Saturday, July 18, 2009

Four Discworld Novels

Monstrous Regiment
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

The land of Borogravia is at war. So what else is new? Borogravia is a mad country, always at war with somebody. Their religion is mad, serving the decrees of a senile god whose ever-growing list of abominations includes oysters, babies, cheese, and the color blue. Their government is mad, headed by a duchess whose likeness is everywhere but whose living face hasn't been seen in years. And right now, they are particularly mad at the neighboring land of Zlobenia, whose prince is the heir to their throne. Only this time, the customary war over a few miles of territory (which change sides of the border as often as the river floods its banks) has become a world war, since Borogravia's latest territorial frenzy threatens the economic interests of Ankh-Morpork.

Watch Commander Sam Vimes, also styled the Duke of Ankh, has come to this Balkan-like hotbed of nationalistic and religious conflict, to see what can be done to restore the balance of power. Meanwhile, something weird is happening within Borogravia itself, something that may do Vimes' job for him.

It begins when an innkeeper's daughter named Sally Perks cuts her hair, dresses in men's clothing, and joins the army under the name Oliver, a.k.a. Ozzer. All it takes is a well-placed pair of socks to make the ruse complete. Sally hopes to find her simple-minded, artistic brother Paul before the war kills him. But her hopes shrink when she realizes that her squad comprises the last recruits in the whole country.

No one wants to be disloyal and say Borogravia is losing the war, but all signs indicate that Zlobenia is invading, the population is fleeing, and the army is being slaughtered. The country's last, desperate hope lies in a handful of raw recruits, led by the fearsome Sergeant Jackrum - recruits who include a troll, an Igor, an arsonist, a religious fanatic, and a vampire who drinks coffee instead of blood. More significantly, Sally slowly comes to realize that the entire squad is made up of females in disguise - each joining for a different reason, from searching for a runaway lover to fleeing scenes of terror and abuse.

Thus Monstrous Regiment becomes Discworld's latest satire of gender politics, with an anti-war message stirred in. Even though women playing "pants roles" is an Abomination Unto Nuggan, the practice turns out to be surprisingly widespread. And while one small group of scared soldiers eludes an entire enemy army in a daring bid to save their country, Pratchett points up the madness of war in an adventure full of vivid characters, roaringly funny jokes, measured doses of naughtiness, and provocative ideas. Wrapped in the unique fantasy stylings of Discworld, in which magic is a basis for technology and the undead are a cultural minority, it shapes up to a highly entertaining package.

Going Postal
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

If you had a name like Moist von Lipwig, you would probably change it. Especially if you were a con artist with a forgettable face and a criminal mind. Moist changes more than his name. He changes his appearance, changes his address, and with his gift of persuasion he changes the net worth of a lot of people, usually by taking advantage of their innate greed. Through one scam after another Moist has become very rich, but he keeps working his trade anyway, because he enjoys doing it.

All that ends, however, when the Watch of Ankh-Morpork catches up with him. Arrested and tried under the alias Alfred Spangler, he is sentenced to be hanged. The rope goes around his neck. The floor drops out under his feet. The next thing Moist knows, he is sitting in the office of the Patrician. Lord Vetinari tells him that Alfred Spangler has been buried, but Moist von Lipwig has a chance to start over. The catch: he must get the city's long-defunct Post Office back in working order. Four of Vetinari's best men have died trying. If Moist follows their example, he won't be missed. But if he succeeds...

Well, that could be pretty dangerous too. The revival of Post Office comes as bad news to the powerful, greedy, and unscrupulous owners of the Grand Trunk, the company that runs the clacks. Having carried out a hostile takeover and ruined the people who built the clacks, the directors want to get as much money out of it as they can before they run it into the ground. Then, they intend to sell it to themselves and make even more money off it. This especially goes for the evil Reacher Gilt, who doesn't care how many dead bodies he has to step over. And if he has his way, one of those bodies will belong to Moist von Lipwig.

While the Grand Trunk teeters on the edge of collapse, haunted by the spirits of dead clacksmen, the Post Office has already gone over the edge. When Moist moves in, he finds a huge building stuffed with undelivered letters going back sixty years. The only postal employees are an old man who marinades himself in home remedies, a slightly disturbed youngster who worships pins, and a senile cat. Guarded by a golem parole officer, Moist quickly begins changing things. He invents postage stamps. He gets the mail coaches going again. He manages the maelstrom of publicity that begins to swirl around him.

