Sunday, March 30, 2008

Terry Pratchett, Part 5

The Discworld Series (cont'd.)
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Age: 14+


The 21st Discworld novel centers, once again, on Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. This time the adventure begins with a lost continent (actually, a small island) emerging in the middle of the sea between Ankh-Morpork and the dark continent of Klatch. Both countries make claims on the territory and a Klatchian prince is sent to Ankh-Morpork to hash it out with Lord Vetinari, the Patrician. But wouldn't you know it, there's an attempt on the prince's life, and at first it looks like someone from Klatch hired the would-be assassins in order to start a war, and then it looks as though someone from Ankh-Morpork was only trying to make it look that way... and Vimes is determined to get to the bottom of things.

It doesn't help, though, that the city is gung-ho for war against Klatch, which means hate crimes against Klatchian immigrants and a palace coup that puts a more military-minded person in charge of the city (a total idiot named Lord Rust, who I think is the head of the Historians Guild). Vimes, Carrot, and a handful of other Watchmen follow a trail of clues (and suspects) to Klatch, while Rust leads an army to what anyone but himself can see is certain defeat, and Colon, Nobby, Vetinari, and übergenius Leonard da Quirm go by submarine (!!!) to work out their own plan--which includes pretending to be clowns, and having Nobby dress in drag.

Amid the clash of crime-fighting, military, and political world views, as well as bits that cast Carrot as a Discworld Lawrence of Arabia, there is also fun, excitement, palace intrigue, and a talking dayplanner that is somehow getting signals from a parallel universe so that (at a moving point in the climax of the story) Vimes listens to news of his own death and that of all of his officers--most crushingly, I think, Carrot.

Three basic moral lessons seem to come up in this book. First, imperialistic jingoism is stupid and wrong. Second, the pride and avarice of men turn potentially minor problems into wars, in which the meaningless deaths of thousands does not seem to register in the minds of leaders. This too is stupid and wrong. And finally, good men, men of integrity, cannot endure being used by others to perpetrate a lie or commit a cowardly crime.

The Last Continent

The 22nd Discworld book is a bizarre story. Rincewind, you may or may not remember, was accidentally sent to the isolated continent of XXXX at the end of Interesting Times. Maybe I've said it before, but I just love Rincewind. His very name has the ring of someone who spends a lot of time running with his robes flapping behind him, usually with a rictus of horror fixed on his face. He is a terrible wizard (I mean, he isn't at all good at magic) but he has seen more of the world than anyone else (albeit at more or less of a blur) and he has survived more dangers and saved the world more times than a fistful of mighty heroes, all by an incredible streak of dumb luck and the gift of running really really fast.

Well, as The Last Continent opens, the orangutan Librarian at Unseen University, Ankh-Morpork, Discworld, is gravely ill. Whatever bug he has causes him to change shapes whenever he sneezes, so he spends only half the time in his usual simian shape and the other half as a succession of other animals, pieces of furniture, and inanimate objects. The inner circle of wizards at UU are deeply concerned and can only think of one spell that can save him. Only, it requires knowing the Librarian's name.

The Librarian used to be a human being, you know, it was a magical accident in the course of his duties in the library that resulted in him becoming an orangutan, and his fondness of being an ape led him to take steps to ensure that no one could turn him back (including ripping the page with his picture on it out of all known copies of the Yearbook up to the date when he was changed into an ape).

The faculty at UU is currently in the midst of a relatively long period of stability, such as occasionally surfaces in its history, which is otherwise reknowned for having a high rate of turnover due to so many wizards achieving their career ambitions over the dead bodies of the wizards above them. To put it bluntly, no one on the faculty during the Mustrum Ridcully archchancellory can remember who the Librarian was before he was an orangutan, because those who were there at the time have all long since been assassinated by their uppity underlings. But they can think of one living wizard who was around at the time, and who was an intimate of the Librarian both before and after his transformation, and if they can get HIM to tell THEM the Librarian's pre-simian name they might be able to work up a magical cure. And the wizard with that special knowledge is, you guessed it, Rincewind.

All this is by way of being an incredibly long explanation for what is merely the starting point of the story.

Ridcully, along with his bickering cohort of the Dean, the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer in Recent Runes, the Senior Wrangler, the harmlessly insane Bursar, and young Ponder Stibbons (Reader of Invisible Writings), realize that bringing Rincewind back by magic would probably kill him. (They have some experience of this, too. See Interesting Times.) He would be no use to them that way. But while they are looking for another way to get hold of him, they discover a magical window (literally a window, with a sash and everything) onto a tropical island, where they are joined by the very prim cockney housekeeper Mrs. Whitlow, who stupidly closes the window behind her.

This leaves them marooned on an island that turns out to be 10,000 years in the past, where a rather silly "god of evolution" is trying out his ambitious ideas. They sail an organically grown, pumpkin ship to the continent of XXXX and make various unsolicited contributions to the creation of that country's wildlife (such as, the duck-billed platypus). And evidently they do something that causes the history of the Last Continent to go strangely awry, and to be particularly dry.

