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Re-read 16 years after the first time: EVEN BETTER!
on 22 May 2015
This is a re-read review. Originally published here: http://www.abaddonbooks.com/post/661
THIS IS WHERE THE DRAGONS WENT.
Not dead, not asleep. Not waiting, because waiting implies expectation. Possibly the word we’re looking for here is…
Insurrection is afoot in Ankh-Morpork. A secret society have formed under the watchful, and diabolically manipulative eye of The Supreme Grand Master and they’ve got their minds set on new leadership.* Everything’s in place, they’ve got a book on how to summon dragons, they’ve got their plethora of stolen magical items, and they’ve got a king.† Once their plan’s in motion they’ll be able to oust the Patrician (the City’s benign dictator) and take over.
Meanwhile Ankh-Morpork’s broken and ineffective City Watch has grown by a quarter with the arrival of Carrot, a six foot six inch Dwarf whose world has been turned upside down at the revelation of his heritage (he’s not really a dwarf.)
The new Corporal doesn’t quite understand the city ways of Thieves Guilds, The Shades, Dwarf Bars, or his superior officer being drunk most of the day; but under the watchful tutelage of the shabbiest Policemen of all time, he’ll go far. That along with an Orang-utan Librarian reporting the loss of a very important book (aren’t they all) and a spate of mysterious burnings, the Night Watch are going to have to work hard for it to be “12 O’clock and all’s well!”
Can Captain Samuel Vimes pull himself out of a bottle to solve the Crime of the Century? Can Carrot stop arresting everyone he meets? Can Nobby pass an unlocked house without taking anything? Can Corporal Colon get up the stairs without having to pause for breath? And more importantly, can this ragtag group of coppers (plus one formidable high class Lady) save the city from a creature that shouldn’t really exist?
When Abaddon started putting together the re-read I very quickly asked to do Guards! Guards! It wasn’t my first Discworld book (I actually think it was my fourth) but it’s always been a special book to me – all because my Dad made a mistake.
If we shoot back to 1999 (ten years after the book was first published) I asked my Dad to get me Guards! Guards! as I’d just devoured Mort in two days. Instead of the novel, he came home with the stage adaptation by Stephen Briggs. What happened next made my final year of fifth form the only non-Sixth Form school year I enjoyed.
Together with a group of some of the most amazing creative cohorts possible, we petitioned the school to let us put on our own production (up until this point the school only allowed student-led productions in the Sixth form, there was an Avant Guards Guards joke made at the time: no one laughed then either.) We came up against some resistance (and to be fair if you’re a teacher in charge of fifth form productions and a group of precocious little buggers have taken your show as their own, you’d be irked) but after months of hard work and Terry’s blessing, we put it on.
It was the most fun I had at school. I didn’t lead the group (an exceedingly talented young man called Andrew spearheaded all the hard work and directed) but I loved seeing my idea coming to life, and other people being as enthused as I was about the play. I cherry picked C.M.O.T. Dibbler (WITH ONIONS!) for myself and I still have a TY beanie dragon in my office.
After this the Watch books became my go-to Pratchetts. Jingo had come out a couple of years before and the Fifth Elephant was round the corner. I already knew I loved his books, but the mix of satire, engaging plots and an eclectic mix of characters made my heart sing.
So, to the re-read. I went into this with a mix of trepidation and buoying nostalgia. On one hand I’d not read this for 16 years, could it possibly be as amazing as I remembered? When you’re 15 pretty much everything you read that’s smarter than you are (most things) is amazing, but what if it wasn’t? On the other, this story is a defining part of my adolescence. I’m a father now, I have a house and grown up things; wouldn’t it be nice to step back?
In the end of course, I had nothing to be afraid of. I’ve been told The Colour of Magic has dated somewhat but by Discworld book seven Pratchett was fully in his stride. The parody is more subtle (or as subtle as he gets) and every aspect of the book symbiotically works to produce an engaging and hilarious read.
Looking back I know I missed a lot of the nuance of his work. The main example being that I hadn’t clocked that Poor Old Gaskin’s death had been the thing that had driven Vimes into his alcoholic malaise. Because Vimes grows so much along the novels, it’s hard to remember the way he was as Guards! Guards! opens.
It’s also nice to see the introduction of people and places that are so important later on. It had the feeling of re-watching a TV series with someone who’s never seen it, I kept wanting to turn around and tell myself the importance of Detritus, Sybil and Pseudopolis Yard.
Even knowing what comes next, the book is a super hook for the run of Watch tales. It’s a redemption story, which manages to parody your regular fantasy tropes like dragons and palace guards, but also the good old fashioned police story.
Getting back into Discworld made me wonder how much of my love for it is how it influenced who am I now (I started reading these at 14), or is it speaking to my core as a person. Two pages in a footnote got me:
The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.
As my wife can attest, I spend a massive amount of time in bookshops being caught in these black holes. He describes just before this an ‘old-fashioned second-hand bookshop, one of those that look as though they were designed by M. Escher on a bad day” which essentially is my watermark if a town is any good. Funnily enough I left my kids with my parents yesterday to browse in one in Barmouth.
I’m sure it’s a fair mix of who I am anyway and how Terry’s writing was, that made me a devotee. I was lucky enough to meet him twice (he referred to the teacher who was resisting our show as “a horse’s arse.”‡)
As much as I’ve enjoyed the re-read, and writing this, it was by no means easy. Look, I’m not saying I’ve felt a loss anywhere near to his friends or family, but I do have a Pratchett shaped hole in my life. Every year I had a book to look forward to like meeting a friend you only see once a year. Now I have but one to come. I’m lucky as I haven’t read every Discworld yet, but I know a day will come when I’ve read everything new to me.
When you’re a 15 year old overweight bullied dreamer, having books that speak to you and make you smile are your lifeblood. I would escape to the Discworld when it all became too much, and I wish I’d had a chance to put that into words for the man himself while he was still with us. We are all supremely lucky to have enjoyed his work, and I intend now to watch my kids enjoy it.
*And the disposal of a brother-in-law’s fancy new carriage, and a hated Green Grocer’s.
†At the very least they have someone who’ll do.
‡For the record the teacher in question was brilliant in the end. He helped us massively with the production, and he was a lovely teacher.