Ancient postal workers come out of retirement. A new romance is kindled. Ghostly apparitions, fiery disasters, and heavily wagered races with the clacks keep things running at a thrilling pace. Elaborate tricks, grisly assassination attempts, and a mail sorting system that bends the laws of reality, add spice to a parade of Terry Pratchett's most vibrant characters. When Discworld goes postal, it doesn't go halfway. As it introduces yet another recurring hero to the Discworld universe, this book shows that even after 28 novels, Pratchett's powers of invention are still matched only by the energy of his wit and the depth of his insights.

by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

He doesn't like to be called Your Grace. Commander Vimes, or sir, will do. This is what Sam Vimes tells the little man who comes to write a report on the procedures of the City Watch. Procedures that will be tested to the extreme as an age-old conflict between dwarfs and trolls threatens to break out anew in the streets of Ankh-Morpork.

Thousands of years ago, those two races fought in the battle of Koom Valley. No one knows for sure which side ambushed the other. Combined with a huge storm and the flood that followed, the battle wiped out both sides, down to a single dwarf who survived just long enough to plant a rumor that some kind of treasure was hidden on the battleground. To this day, dwarfs and trolls continue to fight the Battle of Koom Valley. No one knows where the treasure lies or what it is. And as both races make up a growing part of the city's population, there's no telling what might turn Ankh-Morpork into another Koom Valley.

When an extremist dwarf cleric, or grag, is found murdered with a troll club lying nearby, that simmering enmity threatens to boil over. Vimes realizes that only good police work can stop a war from happening. Angry crowds of dwarfs and trolls have to be kept away from each other. Proud, reclusive grags who consider humans to be a bad dream must be persuaded to cooperate with the investigation. A detecting team of the dwarf-human Captain Carrot, the werewolf Sergeant Angua, and a lance constable whose black ribbon means she abstains from drinking blood, must work together to follow the evidence - whether it leads to a troll or not. And Vimes must, at all costs, get home by six o'clock to read Where's My Cow? to Young Sam, or there will be hell to pay.

The tragic story of a mentally disturbed painter combines with increasingly fascinating glimpses into two fantasy-world cultures to drench this 30th full-blown Discworld novel in the magic of color. Pratchett uses verbal description to paint a detailed portrait of the city with all its multi-layered complexity, and of the Koom Valley in all its menacing splendor. He populates his canvas with a multitude of characters, each blazing with vitality and moving on a distinct trajectory. The action, the magic, the suspense, the tragedy, and the comedy mix together relentlessly like exploding kernels of popcorn, while the underlying anti-war and anti-drug messages shine through unobscured. He paints in utterly believable details, from troll graffiti ("Mr. Shine! Him Diamond!") to a father's love for his small son. And when the last brush-stroke is added, you will see a word-picture in which broad laughs combine with deep emotion and challenging ideas. A picture which, like the painting in the story, seems to surround you and gather you in.

Making Money
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

This second Moist von Lipwig novel also seems to be the last book in the long-running Discworld series. It's a pity, too. For even after so many years and so many books, this one seems full of youthful energy and the promise of things to come.

Moist von Lipwig has transformed the Post Office of Ankh-Morpork from a bottomless pit of undelivered mail into a fast-paced, successful mail service. Even the clacks service, under his control, has almost begun to break even. But with complete success comes a lack of new challenges. For a man like Moist, who has always lived dangerously, boredom can be deadly.

So Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of the city, challenges Moist to take on a new responsibility: to rejuvenate the struggling banking and monetary system. Though the Postmaster General initially balks, he soon finds this is one of those offers one can't refuse. Before he knows what he's doing, Moist is taking the new chairman of the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork for walkies. Yes, the heir to 51% of the bank's stock is a dog. And the heir to the dog is Moist von Lipwig.

Thrust unwillingly into this position, Moist quickly begins to make the best of it. His ideas include moving the city off the gold standard, printing paper money, paying more interest to small depositors, and lending more money to people who need it. But the banking community hates change. Soon Moist is in mortal danger as the Lavish family, shareholders in the Royal Bank, pauses in its internal squabbles and focuses its hostility on him. Plus, someone who knows about Moist's criminal past has come to town with blackmail on his mind. The chief cashier, who has his own dark past, plots against Moist. And Moist's girlfriend, the ironically named Adora Belle Dearheart, has dug up a treasure of her own - one that could turn the whole world upside down.

Pratchett combines a primer on monetary policy with a swift-paced tale of danger, intrigue, magical weirdness, laugh-out-loud humor, and romance. His wit is so sharp that, as always, I have to arm-wrestle myself to avoid quoting dozens of bits that I particularly liked. Since I've been so good, having abstained from quotes in the last few reviews, I'll indulge myself in just one. You tell me whether you can resist a book in which Sergeant Colon of the Watch says:
"Now, you see, that was good... He went right through the cab window without touching the sides and bounced off that bloke creepin' up. Very nice roll as he landed, I thought, and he still had hold of the little dog the whole time. Done it before, I shouldn't wonder. Nevertheless, I'm forced, on balance, to consider him a twit."

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