Hiatus.

I’ve been overworked lately. Pulling 60+ hour workweeks.

I don’t have the time to write for this blog at the moment, and as a result, I need to put it on hiatus for a while.

–Steve

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Anatomy of a Character: Sir Samuel Vimes

samuel_vimesLong-lasting series are built from great characters, since, in a sense, every great story is character-driven, and this is as true for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as it is for any other. Indeed, given the complex and sprawling nature of Discworld, composed, as it is, of several discrete arcs set in the same overall setting (i.e. the Disc), one can assume that Pratchett is uniquely gifted at breathing life into a plethora of characters.

Let us today, then, take a look at one of these, the protagonist of one of the Disc’s primary arcs — His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh, Blackboard Monitor, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

When we first meet Vimes in Guards! Guards!, he is a lost hopeless cynic, a man Brought Low by a woman, that woman being not a woman per se but rather the city of Ankh-Morpork itself. He is a drunkard who can barely keep himself sober long enough to make it through a shift, and, all too often, seems rather unaware of what is going on around him. He is, in short, what someone subjected to the drudgery and occasional terror of being a fantasy watchman would inevitably turn into.

Vimes, at this stage, can’t sustain a novel on his own merits: his vice prevents it. Until his Palace point man, Lupine Wonse, pushes him to the edge halfway through Guards! Guards!, he would rather drink his problems to oblivion than confront them head-on. Vimes can at best be thought of as a deuterotagonist at this point, playing second fiddle to his foil, the naïvely cheerful Lance-Constable Carrot.

Yet when Wonse forces Vimes to give up his badge, and when Vimes meets Vetinari talking to rats in the Palace dungeons, he changes quite a lot — from someone who uses alcohol as a refuge of oblivion to someone willing to use the resources at his disposal (as Vetinari does with Skrelp the rat) to solve problems and better his situation. It is the first of two profound changes that occurs to Vimes in the first three Watch novels, changes necessary for Vimes to sustain a novel by himself, as he does in Night Watch and later Snuff.

The second major change occurs not in Guards! Guards!’s sequel, Men at Arms, where Vimes does succumb to the temptation of drink as the stress of the case gets to him, but rather in Feet of Clay, where, in a similar moment of temptation as that which occurs in Men at Arms, Vimes finds the bottle of whiskey in his desk more high-end than the “aged for three days” Old Bearhugger’s he’s used to drinking, and in that moment, realizes he’s being framed.

It is this moment in Feet of Clay when Vimes would last be seriously tempted by drink, and it is part of the genius of how Terry Pratchett handles this that it is not evident in the second, third, or even fourth readings (never mind the first!). It is at this point that Vimes’ initial character arc, from the drunkard to the commander, is complete, and it sets the stage for his second major arc, where he becomes Lord Vetinari’s protégé; this latter arc occupies Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Thud!, and Snuff, though Night Watch is a return to the initial Night Watch trilogy’s themes, only this time with young Sam Vimes in Carrot’s shoes and an older Vimes, masquerading as John Keel, training his younger self.

One rather suspects Vetinari saw that in Vimes all along, a man who was a gifted leader of men (and dwarves and trolls and so on), or, more accurately, would be if he could keep himself sober but for five seconds. Thus, once Vimes proves his leadership abilities in Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, and Jingo, and his idiosyncratic political acumen in the latter as well, he graduates, as it were, to becoming Vetinari’s preferred ambassador for the stickiest of situations, a role we see him in in The Fifth Elephant, Thud!, and Snuff as the main character, and in the otherwise one-off Monstrous Regiment as a minor character.

It is worth pointing out that much of Vimes’ character development comes courtesy of his wife, Sibyl Ramkin. The sibyls were the prophetesses of Roman myth (cf. Aeneid VI) and Sibyl represents Vimes’, well, sibyl — and Valkyrie — wrapped together in one package. It goes beyond Vimes’ reenacting of Perseus freeing Andromeda with Sibyl in Guards! Guards!: by Men at Arms, Sibyl is the driving force behind Vimes’ sobriety (though he relapses in that novel); she is the primary means by which he becomes an aristocrat; and one rather suspects that Sibyl’s unclear relationship with Vetinari is part of what convinces him to give Vimes chances, such as making him a diplomat in The Fifth Elephant, a role Vimes excels in.

