Another installment in my gradual Complete Discworld Reread project…
Opinions are strange things. We all disagree, and so vociferously, on so much, that we often forget that on most basic issues most of us are in complete agreement. By and large, conflict between dissenting views does not arise from fundamental differences in moral, aesthetic, or interpretive instincts – but simply from differences in how competing factors are weighted. Almost everyone wants liberty, for example, and almost everyone wants security, but how we balance one against the other differs from person to person. Most of us perhaps don’t think about this consciously, but it’s not controversial. It’s how political campaigning works. Candidates rarely try to change your opinion about this issue or that – instead, they try to frame elections in ways that highlight one issue (the one where you agree with them) and obscure another (the one where you disagree). It’s why care has to be taken when administering polls, surveys, questionnaires and so forth – even something as simple as changing the order of questions can change what it uppermost in your mind at any given time, which can change what seems to you the most important issue at the moment, changing your answer.
Which is a longwinded way of saying: this is going to be another of those “on the one hand, but on the other” reviews of late Discworld that I’ve been doing for a while now. And in this case, I’m going to put that in a slightly odd and perhaps too callous way: I think Thud! has improved considerably with the death of its author.
You see, going into this, I was not looking forward to Thud!. My memories of it were vague but negative, and were supported by hard evidence: after Thud! (and skipping Wintersmith because I wasn’t in the mood for For Younger Readers), I didn’t even bother going out and buying Making Money. It must have been bad!
And there are some straightforward flaws in the book. Some jokes are dragged out longer than they ought to be, and there are a couple of moments where I think things have been spliced together, or a tangent has been burst in editing, and the lines don’t seem to follow one another with perfect coherence. Partway through, I realised that 80% of the book is just people delivering lectures (mostly to Vimes). Most problematic, however, is the ending. After a considerable buildup, we have treated to a flabby anticlimax: first, a rapid and essentially motiveless hard turn into a premature ending; then a climax that might have been powerful with more buildup and with better timing, but that as it is is just weird and hollow; and then practically whole chapters of explanatory epilogue as the air flatulantly bubbles out of what remains of the story. Nor is there any particular cleverness, or even heroism, in how things turn out – everything just sort of works itself out, with the aid of mechanical gods both mystical and logistical emerging from below the stage. I’m not really sure Vimes actually accomplishes anything in the entire book – he just gets pushed around by events until things end. Now, Pratchett has never been a genius at endings – he often relies more on tenuous emotional and symbolic cadences than on sound logic and good pacing. But even by his standards this is week. It makes sense, mostly – but it doesn’t work.
I also, frankly, probably came to the novel on the wrong foot when I noticed it was a tie-in novel for his own merchandising (the board game, ‘Thud!’, rather clumsily shoehorned into the book and its title, was published a couple of years before the book). And I think I was a little irritated that the novel so obviously parodied The Da Vinci Code, which was mysteriously popular at the time, and seemed like too easy a target.
But that’s not why I remembered the book unfondly.
No, the problem is that when I read this, back in 2005, Terry Pratchett was alive, and Discworld was, as an auditor might say, A Going Concern. Inevitably, that sort of thing changes how we read books. Of course, my primary response was to how enjoyable, or otherwise, it was to read, but in the back of my head there was another, more difficult question: is this book taking the series in the right direction?
And back then, my feeling was, quite strongly, that it wasn’t.
Did the book take Vimes in an interesting direction, I asked myself? No, not really. During this re-read, I’ve come to the conclusion that The Fifth Elephant should have triggered his retirement, from his job if not entirely from the series, with Night Watch providing a fitting coda (perhaps set the day before his retirement? It would fit the nostalgia of the novel…); but even though I hadn’t thought that through consciously back then I knew that Vimes was a character who had been used more exhaustively than perhaps he could bare. This is the 7th Vimes novel, not counting secondary role appearances in three other books, and while the first few of those showed a clear progression of the character, that hadn’t been true for a while by the time of Thud!; the ‘inner’ plot of Thud! frankly just felt like a more impersonal retread of Night Watch, the outer status of Vimes in Thud! has not changed noticeably since Feet of Clay, and the conclusion of his storyline here is the same conclusion he faced in Men at Arms and Night Watch. There is nothing new here, either in where Vimes is or in who Vimes is. Except that he spends most of the book being irrationally angry, which frankly gets a little tiring.