Meanwhile, back in the present (I love saying things like that), Rincewind is running for dear life from one misunderstanding after another, guided by a shapechanging kangaroo named Scrappy. >From one hellish and hilarious misadventure after another, he finds himself in the city of Bugarup, where he befriends a female impersonator who has the career liability of actually being female, and meets the archchancellor of ANOTHER wizard university whose name happens to be, well, Rincewind.

But Scrappy has been guiding him for a purpose: to set right whatever the wizards in the past caused to go wrong, and to save XXXX from a deadly drought just in the nick of time. Will he do it? My lips are sealed.

Carpe Jugulum

The 23rd Discworld tale is cute, as Discworld tales go. The Lancre coven of witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Queen Magrat and Agnes/Perdita Nitt, a fat girl with a split personality) are confronted by a ruthless cadre of modern vampires - vampires who have shaken off the superstitions that made them vulnerable to sunlight, garlic, holy water, sacred images, etc., etc. - vampires who are no longer stupid enough to be easily killed.

Which means, really awful vampires, who think they are really nice because they dress in modern fashions and make polite arrangements with the townspeople to suck a little of their blood at a time (kind of on a lottery basis) so that they don't use up the human livestock, but kind of milk them over a long period of time. This is actually much worse than being terrorized by a vicious people-predator who, at least, couldn't get into your house if you didn't invite him in, and who had the decency to get killed once in a while.

Leading the invasion are the Count Magpyr and his wife, the Countess, and their two eternally teenaged children, Vlad and Lacrimosa. Vlad is a charmer who falls senselessly in love with Agnes (probably because he can't read her mind, and that intrigues him), and Lacrimosa is the sort of unholy monster who, if she was a human girl, would pull wings off of flies. The count controls a flock of magpies that act as his eyes and ears. And of course they can control people's minds, they can turn people into vampires if they want to, and they can move faster than the eye can see, which makes them pretty near unkillable.

Enter the extraordinary Granny Weatherwax, who seems to have met her match at last...or has she? And then there's Nanny Ogg, who with her vast family connections can organize a spontaneous, torch-waving mob at the spur of the moment. And sweet-natured Agnes, whose nasty alter-ego Perdita (the proverbial skinny girl in a fat girl's body) turns out to be her saving grace. And don't forget Margat, who comes out of retirement with a vengeance to protect her newborn daughter and her well-meaning but ineffectual husband, King (formerly Fool) Verence II.

Of course the other Lancre regulars pop up: Nanny's oldest son Jason, the burly blacksmith; Nanny's youngest son Shawn, the one-man army (actually, he's pretty much a one-man Executive Branch of the government, which includes everything from cleaning out the privies to stamping passports and disigning a Lancrastrian Army Knife); and the much-bitten royal falconer, whose name alone--Hodgesaargh--is worth a good laugh any day.

Also, a new creature enters the narrative: the Pixies, specifically the clan known as Nac mac Feegle, a bunch of little blue men with red hair and pointy hats who, on closer examination, are actually covered from head to toe with blue tattoos. The Pixies love drinking, fighting, and stealing cows more than anything, and though they are only six inches tall they are so strong that four of them can pick up a cow (by the hooves) and carry it away at high speed. They also speak an incomprehensible dialect, which I think is supposed to be some kind of highland Scots, but it's entertaining to TRY to understand it.

Speaking of dialects, prepare also for Igor the stitched-together, reanimated servant who talks in a Sylvester-the-Cat lisp and whose appropriately-named dog Scraps becomes the focus of the funniest joke in the book. And I shouldn't neglect to mention that there's also a phoenix in this book, but in conception very different from J. K. Rowling's Fawkes.

All this is entertaining. But I had a problem with this book. There was another character, an Omnian priest named Mightily Oats, who is shall we say, one of those troubled young pastors in a pluralistic age who has trouble believing the religion he is supposed to teach. As he goes through a crisis of belief I had the sense that Pratchett was delivering his own thinly-veiled apologetic for unbelief, which I thought was needlessly preachy and frankly hostile to the whole concept of orthodox religious belief. Oats himself goes through a kind of religious conversion in this story. On a narrative level it's satisfying, but on a theological level it's pretty shlocky. So with that reservation I recommend Carpe Jugulum.

The Fifth Elephant

The 24th tale of Discworld again features Sam Vimes, Carrot, Angua, Cheery Littlebottom, and Detritus the troll, all of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Don't worry, Colon and Nobby are back too.

This time the Patrician has sent Vimes as the unlikeliest of ambassadors, to the remote & lawless country of Uberwald, where nothing is as it seems. On the surface the human population is dominated by a cadre of werewolves and vampires, and under the surface the REAL kingdom is run by bickering clans of dwarves.