Vimes is, in short, driven to become the Commander who dominates the latter Watch novels instead of the pitiful trainwreck of a man we see in Guards! Guards! because of his deep and abiding love for Sibyl. It is a love that shines through in the two novels where the two extensively interact — to wit, The Fifth Elephant and Snuff, perhaps moreso in the latter than the former (where relationship problems form an important thematic subtext).

Love is certainly one of Terry Pratchett’s major character drivers — Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching, and Ponder Stibbons are all driven by a love of craft, and the former two for their respective countrysides as well; Death is driven in part by a gnawing love of the souls he reaps, and his granddaughter Susan (though she could quite possibly only admit it under torture) by her love for her grandfather; and “survival” often seems more important for Rincewind’s motivational calculus than “love”.

Which makes Vimes’ love of Sibyl his primary character driver unique among major Discworld characters. Most Discworld characters find their sources of love in places and craft, not so much a significant other, but Vimes was unable to amount to much when driven by craft alone. For him, while his love of policework is certainly an important character driver, it is clearly secondary to his love of Sibyl, because it is Vimes’ love of Sibyl that keeps him in a condition where he is able to pursue his love of policework at all.

One shrewdly wonders here (especially given Neil Gaiman’s anecdote in A Slip of the Keyboard) whether or not, in Sam Vimes, Terry Pratchett has realized his most autobiographical character, someone given to self-destructive tendencies were it not for the love he shared with his wife, Lyn, powering him through the day and making him be better than himself.

It is also worth pointing out here that the grand arc, the dramatic tension, Pratchett set out with Vimes and Carrot from Guards! Guards! on, is that they would inevitably find themselves implacably opposed. Carrot’s cheerful naïveté from Guards! Guards! has progressed, by The Fifth Elephant, into a surety that he is the king, but a king content to remain where he is because he does not believe he can do a better job than what Vetinari is doing; Vimes, meanwhile, is constitutionally allergic to the whole idea of kingship, a trait, perhaps, inherited via the Disc’s magic from his Cromwell-esque ancestor, “Old Stoneface” Vimes. Were Carrot to publicly step forward and claim his birthright, Vimes would — necessarily — oppose him, and, in all likelihood, Carrot would win.

There was a period around 2000 where I believe Paratchett was intending to wind Discworld down: one notes that Carpe Jugulum, the last “true” Witches novel before Tiffany Aching revived the arc, Thief of Time, the last Death novel, and The Last Hero, which satisfyingly closes the Rincewind arc where he is an independent protagonist, all date to about this era. So does The Fifth Elephant, and it is in The Fifth Elephant where the events that would theoretically drive the conclusion of Carrot’s character arc — his potential conflicts with Vimes and Angua — are most heavily foreshadowed. So what happened?

I think Vimes had, at a certain level, become too autobiographical: that he was fated to die, probably at Carrot’s hand, and Pratchett found he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t kill someone who had quite literally become a mirror of himself on the mirror of worlds off. Instead, the clacks — a metaphor, of course, for the Internet — suggested a new thematic direction for the Disc, and in exploring it (most prominently in The Truth and the Moist arc), Pratchett further emphasized Vetinari’s hypercompetency, which in turn led to Carrot’s diminution as a character and the Watch arc becoming, more and more, the Vimes arc.

Night Watch is, more than anything else, the ultimate love letter a writer could write to a favored character, and while it was perhaps meant to be a swan song while Terry dithered on what he thought he had to do, in the end, it heralded the absurd Vimes-centrism characterizing itself, of course, and Snuff, and it should be pointed out that Thud!, which is the least Vimes-centric of these latter three, is still as Vimes-centric as The Fifth Elephant and more Vimes-centric than any of the first four Watch novels!

Does this mean Vimes is a Marty Stu (a male Mary Sue)? Absolutely not: Marty Stus’ main character flaws are their lack of character flaws, a meta-flaw that gets in the way of the willing suspension of disbelief and hence setting immersion — which is why they’re poorly-written characters. Vimes, by contrast, has plenty of flaws, flaws held barely in check by his love for Sibyl, flaws like his alcoholism and his checked rage, and it is precisely these flaws which makes Vimes such a compelling character.

