December 15, 2002

Guards, Guards!, by Terry Pratchett

Having just read about Sam Vimes' earliest days in the watch in Night Watch, I decided that I'd like to go back to the first book Pratchett wrote about Sam Vimes and work my way forward. And that brought me to Guards, Guards!.

When we first see him, Sam's drunk in the gutter. There are two reasons for that; one is that he's normally about two drinks more sober than everyone else, and needs a drink or two just to reach parity. The other is that he's a good copper at heart and there's nothing of any value for him to do but drink. When Lord Vetinari came to power he legalized thievery--chartered an entire Thieves' Guild in fact. The thieves are allowed a certain amount of larceny every year, in return for which they pledge to deal harshly with any unlicensed thieves. More than that, most well-to-do citizens simply pay the Guild a small fee every year, for which they are officially immune from thievery for the year.

So all-in-all, things have been pretty peaceful in Ankh-Morpork, and the Night Watch has become nearly obsolete. Where once it had many watch houses, now there's only one, and that houses only three watchmen. Captain Sam Vimes, Sergeant Fred Colon, and Corporal Nobby Nobbs.

But there are currents of change oozing down the River Ankh. Dwarves and Trolls have been moving to the city in record numbers, along with zombies, vampires, and werewolves. Inter-species violence is on the rise. There will be rioting in the streets if something isn't done.

And then there's an ambitious fool with a plan to give Ankh-Morpork a king again. It's been almost three hundred years since King Lorenzo got a well-deserved axe in the neck, but he had a son who escaped. What's more romantic, more proper, than the notion that the line of kings have bred in hiding all these years, disguised in humble garb, only to come save the city in its hour of need. All that's necessary is to summon a handy dragon to give the city something to be saved from.

And then, and then, there's the Night Watch's first new recruit in ages. Corporal Carrot, the dwarf. At least, he thinks he's a dwarf, although he's well over six feet tall. He was raised by dwarves; they found him when he was a baby in the wreckage of a wagon destroyed by bandits. The people with him were all dead. Hidden in the body of the wagon was a sword. And on Carrot's arm, there's a birthmark in the shape of a crown....

The tone here is entirely different than in Night Watch, which as I've said is hysterically funny and dead serious at the same time. Here Pratchett is simply having fun with the idea of the "City Guard", those poor sods (rather like the Red Shirts in Star Trek) who get called out in every fantasy novel just so they can get killed. And, like many of the Discworld books, Pratchett has a lot of fun with the idea of "narrative causality".

The Disc is a very magical place; it has to be, just to exist. It doesn't have much use for natural laws, but it does have things it uses for natural laws, and one of them is narrative causality--the fact that stories have power, and when a story is happening, certain things just have to happen in a certain way. Thanks to narrative causality, million-to-one shots can be trusted to come up nine times out of ten....

Posted by Will Duquette at December 15, 2002 07:46 PM