“Vimes ran a practised eye over the assortment before him. It was the usual Ankh-Morpork mob in times of crisis; half of them were here to complain, a quarter of them were here to watch the other half, and the remainder were here to rob, importune or sell hotdogs to the rest.”
Insurrection is in the air in Ankh-Morpork. The Haves and Have-Nots are about to fall out all over again. Captain Sam Vimes of the city’s ramshackle Night Watch is used to this. It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Well, to drink more. But this time, something is different – the Have-Nots have found the key to a dormant, lethal weapon that even they don’t fully understand, and they’re about to unleash a campaign of terror on the city. Time for Captain Vimes to sober up.
Many years ago I read my first Terry Pratchett book. I started where I normally start with any author that I’m new to, the beginning. Sad to say, The Color of Magic and I did not find sweet harmony together. Why? Honestly, it was too long ago to remember what exactly it was I didn’t like about that first read, but I stayed away from Pratchett for a number of years, only to return again a few years later for another shot at this vaunted author. My reread of The Color of Magic went much like the first, and I left feeling sort of ambivalent towards the whole Discworld thing.
Through the passage of years, and my involvement in blogging, online forums, twitter, and the like, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that the lack of Pratchett-penned novels has left a gaping hole in my fantasy reading resume. With Pratchett’s recent passing I was inspired by the vast outpouring of love towards this man to give his work a third and final shot. If things didn’t work out on the third try…well, sorry Sir, three strikes and you’re out.
Going in, I knew I needed to take a different approach. I sure as hell wasn’t gonna read The Color of Magic again. I needed to move on to different pastures…
The Light Fantastic was out, since that is the sequel to The Color of Magic. Not going there. I kept moving chronologically, reading synopses until I read the blurb for Guards! Guards!, and I knew I had my next Terry Pratchett read.
The principle characters in Guards! Guards! are a small collection of losers who happen to comprise the Ankh Morpork Night Watch. The Captain has succumbed to drink (he was “brung low by a woman”), the Sargent and Corporal are hapless, and the new recruit is a six foot six muscle-man who thinks he’s a dwarf. This collection of extremely lovable and mostly incompetent (or in one case, too competent) goons is forced to deal with the greatest threat to Ankh Morpork in centuries, the mysterious arrival of a true blue, fire-breathing dragon.
As I read Guards! Guards!, I found myself in a constant state of warring emotions. I was either giddy over the hilarious events, dialog, and situational humor of the novel, astounded over how absolutely talented of a writer Pratchett is, or disappointed with my past self for not liking Pratchett sooner.
Pratchett managed to tick all the right boxes for me with this novel. If I’m going to like a book, it needs to have characters I’m engaged in, a plot that is interesting, and a setting that feels fleshed out and real. Check, check, and check. In regards to the latter, Ankh Morpork is one crazy-ass city, but I wouldn’t mind visiting… As a much appreciated bonus, the book was also really funny. Humor sometimes (okay, almost always) doesn’t translate so well when I read books, so the fact that I thought this was really funny says a lot.
The thing that impressed me about the characters I encountered in Guards! Guards! was that I felt like I had seen each character before, like I was reuniting with old friends. One could easily chalk this up to each character being an archetype or caricature of things we’ve all seen before (the drunkard, the slippery politician, the hapless cronies, the snake oil salesman, etc.) yet there’s more to it than that. It is true that many of the characters feel well-trodden to an extent, but as I got thinking about it I realized that though these characters seem quite typical at the outset, and harbor many of the qualities that a reader might expect to accompany some of those aforementioned characters, each person was imbued with enough nuance to give them that fresh, clean feel. And to be honest, rarely have characters been written so well. I loved how Pratchett starts the reader out by meeting their assumptions, only to later show as the pages go by that there was a lot more to them than meets the eye. Comedies often go straight for the laughs and the characters tend to be pretty one-dimensional, but Pratchett impressed me by delivering some very memorable characters, and a heavy dose of laughs.
The above is just one example of Pratchett’s skill as a writer and I should mention that I was summarily blown away page after page by Pratchett’s writing. Time after time I found myself amazed by a turn of phrase, a fantastic piece of dialog, or the way he went about telling his story. The man really has a truly unique voice and it was a joy to bask in writing that felt so different from anything I’d read before, and at the same time was so damn good.
I could go on about just how great this book is, or about how bloody impressed I was with Pratchett ‘s writing, but I’d only be echoing the sentiments felt by so many others. I’m about as late to the Terry Pratchett party as it can get, and I fear that anything I have to say will only be preaching to the choir, but if there’s anyone out there who isn’t sold on his work yet, I will end by strongly urging you to give it another go. Judging from my own experience, there’ll be a brief moment where you feel stupid for taking so long to ‘discover’ this writer, but that will quickly pass when you realize that you’ve uncovered a rich reading treasure with plenty of further titles to plunder
An Additional Comment from Stefan:
My first experience with Pratchett’s novels was similar to Ryan’s: I read A Colour of Magic when I was pretty young, and I remember frequently thinking, “What the hell am I reading?” I just had no idea how to engage with the near-constant barrage of jokes that characterised the first few Discworld novels. Guards! Guards! was the turning point, in my opinion, when Pratchett seemed to realize that he didn’t have to use all of the jokes he dreamed up.
However, Guards! Guards! was not the novel that made me fall in love with Discworld – that was actually Feet of Clay, which I read before Guards! Guards!. I was living in Malaysia at the time, and it was during monsoon season. The roof of my room was topped with corrugated iron, and I vividly remember reading about golems, The Word, and Ankh Morpork to the sounds of the heavy rain on the roof. After finishing the novel, I went and ransacked my sister’s collection of Pratchett novels, making off with the rest of the City Watch books. I then moved on to the Death novels, then the stand-alones, then back to the Rincewind novels.
I’ve read them all, now. Multiple times, in the case of the Watch and Death books. For over a decade, I pre-ordered two copies of each new Pratchett novel (one for me, one for my sister – new Discworld novels always came out around her birthday).
It’s a fantastic series. And an absolute must read for anyone who likes to read, regardless of their favourite/preferred genres.