Is it a flaw on Pratchett’s part that he could not summon the willpower necessary to kill his favorite character off? To an extent. But ask any writer: characters are ultimately extensions of the writer’s personality, and killing them off is frankly not unlike asking someone to sacrifice their children or pets. Very few can really do it, and almost none — George R.R. Martin included — can kill characters they’ve invested multiple novels of time and effort into.

Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff”

514saxouvnl._sx277_bo1204203200_The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Thud!; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Snuff.

Lady Ramkin has finally prevailed — Sam Vimes is to take a vacation in the countryside, away from the bustle of Ankh-Morpork, with their son, Young Sam, at their manor house. But where the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is, crime is sure to follow, and sure enough, after Vimes puts a hotheaded young blacksmith in his place, the smith disappears and he is framed for murder. Poorly. But it makes it clear, someone doesn’t want Vimes there.

It turns out somebody was murdered — a goblin girl, one whose blood was used in the botched attempt to frame Vimes. And the goblins know Vimes is about and prevail on him in their quest for justice. As soon as he begins tugging at the loose end, Vimes unravels a criminal conspiracy large enough to threaten to bring down one of Ankh-Morpork’s most influential families. Oh, and that goblins themselves are a sapient species in their own right.

Snuff is, after Night Watch, the most Vimes-centric novel in the Watch arc, and — as Pratchett would never write another novel in that arc again, the last time we ever see His Grace Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, the Duke of Ankh, Blackboard Monitor. It is, at its core, the novelistic equivalent of a summer blockbuster where Vimes is hot on the trail of a criminal willing to do anything to throw him off it — a novel, in short, where Vimes is in his element, where the political subtexts of Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud! fade into the background, and Vimes, just by being Vimes, is able to accord a sentient species the rights they deserve almost as a by-product of his relentless pursuit of justice.

If Night Watch is, at some level, Vimes’ bildungsroman, then Snuff also does something else — it gives us a deeper look at Sam Vimes, as a character, than any other novel. Long gone is his constant alcoholic haze in Guards! Guards!; instead, Snuff showcases Vimes’ family relationships at the expense of his professional ones — his wife, Sibyl, and manservant (“gentleman’s gentleman”), Willikins, emerge as major characters here that they do not even achieve in The Fifth Elephant and Young Sam’s scatological inquisitions offer a background of comic relief.

Perhaps the most telling detail of how Vimes-centric Snuff is, is how it handles the novel’s secondary plot, where Fred Colon discovers, by sheer chance, a rare type of unggue (or goblin pot) in his cigar: there are, in all, maybe five scenes in the whole book devoted to this subplot, only two in which Carrot appears and one with Angua — a far cry from the significant Carrot-and-Angua subplot of The Fifth Elephant. 

Nor are there structural reasons for this, the way there were in Night Watch . . . In Snuff Vimes has at last taken over the Watch series, and it is fair to say that, outside of perhaps the occasional adventure novel, Pratchett has found himself in a corner. The long-foreshadowed conflict between Vimes and Carrot is not, and will never be, resolved; instead, we see in Snuff that Carrot has chosen his own diminution in the face of Vimes’ and Vetinari’s competency.

While Snuff is the last Discworld novel we will tackle for a while — I remain uncertain on which arc to tackle next, for one thing (Witches? Death? Rincewind? Moist?) — we will finish off this, what has turned out to be a much more substantial project than I was intending, with an exploration of Commander Vimes’ personality and perhaps why Pratchett was unable to resolve the Watch arc the way he was originally intending.

Terry Pratchett’s “Thud!”

51yspmmo6ul._sx289_bo1204203200_The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Night Watch; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Thud!.

Things get all political for the Watch. Again.

The League of Temperance, a.k.a. the Black Ribboners, have at last prevailed on Sam Vimes to hire a vampire officer, vampires being the creatures on the Disc Vimes least likes. But that isn’t all that’s on his plate, not by a long shot. For a grag — the dwarves’ spiritual advisors — recently moved in to the city, where he has been preaching anti-troll invective.

