Permit me a slightly fanciful new classification of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. There are novels that, it feels, he wrote because he needed to write a new book: books like The Last Continent, for example. There are novels that, it feels, he wrote because he had what he thought was a cool idea for a book, like Feet of Clay or Maskerade. There are novels that it feels as though he wrote because there was something he wanted to write about – Soul Music, for example, or Jingo. And then there are a small number of novels that, I can’t help but feel, he wrote because he was born to write them. The Colour of Magic, oddly, is one of those books – it may not be one of his best novels, but it’s one I can’t possibly imagine anybody else (or even the same author at any other time in his life) writing. Another is Small Gods, his widely-acknowledged magnum opus.
And a third is Night Watch.
It’s hard for me to work out exactly what is so good – and more importantly than good, so perfect – about Night Watch. The differences between this and the surrounding novels are much less clear than, for example, the specificities of The Colour of Magic or Small Gods. The Colour of Magic, you can say: this is the author running completely wild, ideas sparking from his head too quickly to be captured, a brilliant (if superficial and limited) display of erudition, wit, and absurdity. Small Gods is easy to pick out: it’s the one where the author takes on Big Important Themes. Pratchett versus Religion.
But what really makes these singular, I think, is their role in his oeuvre. All the weirdness strange references and flashes of brilliance in very early Pratchett, they all seem in hindsight like training for, or attempts to imitate, The Colour of Magic. Likewise, Pratchett’s period in which he seemed obsessed with narratives, with the danger (and yet salvific power) of myth, with the conflict between the human heart and the uncaring universe (sociopolitical as well as cosmological), these themes all make sense – more than that, are required – when you put them together in Small Gods and its epic of faith and doubt, empires and deserts. This peculiar property, this fitness, this property of culmination, the way that the keystone is beautiful not only in its own right but for its perfectly-calculated essential place in the arch, is not the same as these being the best of his books. I thought The Colour of Magic was good in its way, but far from his best, and so far the Discworld novel that I’ve rated highest has been Lords and Ladies, which does not have this property at all (quite the opposite, a lot of its charm is in its strangely non-fitting, chaotic, unexpected quality). But it is something, and something quite striking.
And in the same way, Night Watch feels like a book that’s much bigger than its covers. It makes things make sense. Not necessarily a very coherent sense, perhaps, but that’s probably the point…
At its heart is Sam Vimes. Over the course of five novels so far, he has grown into one of the dominating figures of the Discworld, as his rivals – like Rincewind, Ridcully, Granny Weatherwax, Susan StoHelit and all the rest – have fallen by the wayside. But he has never really, let’s be honest, made sense. He’s been an uninterrogated aggregation of tropes and images, a mélange of masculinities – he’s been idealist, cynic, conservative and liberal, preserver and progressive, kind and cruel, wise and foolish – he’s been Eastwood, Bogart, Connery, Peck, and every cigar-chewing icon of tough-but-good maleness. And it’s only around the edges that we’ve wondered: does this really all make sense as a human being?
In Night Watch, Pratchett tackles that head-on. Does Vimes make sense? Does the broken alcoholic we meet in Guards! Guards! really make sense as the assassin-foiling ice-cool commander of the later books? Can Vimes really reconcile his self-image as an underdog, a man of the common people, a man of the streets, a thorn in the side of tyrants, with the man who, in The Fifth Elephant, happily threatens people with the equivalent of a howitzer in order to enforce his nation’s interests over other cultures? In Night Watch, Pratchett asks these questions – and, what’s more, he has Vimes himself ask these questions. And the answer, quite frankly, is no. No, Vimes does not make sense… but by the end of the novel, he makes a human sort of nonsense. The competing elements in Vimes’ soul cannot really be reconciled, but they can be understood within his context, as a man trying to do good in an evil world, even if he’s never quite sure what ‘good’ might be. All he can be certain of is that he sure as hell doesn’t trust any other bugger’s agenda…
And to provide the light that makes Vimes’ jumble of contradictions look like an understandable human response, we need the right backdrop. Every character is only understandable within their context, and for so long we have not understood Vimes’ context. Oh, we’ve seen little glimpses in his memories here and there, a poor childhood on the streets and so forth, and these moments have been some of the most powerful passages in his novels. But fundamentally Vimes has been a man out of his place, out of his element, and out of his time. And, paradoxically, he has grown comfortable there.
