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Guards! Guards! by Terry PratchettThree and a half stars
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In Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett introduces readers to such fan favorite characters as Captain Vimes of the Night Watch, and his latest recruit, Carrot Ironfoundersson, the adopted human son of a dwarf family who comes to Ankh-Morpork to learn to be a man. The Night Watch is a pitiful little enterprise, with only four not-exactly-civic-minded watchmen including Vimes, who spends most of his duty hours stupefied by drink and pining over a lost love. Carrot's unwelcome arrival — and his baffling insistence upon actually enforcing laws, let alone even knowing what they are — coincides with a power play by the Supreme Grand Master of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night. The SGM intends to summon up a dragon to terrorize the city. But as anyone who's read H. P. Lovecraft can tell you, you gotta be careful about summoning powerful beasties from other planes...

Following Pyramids, Pratchett was at this point in his career gaining real confidence with sustaining his comedy writing over the course of a more intricate and longer narrative. Guards! Guards! is has much more consistency than Pyramids, both in the flow of its story and the delivery of its gags. Like much British farce, Pratchett finds endless material in the comedy of errors and misunderstandings. Carrot's fish-out-of-water blundering — which naturally results in the proper enforcement of Ankh-Morpork's myriad laws for the first time in centuries — opens the path to redemption for Vimes and his fellow Night Watch "rank" (they're not big enough to have a "file"), that gets portrayed with genuine humor and warmth, never having to resort to sentiment.

Indeed, Ankh-Morpork really comes to vivid life in this novel for the first time in the whole series. We begin to get a sense of place in this absurdist dual-city like never before, and the way Pratchett lovingly realizes not only its colorful and ridiculous characters but its neighborhoods, customs, criminal underworld, overcrowded secret societies, what have you, almost makes it seem... well, perhaps I shouldn't use the word "cosmopolitan." But Ankh-Morpork does come into its own as one of fantasy's most stunningly textured settings here, and it's the kind of development that adds to the groundwork from which Pratchett will go on to launch some of the series' best and most loved books.

Pratchett has enough fan sites cataloging all the series' best known gags and obscure references. I won't go into any of those here. (Except to say that the notion of L-space hits me where I live.) While he does go for the obvious here and there — such as a nicely timed bit featuring Vimes doing a Dirty Harry routine while armed with a belching baby dragon — mostly I got a kick out of the way Pratchett simply immerses himself in his influences (like Wodehouse, naturally) and builds upon them to find his own voice as a humorist. And as a fantasist, he more than holds his own in every one of the action scenes. When Ankh-Morpork undergoes its uniquely Terryish form of urban renewal — by being flamed all over the place by a pissed-off dragon who's set itself up as king — the visuals conjured up are, in their way, as epic as anything you'll find in...erm, serious fantasy.

Maybe a little on the overlong side, Guards! Guards! is still as delightful a Discworld opus as most any of the others, and an important volume in the series' evolution from "silly and diverting" to "silly, diverting, stone brilliant, and on everybody's reading list."

Followed in the Watch sequence by Men at Arms.