And now he’s dead. The dwarves think a troll did it, and the trolls are fervently hoping it wasn’t actually one of them that did it. But the anniversary of the most famous great battle between dwarf and troll, Koom Valley, is just days away, and an interspecies war is on the verge of breaking out in Ankh-Morpork.

The stakes could not get any higher. Vimes is more frazzled than ever. And he has to solve the mystery and get to the guilty parties before something else does.

Thud! is, in a word, a combination of Guards! Guards! and Night Watch-style detective novel and Jingo and The Fifth Elephant-style political intrigue. The problems between dwarves and trolls have at last come to Ankh-Morpork, largest and most cosmopolitan city on the Disc, and, just as in Jingo, Vimes races to solve a crime as the world teeters on the edge of war.

But this is a more diplomatically-experienced Vimes than the Vimes of Jingo. Where, in the latter novel, it turned out he’d had to leave the city before relations between him and Lord Rust got too sour, here, he’s forced to find a solution that does not lead to fighting on his turf.

Thus, he has to find a happy medium between dwarf and troll to investigate the grag’s murder, a medium which turns out to be Captain Carrot, a dwarf too human for the deep-downers and too dwarfish for the trolls. But even beyond that: investigating the murder, Vimes uncovers the true purpose of the dead grag’s sojourn in Ankh-Morpork, a truth that leads to the most Da Vinci Code-esque twist the Disc has ever seen.

And just like that, Vimes is racing to find out the truth — what actually happened at Koom Valley — before the deep-downers destroy it.

At the same time, the miners know the mine has gone bad, and when a mine goes bad, it can unleash potent magic on the world. A beast has been summoned, and it’s trying to lever its way into the mind of the nearest available champion — a watchman named Sam Vimes. Overworked and overburdened, Vimes is fighting a war on two fronts: an outer war to keep the peace in a world on the brink of, well, war, and an inner one against this magical entity. Can he?

I would augur that Thud! is the last “mature Pratchett” novel: though Sam Vimes has little room left to grow, he’s such a favorite no one much cares, and in Thud! the themes from the first three Watch novels (and Night Watch) meet those from Jingo and The Fifth Elephant, and just as in Night Watch viz. Guards! Guards!, we can see, in Thud! viz. Jingo, incredible character growth in Sam Vimes just from the sheer contrast in how they handle the situation at hand.

This isn’t the thriller romp Snuff turns out to be — though all the Watch novels are, of course, thrillers — with a more compelling cast and a complex subplot as well, where, just as Cheery had to learn to make peace with Angua the werewolf in Feet of Clay, so too must Angua make peace with the vampire Sally in Thud!. (Unfortunately for such a fun character — and despite the later Pratchett obsession with continuity — this is Sally’s only appearance on the Disc.) Indeed, the scenes where the two bond are some of the best-written in the entire Discworld corpus, bar none.

It is worth pointing out, too, that another key theme in Thud!, beyond the critique of fundamentalism, is of parenting — a theme Pratchett only really broaches here and in Snuff (where Young Sam is a wildly curious six-year-old). Being There to read at six is vitally important to Vimes, the main responsibility of parenthood this very, very busy father bears, and the novel’s entire climax is built around what happens when he is, in fact, unable to do so.

Thud! is also a masterful juggling of a complex plot, where all of the subplots come together in a wholly satisfying climax, one which is, I daresay, one of the most satisfying in the entire Discworld corpus: every little detail comes together here, and the way they come together is so artfully foreshadowed that they can neither be read in advance (perhaps the biggest problem Pratchett has with handling complex plots) nor do they have a deus ex machina WTF-ishness about them.

This is incredibly difficult to do, and do well, so much so that Thud! is perhaps the ultimate exemplar of how to do it well. It is this structural feat that really makes Thud! stand out, even in an arc as full of gems as the Watch one is.

Next, we will move on to the last Watch arc novel, and the only one squarely in the late Pratchett corpus, Snuff, where Vimes takes a busman’s holiday out to the country at last and there discovers a goblin slaving ring.

Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch”

9780062307408_p0_v3_s550x406The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored The Fifth Elephant; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Night Watch.