So does the book do better service to Angua? No, no, no, the opposite of not no. Other than a couple of tangential interactions with the plot, Angua basically spends the entire novel having PMT (or PLT in her case). She spends the entire book being angry, jealous, and curmudgeonly, and a long stretch of it on a theoretically humorous girl’s night out talking about how pretty women often are hit on by annoying men while nice men feel intimidated, while the women around her talk about how much they love shoes. Neither Angua’s personal nor professional life particularly advances, and while that is actually lampshaded, nothing is done about that either. It would be unfair to say that the book misrepresents Angua’s character, in that I can see the established character doing and saying all these things. But the book does show her at her worst, at her pettiest and least secure – and she doesn’t get any plot importance or character development in exchange. To some extent, if Angua’s scenes here were placed back in Feet of Clay or Jingo, as some grumpy light relief they wouldn’t have been so egregious (there are some funny lines there) – but here, a decade later than Feet of Clay, it feels as though we’re not just stuck where we were, but we’ve actually somewhat regressed since the crisis (for her) of The Fifth Elephant. That’s not exactly unrealistic, but it’s not good storytelling, and it really frustrated me. It made me think that Pratchett had lost track of where he wanted to go.
Bear in mind here also: by this point, it had been six years and nine novels since we’d spent any substantial, non-cameo time with Angua. I wanted to see what had happened! Turns out, nothing had happened. Everything was the same as before, with a few more sexist assumptions thrown in.
[There’s nothing ridiculously egregious here, but I really wish Pratchett could just have restrained his grumpy-imperialist attitude just a little more around the edges. It’s just little things, but… after dozens of books downplaying the issue of race (reasonably by in-world standards: as he points out, when some of your neighbours have green skin, or are made of rock, human skin tone differences suddenly seem less exciting), it feels a bit weird to have the first black Watchman mentioned, as though human race has indeed been part of the Watch’s affirmative-action hiring policy. OK, so maybe it’s not a problem per se, they just turn up in the background and maybe they just reflect the general diversity (the same way Visit does – there’s no specific policy to hire religious people – although frankly I also wish there’d been more discussion about the way that guys like Fred refer to Visit with the very fuzzywuzzyesque moniker of ‘Washpot’)… but really, making the token black person a big, freakishly strong black woman called “Precious Jolson”… you’re not helping yourself here, Pterry. That helps set the context in which we receive the way you equate thuggery and vain bravado with “bling”, here called “clang”, and in RL England the subject of something of a moral panic at the time the novel was written. And that in turn calls attention to the way that the poorly-spoken dialect of the “stupid” trolls can all too easily be read as the voice of stereotypical black men. (I don’t think it was intended that way. I think it’s general “very working class” and stereotypical “stupid”, probably more influenced by Estuary than by AAVE, but… I’m not entirely sure, and that’s a bit of a problem).]
[Going back for a moment: Pterry does here briefly acknowledge the BDSM overtones of Angua’s character for the first time, winking to the audience with a silly but admittedly funny pun. But since he doesn’t actually develop this at all from Angua’s perspective – we really get surprisingly little of what Angua herself thinks about anything other than what’s immediately in front of her in this novel – I’m not sure that the wink is actually a good idea]
How about the other characters? Carrot? Hardly in it. Colon and Nobby? Get some good scenes, but don’t aren’t developed at all. Detritus has about one interesting paragraph in the book. Really, the book is something like 70% Vimes being angsty, 20% Angua being angsty, and 10% Colon and Nobby being comic relief. No-one else really get a look in.
The setting? There are two potentially massive developments in the setting, but one isn’t really addressed and the other is only mentioned in passing at the end (and seems a little setting-breaking, to be honest). More generally, the city neither changes nor is explored – indeed, the novel seems geographically much more constrained than some of its predecessors, other than the obvious exception near the end. There is some interesting development of the dwarves – but when that has to be overtly lampshaded with some “no honestly, we’re not retconning, these are a different sort of dwarf!” handwaving, it’s not a good sign.
To cut a long story short, I came to Thud! ten years ago hoping that the wobbly floorboards of Monstrous Regiment and Going Postal had successfully been navigated, and that we were now going to move ahead with the main Watch series. Instead… we didn’t. Instead, we got something that in many respects felt like reheated leftover scenes from earlier books, stitched together with some retconning, that at best took us nowhere new or interesting. And that had frankly too many basic problems as a book to excuse that crushing disappointment.
