(Part of my ongoing project to re-read all the Discworld novels.)
I’ll say it upfront: I’m disappointed. Firstly because Men at Arms follows a blisteringly brilliant run of Pratchet, from the final section of Witches Abroad, through the whole of Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, and stopping off at the non-Discworld Only You Can Save Mankind (which, OK, isn’t actually brilliant, but is much better than a lightweight children’s novella about computer games has any right to be) along the way. And secondly because I remember it as one of my favourites, and have been really looking forward to it.
And in the early going, I have to say I was worried. Men at Arms shows some disturbing signs of author burnout; in particular, it’s battered and beseiged by a constant stream of terribly, end-of-pier-quality jokes, with half the lines feeling like set-ups for an obvious punchline. It also doesn’t help that this book is sodden with movie references. Pratchett’s always been into bad puns, and Guards! Guards!, this novel’s predecessor, was packed both with lines from films and with a high rate of punchlines, but in Men at Arms, particularly early on, the lines have lost their zing, and lines that would be funny in their own right, delivered without warning, become tiresome in the middle of… routines. It feels like an attempt to get back to the zany humour after the relatively Big and Important Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but I didn’t feel it really worked. There were several laugh-out-loud moments in this book – but most of them weren’t actually the overt ‘jokes’.
More – and in a way less – importantly, this is the first time I felt some editing was required. There’s a handful of occasions when things happen or are said that seem out of character, or that contradict other things (in particular, one confusing and almost certainly mistaken passage where the watchmen are deliberating that really shook my confidence that the author was totally in control).
And yet… disappointed I may be, thanks to my impossibly high expectation, yet I did end up really liking this book.
Why? Well, let’s be honest here, one big part of the reason is very obvious, unavoidable, and I guess not entirely generalisable to all readers: it’s got a sexy, kickass, smartarse tomboy werewolf girl in it, and thus I am genetically unable to dislike it. To give that bias a veneer of respectability, it should be mentioned that Pratchett handles her extremely well: the tomboy heroine trope is hidden within a realistic and complex personality, and the way he writes werewolves makes me want to go read more werewolf novels, taking as he does more from real wolves and less from stale folklore.
[Tangent: I think feminists would generally like Pratchett. He writes a lot of strong and diverse female characters – Witches Abroad, for instance, has a large but almost entirely female cast. But I do wonder how some elements toward the end of Men at Arms would play with that audience…]
But there’s more to it than just her. Another big part of it is the plot, which may start off a little unsure but is rocketing along by the second half – although Pratchett is not at his best here in integrating some of the tangential elements. The weight of this is largely borne by the character of Corporal Carrot, a man who is ‘simple’, but not ‘stupid’. Carrot is an incredible character (arguably the greatest hero character in Fantasy), and this book is probably his showpiece.
That’s why I remember loving it: two of Pratchett’s best characters getting plenty of screentime (plus Vimes, of course, though he feels a bit marginalised here), a plot that ends up being fun, and some great moments, images and lines. Unfortunately, while it’s not exactly a trivial or superficial book, it doesn’t feel that it has the depth of recent installments, and the plot isn’t robust enough, and the jokes not funny enough, to fully plug that gap, and the experience of re-reading the book couldn’t entirely live up to that aggregate memory of all the great moments. A book like Small Gods has great moments, but is a great book because those moments are just the polish on something that underlyingly has no major flaws, no bad bits – Men at Arms has the good bits, but lacks the same foundation, and must rely a little more on audacity and charisma to pull you through, to cast a glamour over the reader.
I don’t want to sound too critical. Read in isolation, I’d have been thrilled with this book. It was one of my favourites, and I’m sure I’ll go back to thinking of it as one of my favourites soon, once I forget the ropier details. It’s certainly more than worth reading; indeed, from anyone other than Pratchett, this would be a fine book. Perhaps even from any time period of Pratchett other than this one. But coming as it does after two of the best books in the series, it’s hard not to make invidious comparisons. And this book… isn’t quite at that level, I’m afraid.
Adrenaline: 3/5. The later portions are fairly exciting, but it’s a bit slow to get going.
Emotion: 4/5. Unfortunately, over-familiarity has blunted some of the emotional impact of the book – not helped by Pratchett’s unwillingness to let certain scenes breathe, his determination to press on with the plot. So to be honest this was a 3. But I’m marking it up to a 4, because I remember being much more affected by it on previous readings.
Thought: 3/5. Largely eschews big themes and ideas in favour of narrative, though of course between the philosophical musing and the hidden allusions to spot – and this time a murder mystery as well – Pratchett is never a brainless read.
Beauty: 3/5. Some fantastic images, some great lines… but also some quite bad lines.
Craft: 4/5. It’s hard to pin it down, but I just didn’t think Pratchett seemed on top form here, or completely in control. Too many jokes were misses, too many moments made me question the characterisation, I found it too easy to spot when we were going done a rabbithole that had nothing to do with the plot and was just shoved in to provide an excuse for some scene or other Pratchett felt like including.
Endearingness: 4/5. A bit of ropiness prevents me from loving the book. I do, however, love two, maybe three, of the main characters, so reading this will always be a pleasure.
Originality: 3/5. Like Guards! Guards! before it, this one does rely heavily on established narratives; that makes sense for it, as it’s often using those narratives satiricially, or at least parodically, but it means it doesn’t have quite the sparkle of novelty that some of Pratchett has, and at times it’s even a bit predictable. But there’s still enough of the Pratchett spark to make it feel like it’s own thing.
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. I may be being a bit harsh here, thanks both to reading it in its place in the series and to having probably read this one more often than the others. Maybe, for instance, that 4/5 for endearingness should be pushed up to 5/5, if I factor out my being a little jaded at this point. And that would probably be enough to push it up to ‘Very Good’. But either way, it’s on the edge of Good/Very Good. Which I may be disappointed with in the moment, but is no mean accomplishment in the bigger scheme of things. A little perversely, my individual scores actually suggest that this is a worse book than Guards! Guards!, which I’d never have said if asked – then again, maybe that’s fair, maybe Men at Arms is a less robust book that I just happen to think of as better because I prefer its style a little (I know others who think Guards! Guards! is among the best in the series, for instance).
(Yeah, sorry for the terse review. After fourteen Discworld novels it gets hard to find things to say about them, unless they’re particularly standout examples for better or worse.)