Discworld goes sci-fi. Chasing a criminal across Unseen University’s roofs, Sam Vines, in an unforeseen combination of a major temporal shattering (see Thief of Time) and magical accident, gets sent back to the past.

Not just any old past. His past. The plaything of the Fate (or perhaps the Lady), Vimes is forced to assume the identity of Sergeant-at-Arms John Keel, who, as it happens, in his brief time with the Ankh-Morpork City Watch trained one wet-behind-the-ears lance constable from a working-class part of town named . . . Samuel Vimes.

Worse, this curtailed last period of Keel’s life — according to History, he died a mere week after taking the job — was one marked by political turmoil in Ankh-Morpork: the city’s wheels were breaking down under the weight of the current Patrician, Mad Lord Winder, and his replacement, Snapcase, had curried favor with its citizenry.

As tensions reach a breaking point, it’s all Sam Vimes can do to keep himself together, bereft of his friends and colleagues — Carrot, Angua, Detritus, Cheery Littlebottom — and last, but not least, his wife Sibyl. And he has to do this while keeping his section of the city safe, training himself, keep himself alive until an opportunity presents itself to return to his own time, and, of course, nab the psychopathic maniac who got slung back to the past with him, who, naturally, in these difficult times quickly rises in society.

Unlike previous Watch novels, each of which have surprising twists in them, Night Watch is remarkably straightforward. There is no real mystery to solve here, like “Who killed John Keel?”; rather, the entire novel is driven forward by the strength of Sam Vimes’ character as he tries to survive and not lose himself in the past.

It’s also a throwback of a novel, one reminding us how far the Watch arc has come. Night Watch’s Watch is more like Guards! Guards!’ Watch than, say, Thud!’s. Young Sam reprises Carrot’s role in that novel, though in the similarities contrasts emerge: Carrot is bold and brash, all forward, going so far as to arrest the Thieves’ Guild’s master on his very first day, while Young Sam is much more cautious, quiet — observant.

One even gets the soupçon of an impression Young Sam has cottoned to Keel’s secret identity by the end.

Unlike the plots of its period’s other Watch novels, in which the mysteries inevitably involve international politics, Night Watch is, like the first three Watch novels, Ankh-Morpork-centric; the minutiae of Lord Snapcase’s replacement of Lord Winder some two decades prior have little bearing on, say, the situation in Uberwald or Klatch today.

Yet at the same time, despite its apparent simplicity, Night Watch’s political subplot is perhaps one of the most impactful on the Disc, for, just as we see Keel’s training of Young Sam, so too do we see Vetinari’s own education as a trainee Assassin under the hand of his wealthy Genuan aunt, Madame Roberta Meserole.

Indeed, it is perhaps in Night Watch where we learn more about Vetinari than any other novel . . . and one suspects, too, that Meserole’s failure to see her political goals advanced under Snapcase was a large part of why Vetinari became Patrician. In the young Havelock, we see the same drive towards hypercompetence that would define his future self’s Patricianship, but at the same time it seems unlikely he could wheel and deal his own way to becoming Patrician. His traits better fit someone who can keep being Patrician than becoming one to begin with!

Unlike any previous Watch novel, Night Watch is Vimes qua Vimes — and, coming out hot on the heels of The Fifth Elephant, where Carrot’s arc is more heavily foreshadowed than any other novel, one gets the feeling this was Vimes’ swan song. Not only does thrusting him into an environment more like Guards! Guards!’ make his growth as a character apparent, but the contrast between Young Sam and the adult Vimes lets us see not just two, but three sides to his character.

And, as he points out to Vetinari at the end, there is very little left he can bribe Vimes with. Where can this character grow? His arc seems complete.

Next, in Thud!, we will find out where Vimes’ character grows.

Terry Pratchett’s “The Fifth Elephant”

41y7ywngtvl._sx340_bo1204203200_On a personal note, The Fifth Elephant is the first Discworld book I read, and the one I’ve reread more than any other.


The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Jingo; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, The Fifth Elephant.

Someone has stolen a replica of a priceless dwarven artifact! Of course, since it’s a replica, it has minimal value in its own right, which makes the theft that much odder … Meanwhile, Sam Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Commander of the Watch, has been called away to the distant land of Überwald on a diplomatic mission, where, he learns, the original dwarven artifact, the Scone of Stone — a key relic in their new Low King’s coronation ceremony — has also been stolen.