Night Watch develops the character of Vimes by simultaneously putting him back in his context – showing us the historical world in which Vimes was not out of place, or at least was out of place in a harmonious, constructive way – and taking him out of his place of comfort. And in the process we are taken out of our place of comfort too. I’ve mentioned in passing I think how some of the novels in this part of the cycle make me imagine them in expressionist tones, all Dutch angles, deep, grotesque shadows, monotone… and Night Watch is the culmination of that. This is Discworld, but not as we know it. The Disc has grown safe, and comfortable, and ordinary, and civilised – wasn’t that the theme of The Last Hero as well? But in The Last Hero, Pratchett is still thinking of civilisation and barbarism as opposites, as alternative worlds. Taking the action away from the world of barbarians and gods and putting it back into the world of secret policemen and of barricades gives us a much more powerful and more frightening vision: the barbarism that can exist within civilisation. Pratchett’s hinted at that before, but only in a genteel way, an odd bit of brutality before supper, a madman being evil over tea and biscuits. But in Night Watch, we see it in full bay, the banality of man’s horrific inhumanity to man – not with gore, not with shocks, just with an atmosphere. And the trick of it all? He shows us nothing that we haven’t seen before. This is the Disc we know. This is the Ankh-Morpork we know, more or less. The only difference is that now the lights are low, and the shadows are very, very long in the streets. It’s like looking – and I think that Pterry gave me this metaphor, though I’m not sure from where exactly – at a beloved pet dog, fluffy and content, and realising that behind its eyes is a primordial hunter, the big bad wolf of our dark tales and nightmares.
Because it’s not just Vimes’ history at play here. This isn’t just the culmination of the story of Vimes. Vimes isn’t the only one whose character has been full of contradictions. Another, even more important character, has been a fundamental mystery: the city of Ankh-Morpork itself. We have seen Vetinari dragging the city into modernity, and we have seen, way back in The Colour of Magic, a glimpse of its age-of-heroes past. But how have we gone from there to here? What is the city’s biography? More: Night Watch, as it were, shows us the anatomy of the city. Why are these bones there? What does the spleen do, and do we really need it? It’s like the tour guide who takes us around and shows us these seemingly random bits of old stone wall and explains this is where the archers stood, that was the killing field. Things make sense that didn’t previously even seem in need of explanation. Take the prostitutes, for instance. They’ve always been there, the Guild of Seamstresses, a nudge and a wink in the background, doesn’t it make sense that they’re an important guild? And Mrs Palm, their leader, well of course she’s a respected and rather feared lady about town. It makes sense, in a rather prim and whitewashed kind of way. But Night Watch comes along and says: no, now it makes sense. Before it may have been logical, but now it makes sense. Now she makes sense, in the way that even the most respectable, uninteresting older people can suddenly and simultaneously become both a puzzle and their own solution, once you learn who they once were – who, under the respectability, they are. Oh, sure, Pratchett is never going to go full social realism on us, particularly in the arena of… seamstressing. But the prostitutes of Night Watch are as realistic as he is likely to get – and, refreshingly, are neither the joyous, friendly girls of reactionary fantasies nor the helpless, possibly brainwashed victims of many well-meaning progressive fantasies. [Admittedly, the lady politely accused of ‘bespoke tailoring’ is closer to being larger-than-life… but then, women like her often really were larger than life [a tangential observation: centuries now of progressive, philanthropic concern have done nothing to eliminate prostitution; all we have succeeded in doing is eliminating prostitutes from positions of power and prestige… or perhaps our objective has been to remove them from positions of visibility, visibility as persons and agents, so that generalisations one way or another can safely be made about them as a collective…]] Similarly, other long-time fixtures of the city, like Vetinari, or Slant, or Downey and the Assassins, or Reg Shoe, or the Watch itself, suddenly all come into sharper and more tragic and/or menacing focus. It feels as though this is the novel Ankh-Morpork was born to be the setting for. The rest of the series has been building up the mask that this novel has briefly dropped.
But it isn’t just that this new old setting is important within the context of the series. It also breathes a powerful life into the novel in itself. Reading Night Watch, I remembered just how safe and dull Ankh-Morpork is now, the Discworld is now… the status quo may be threatened, but the status quo is rarely a threat. The changes – and hence the threats – that occur in Discworld are intentionally slow, sociological – there are a lot of institutions slowly reforming, a lot of promises and warnings for the future. But there’s often not a lot actually happening, on the big scale – this is for the most part, with a few exceptions, the opposite of epic fantasy. Perhaps in a way that goes back to the roots of the series: after all, if Ankh-Morpork is at heart the city that barbarians visit between their adventures… those places don’t exist to be locations of events. They exist for backstory, for downtime, for explaining where the hero bought such-and-such. Pratchett moved the emphasis onto the city, onto the common man, but then the common man doesn’t do much either. The common man is a great slow behemoth.