But now the man is dead. Discworld is not a going concern – Discworld is something fixed, locked, calcified (if those of you who have read the book will excuse the pun). Discworld isn’t going anywhere. Thud! may be a wasted opportunity but it doesn’t really lead the series in the wrong direction because there will only be one more Watch novel ever written, and that will be extremely Vimes-focused. It doesn’t matter whether you’re heading toward a cliff in a mile or two, once you know that you’re so low on fuel that you’ll comes to a stop in a few hundred metres.
In other words, this time I didn’t come to Thud! looking for my next installment of plot and character progression. This time, I came to Thud! knowing that this would be a last hurrah for many of these characters. And from that perspective, the novel is really rather different…
Oh, how good it was to be back with Vimes and Angua, and Carrot and Colon and Nobby and Detritus, and Vetinari and Ridcully (Ridcully! Pratchett never gave us enough Ridcully…) and all the others! Sure, the ending doesn’t really work, but for most of the novel we get plenty of tension and excitement, and plenty of mystery and intriguing puzzlement. The exploration of dwarven culture may be a little suspect, but it’s meaty, much meatier than anything we were given in recent volumes. And dear lord, it’s just funny. Thud! is packed with a continual supply of beautiful lines, puns, wit, slapstick, deadpans, irony, absurd situations… it’s almost constantly smile-inducing and at times it’s laugh-out-loud.
This novel is so much better than I remember it being, because it is just so much fun.
All you have to do is: don’t think that this is an attempt to continue the story. Think: the story is over. This is an epilogue to the story, just a little snippet of Our Heroes going about their daily lives and jobs. Is it sort of pointless, sort of repetitive? Yes! It makes a terrible Next Chapter. But that’s not what it is. This isn’t a pivotal episode – this is one of those interchangeable but enjoyable episodes of a longrunning series, one of the ones thaat isn’t too memorable but where you spend the time with a smile on your face because you’re watching characters you love do the things you love them to do (or, in the case of Angua, the things it’s just funny to watch her have to go through). You don’t want the whole series to be like this, but as a one-off episode taking time off from the larger arc, it’s great. [The obvious comparison here is Jingo, another funny but unfulfilling Watch novel, which really feels like a time-out from the arc, and specifically from a MAA-FOC-TFE trilogy. Thud! is considerably better than Jingo, I think]
It’s just that having episodes come out six years apart makes that kind of episode intensely frustrating when you’re watching it live. In other words, this is a novel that works better when binge-watching.
Adrenaline: 4/5. Tense, with a strong sense of forward motion; never exactly thrilling, though. It might help if some of the characters were ever in real jeopardy. Or if we knew what was going on.
Emotion: 2/5. Not one of Pterry’s tearjerkers.
Thought: 3/5. The general Moral about tolerance and understanding and peace is rather trite; but the continual sense of mystery and confusion does keep the mental wheels spinning throughout.
Beauty: 4/5. The series seems to have picked itself up after the at-times-rather-dreamy Going Postal and shaken some blood into its limbs; the downside is that there’s less opportunity for beautiful vista and poignant ruminations. Nonetheless, this is still Pratchett.
Craft: 4/5. I’m going to politely ignore some of the weakness of the ending, on account of the amount of with that Pratchett displays here, which at times is dazzling: there was some line worth quoting on nearly every page. Then again: the ending. And a few seams showing. And clearly not knowing what on earth to do with that Angua subplot…
Endearingness: 3/5. The things that work, work really well. But there are too many flaws to love it, and in particular I can’t give too high a score to a novel that so badly underserves such great and beloved characters.
Originality: 3/5. 34 novels in, the ideas are really starting to creek. Fortunately, the sheer complexity of the plot ensures that it can still surprise.
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. I was very wrong about the quality of the book, going on the basis of my memory alone – though I may not have been wrong in what it meant for the cycle as a whole. If you can ignore that lingering fear of decline that inevitably hangs over the last installments of a great series trundling toward its end, not worry too much about repetition from the past nor keep one eye on the future, then Thud! is actually a pretty good book. If this were my first Pratchett – well, I’d be very confused, but I’d also be blown away. It’s just that we know that ‘good’ isn’t the upper limit of the series, and our standards are sometimes unreasonable high as a result.
Grumpy gripes aside, I really enjoyed re-reading this.