Überwald! A land where feudal vampire and werewolf clans rule the surface and the dwarves rule the underground! And it sits exactly halfway between Ankh-Morpork and Genua, a major problem with the rise of the clacks companies, hellbent as they are on driving the Grand Trunk (a railroad reference) between the two cities. Lord Vetinari needs Überwald (or at least the bit of it in Ankh-Morpork’s way) to look to, well, Ankh-Morpork.

But the Uberwalders have other ideas, as Vimes soon discovers to his chagrin. Not all of them want to move with the times — with Ankh-Morpork’s times — and some of them protest. Strenuously. Chief among these are the Barons von Überwald, an ancient werewolf clan from around Bonk (pronounced bey-onk), one which Angua hails from, and whose power is currently mainly wielded by the baroness, Serafine, and her son, Wolfgang.

And Angua! As all this is going down, she gets called back home rather urgently — too urgently, in fact, to take the coaches with Vimes and Co. — and, just as in Jingo, Carrot must choose between what’s responsible and what’s personal. And this time, Angua says something in her letter that provokes Carrot enough to follow her home.

Plates are spinning, and in The Fifth Elephant, Vimes can barely even keep up — as characters and events converge, he has to use all his diplomatic resourcefulness to uncover the truth.

Discworld plots, on the whole, are not especially complicated. They are often villain-driven, with a clear antagonist animating the work as a whole. We see this with Men at Arms’ gonne, for example; with the antagonist in Feet of Clay; and with Carcer in Night Watch. But in Jingo and — especially — in The Fifth Elephant, the plot’s complexity ramps up tremendously; in fact, in the latter, Vimes is, at a certain level, surplus to requirements. The new Low King, Rhys Rhysson, had the upper hand the whole time, but we do not find out exactly how until the dénouement, when the Scone’s own secret — a secret the conspirators were wholly ignorant of — is at last revealed.

In a way, the shell game of The Fifth Elephant’s plot makes way for some of the greatest thematic depth of any Discworld novel. As Jingo is a meditation, ultimately, on war, The Fifth Elephant is one on diplomacy, and diplomacy itself is a game countries play with each other not unlike the games played within families — or even partnerships. Thus Angua’s strained relationship with her family takes center stage. Thus Angua’s relationship with Carrot becomes a major focal point of the novel, where here it is both a relationship and a mirror of other relationships, especially Vimes and Sibyl’s, whose marriage, it is revealed, is not all it could be, in large part due to Vimes’ workaholic attitude. Thus we have introduced the character of Lady Margolotta, perhaps Lord Vetinari’s mentor and almost certainly his ex-lover, a relationship whose subtle machinations underscore the complex diplomatic games being played around Bonk.

And the clacks, too, represent a major thematic shift in Discworld novels. Up till now, technology has been an antagonistic force on the Disc, with Moving Pictures’ moving pictures unmaking reality and Men at Arms’ gonne being both sentient and evil. But in the period between Men at Arms and The Fifth Elephant, there has clearly been a rethinking of the role of technology on the Disc. Perhaps Vetinari has been inspired by the gonne’s murder of Hammerhock due to its jealousy the dwarf could replicate and even mass-produce it — realizing, from the object’s action, that one way to neuter the technomantic powers new inventions tend to have on the Disc is to allow them to proliferate (a theme picked up again in The Truth and Raising Steam, for example).

But, on the other hand, semaphore technology is not a new thing the way the gonne is in Men at Arms, the printing press in The Truth, or the train in Raising Steam. What is new is its application to mass communications, a revolution not unlike the development of the telegraph on our world — or the telephone — or the Internet — or the smartphone. The question of technology on the Disc remains a live one, but in The Fifth Elephant a major — permanent — thematic shift has been made, one where the Disc is no longer hostile to the adoption of new technology.

One final note needs to be made here, and that is that The Fifth Elephant foreshadows planned resolutions to key tensions underlying the Watch series as a whole. Angua makes Carrot vow to go after her should she ever go feral (a real concern for a werewolf), and in seeing the differing fates of Carrot and the wolf Gavin, Angua’s two paramours, Vimes frets about the day he must oppose Carrot.