Angua's virile and vicious brother, appropriately named Wolfgang, leads a conspiracy to destabilize the delicate arrangement between humans, dwarves, and the undead that has kept Uberwald going for centuries. The tentacles of conspiracy reach as far as Ankh-Morpork, where murders have resulted from it, and the currents of intrigue swirl around an inedible, ancient loaf of gravelly dwarf bread called the Scone of Stone.

Before Vimes solves the mystery, there will be a serious love triangle between the dwarf-raised human Carrot, the werewolf Angua, and an "extremely male" just-plain wolf named, would you believe, Gavin. Also appearing are Lady Sybil (Vimes' unlikely wife, who has one in the oven now), Death, Gaspode the talking dog, and another Igor (all Igors are about the same, aren't they?).

There's lots of fun, more than the usual amount of sexual tension, and of course some terrific battles, escapes, chases, and moments of pure terror. You also learn the interesting fact that werewolves are just as much hated and feared by wolves as they are by humans, and for approximately the same reasons. And the whole concept of the Fifth Elephant is something else! (Hint: fat is mined in Uberwald.)

The Truth

The 25th title in the popular Discworld series is called The Truth, and to tell the truth, I enjoyed it thoroughly. In the tradition of Moving Pictures and Soul Music, it introduces a new hero who, in turn, introduces a new pop-culture art form into the fragile reality of Ankh-Morpork. Unlike those two prior instances, however, the journalist with the movable-type printing press who introduces the concept of a daily newspaper does NOT end up opening a rift into the Dungeon Dimensions and letting out some kind of hideous entity from the beyond.

By this time the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has learned to expect such unexpected outcomes from seemingly innocent yet disruptive enterprises like the Daily Times. And he warns young journalist William de Worde that he will be held personally responsible if a rift in reality is created. And having anticipated this disaster, naturally it is nipped in the bud.

Instead what happens is the Patrician himself is framed for murder, and it falls to young William (who feels obligated to tell the Truth at all times) to get to the bottom of it, in spite of the ill-feeling of various guilds and powerful members of the community, the ambivalence of Commander Vimes of the City Watch, and the truly frightening evil of Messrs. Pin and Tulip, who (in an interesting passage) are revealed to be neither murderers nor assassins but, far worse, killers. (Interested? Read the book!)

What de Worde has on his side is a beautiful girl named Sacharissa, a printing press run by dwarves, and a cutting-edge photojournalist who also happens to be a reformed vampire (a lovely fellow named Otto who talks with a German accent, takes part in a 12-step program to break his blood addiction, and crumbles into dust every time he takes a flash picture, which at first is rather inconvenient for him). Oh, yes, and also Foul Ole Ron's bunch of looney street bums, Gaspode the talking dog (who turns confidential informant named "Deep Bone"), and a troll named Rocky who wants to be a sportswriter.

It's actually a quite exciting adventure, with lots of fun thrown in: like swear-words toned down to family language (one character goes around saying "---ing" all the time, and everyone wonders what the heck "ing" is supposed to mean; and another character warns that someone is going to go "Librarian poo," if you catch my drift).

William makes another appealing hero who has the additional appeal of showing Vimes & Co. from a different point of view. It's another good installment in the series, and I look forward to future titles!

Thief of Time

The 26th tale in the Discworld series is another Susan Sto-Helit adventure (Death's granddaughter), and it once again has to do with the evil Auditors of the Universe making a sneaky attempt to assassinate All Life.

Bureaucratic types, you know. They can't abide untidiness, and nothing is more unpredictable and messy than life, especially humanity. They've tried before now to rub-out mankind (see Reaper Man and Hogfather) but now they've hit on something truly diabolical: build a clock that can measure the heartbeat of the universe (the smallest possible division of time in which anything can possibly happen) and Time herself will be trapped, everything will stop, and the universe will exist without change forever. How tidy can you get, eh?

Only Death is on to them, and while he collects the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (including the Fifth Horseman, who left before the group got popular, ha ha) to fight the battle of Armageddon, Susan accepts the assignment to track down a History Monk whose weirdly gifted apprenctice seems to be the key to the whole thing.

History Monks! We're talking about people who can move incredibly fast by "slicing time," and who use machines called Procrastinators to pump time from where it isn't needed (like, for instance, the sea) to where there doesn't seem to be enough of it (like the city). But Lu Tze's ex-thief apprentice, Lobsang, is especially gifted because, apparently, he is the son of Time herself. This is the sort of thing that only happens in Discworld.

But what really makes it weird is the dangerously sane clockmaker Jeremy, his gruesome assistant Igor, and the creepy Lady who pays him handsomely to build the doomsday clock & then, for some reason, keeps sabotaging it so that he can't quite finish it. It's quite an interesting story and it also introduces a new use for chocolate - as a deadly weapon!

EDIT: In my original reviews, I had these last two titles reversed. Thanks be to Fantastic Fiction for helping me sort out the sequence of these books.

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