But you know when the common man becomes frighteningly fast-moving? When cities become hives of activity? In a revolution…
The revolutionary context of the novel provides a real sense of threat, and a real sense of stakes – Ankh-Morpork is really being fought over here, or rather Ankh-Morpork is really fighting here, not just waiting on the sidelines to offer the heroes tea and biscuits. It also, strangely, provides both a sense of specificity – something the city often, probably intentionally, lacks – and of timelessness. It feels as though we are tapping into a transcendent moment, the moment when revolutions happen. There are echoes of the Commune, of ’48 and ’68, of Peterloo and Tonypandy, and more recently of the Troubles and the Miner’s Strike, but something older too, all those mediaeval and renaissance fears. The name of the secret police captain, for example, Findthee Swing – the obvious reference is to the mythical Captain Swing of the 1830s (the name used by anti-technology fighters to sign threat and denunciations toward capitalists – Pratchett was clearly on an ‘early 19th century revolutionaries’ kick at this point, with Swing and Peterloo in this book, and the hero of Thief of Time named after King Ludd himself…), but the strange first name is surely designed to make us think of the puritans*, and perhaps by extension of Popish Plot.
Night Watch is moving, interesting, exciting, and funny. That’s not to say that it’s perfect. I think the biggest issue is the way that the central conceit of the novel is handled, with – in my opinion – far too much time devoted to the Monks explaining things (badly). I think we’ve established already that I don’t find the Monks anywhere near as funny as Pterry does, unfortunately, and I don’t believe the conceit is so complicated or unusual as to require such lengthy explanations, which are as likely to confuse as to elucidate, and break the pacing of the whole. It’s also possible to complain that some threads seem under-developed, like the role of Carcer – but then, maybe that’s the point, that the story is much more about Vimes than about Carcer – and I wasn’t convinced by the bland portrayal of Vimes in his younger days, while the cigar case thing seemed unnecessary and cliché. More generally, it sometimes felt as though the novel was trying to be too much – too many characters, too much action – for its slender wordcount. I might have preferred a more concentrated novel that really gave use a more detailed view of characters like Rosie, Lawn, Lady Meserole, young Sam, Ned and so on – not necessarily all of them (that would become too big again) but just picking a place to dig into and digging into it.
Actually, maybe what I’m saying is that I’d prefer to read about this setting, and these characters, than about much of the Discworld we know and love. We could easily have had several novels out of this, rather than one. I don’t think Pratchett would ever have considered that – it’s not his modus operandi – but as it was I kind of felt as though I were on a whistlestop tour…
Then again, leaving the audience wanting more is usually one sign of a good book… and Night Watch is a very good book indeed (though sadly I don’t think it would mean as much to those who are not already established fans of the series).
Adrenaline: 4/5. Perhaps it’s a little too leisurely to be perfect, but for the most part this is a compelling, threatening story.
Emotion: 4/5. I can’t say I cried or anything, but there is certainly an unusual emotional depth and resonance to this novel, filled as it is with many reflections on death and aging and the passage of time (and the things that stay the same).
Thought: 4/5. Vimes’ moral and political connundra are never decisively answered – but that’s the point. The novel revisits the ideas of Carpe Jugulum regarding the necessity of judgement, but takes a much more nuanced view, as Vimes struggles to reconcile the need to bring an end to violence and tyranny with the tyranny and violence that such a struggle will itself require.
Beauty: 5/5. Pratchett is operating at his elegaic best.
Craft: 5/5. A novel that fits together brilliantly, and is brilliantly written (and continuously quotable).
Endearingness: 4/5. Perhaps it’s a little dark for me to love, not comforting, and Vimes is too isolated, without the softer edges the rest of the Watch provide. That, of course, is the point.
Originality: 4/5. As always, you can point to Pratchett’s sources, but this time that seems less like a process of homage, and more like the author tapping in to something timeless and eternally relevant.
Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT.
I don’t think many people would disagree that this is one of Pratchett’s greatest novels; perhaps the greatest of all. Probably the greatest of them all.