on it, the end’.
She’s just too big for the page at this point. [At least, too big for ordinary challenges. Personally, I would have preferred a book that was just the character/psychological stuff from Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum – a book that is just about an old woman who is insanely wise and powerful but who is still in the end just an old woman alone in a cold old cottage in the forest. That side of Granny still interests me, her internal demons. The no-longer-threatening external demons, not so much.]
And to be fair, Pratchett clearly realised this problem. In the same way that after The Last Continent, he dropped Ridcully (or shunted him off to the Science of Discworld books, at least), after Carpe Jugulum he drops the witches out of rotation, which is a very good idea.
Unfortunately, that seems to push him to take Granny’s character development and suddenly shove it onto Captain Vimes instead, where it feels much less in keeping, but that’s a grip for another novel…
Regarding this novel: well, I think I’ve said all I can say. How about: Pratchett still has all his powers and Lancre is still an interesting setting, but this is the wrong plot with the wrong characters, and although it’s an entertaining book it’s also an unsatisfying and somewhat irritating one.
Adrenaline: 4/5. No complaints here. Trundles along at a good pace with some big set pieces.
Emotion: 3/5. Pushed up by the characters of Granny and to a lesser extent Nanny; but handicapped by the silliness and melodrama and over-busy plot, and the difficulty of really caring about the main events.
Thought: 4/5. I didn’t find Pratchett’s philosophising all that gripping. Then again, you have to give points when an author even tries to be philosophically interesting. Plus there’s the perennial ‘what loophole will Granny find next?’ puzzle.
Beauty: 4/5. This is actually in some respects a beautiful book. There are some great quieter moments, and some really good one-liners.
Craft: 3/5. The prose is as good as always if not better. There are some great little jokes. The character work for Granny and Nanny is very good. But there are also too many easy and over-familiar jokes, too many problems in the plotting, and some odd decisions.
Endearingness: 3/5. Some bits I really liked, some bits I really didn’t like.
Originality: 2/5. Pratchett always uses a lot of familiar ideas, and then does new things with them. In this case the ‘new things’ are things he’s already done, and the familiar ideas are often lazy.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD. That ended up more positive than seemed likely, didn’t it? I suppose it’s because there are a lot of good things in this book – it’s just that they’re things we’ve already seen in his other books, so it’s hard to find something new to say about them…
Anyway, it’s a good book, particularly if you don’t have some of his other books too vivid in your mind when you read it. It’s just that at times it feels like it should be a very good book, and for a variety of reasons it frustratingly never quite gets there.
It’s therefore better, in my opinion, than Jingo and The Last Continent, but still some distance below his best.