We can see here the thematic plan for how the Watch series would come to an end: Carrot would, eventually, be forced to put Angua down; and Vimes and Carrot (presumably after Vetinari’s death) be placed in a position of implacable opposition over the question of whether or not Ankh-Morpork should have a king. Carrot is the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, and in the end of The Fifth Elephant, he demonstrates (if it hadn’t been clear enough already) he knows this, all but saying outright that the traditional King’s Shilling is a vow made by the Watch to him personally.

Of course Pratchett never executes this plan. Perhaps by The Fifth Elephant he had become too attached to his characters ever to. A prompt for a fanfic, perhaps?

Beginning with Feet of Clay, we entered what I think of as the “Watch highstand”, a series of good Watch novels some five books long. Next, we will continue this highstand with one of the most inventive and imaginative Discworld books, Night Watch.

Terry Pratchett’s “Jingo”

41jhzesnlelThe late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Feet of Clay; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Jingo.

The mysterious island of Leshp has risen from the depths of the Circle Sea! Unfortunately, Ankh-Morpork and Klatchian fishermen were fishing in the vicinity when it appeared, and both have laid claim to the place. As Ankh-Morpork and Klatch — the Circle Sea’s two most dominant states — can best be thought of as being in a state of guarded peace, Leshp’s appearance can only further exacerbate tensions. Calls for war begin to ring out in both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, and at the heart of it all, Commander Vimes suspects there’s a crime going on.

He’s right.

Said crimes, of course, include “behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace” (because “that’s what warfare is”), “conspiracy to cause an affray, going equipped to commit a crime, obstruction, threatening behavior, loitering with intent, loitering within tent, traveling for the purposes of committing a crime, malicious lingering, and carrying concealed weapons” (p. 403).

But, as the situation deteriorates, Ankh-Morpork’s war hawks prevail on Lord Vetinari to step down, and his replacement, Lord Rust, is … less than competent. To top it all off, Angua’s stowed away on a Klatchian ship a-spying and Carrot, earnest boyfriend that he is, worries something’s happened to her. (He is, of course, right.) With Rust trying to force his will on Vimes’ Watch, Angua missing, and open hostilities right around the corner, Vimes is forced to make tough choices, choices which ultimately lead to the difference between life and death.

He even has a buggy Dis-organizer to tell him exactly that.

In the first three Watch novels, Vimes and Co. were concerned mainly with small crimes, crimes like homicides, which in turn led to much bigger ones (usually conspiracies to unseat Vetinari). Here, Vimes knows in his water the crime is much, much bigger: not just a crime affecting the internal politics of Ankh-Morpork but one affecting the broader international community. Leshp is at the tip of the iceberg; both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch have been jonesing for war for some time now, and the place is mainly an excuse.

But when it comes to warfare, neither side wants to be seen as the aggressor, and so the diplomatic game hinges on creating conditions whether both sides can argue they’re acting in self-defense — one, usually dishonestly. Vimes knows this. And he’s absolutely certain that it’s his own Ankh-Morporkian kith and kin acting in bad faith. Naturally, along the way, he meets his Klatchian counterpart — who, likewise, believes it’s his own kith and kin acting dishonestly. Who is right?

At its core, Jingo is thus a meditation on war, on the causes of war, and on its effects. As Vimes and Co. race to figure out what’s going on before said behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace causes a breach of the peace, he has to figure it out, and fast.

Naturally, the Discworld’s version of Julius Caesar or Sun Tzu, General Tacticus, becomes a major theme of this novel. Elsewhere in the series, we learned that Tacticus was the most effective general Ankh-Morpork ever had, one whose effectiveness was in part due to a refusal to play by the same rules numbskulls like Lord Rust liked to, and because of this, when Genua wrote to Ankh-Morpork needing a king, Tacticus was made a duke and sent off, where, naturally, his first action on getting crowned was to assess Genua’s threats, paramount of which was … Ankh-Morpork.

In Jingo, the Librarian lends Vimes a copy of Tacticus before he sets off, and Tacticus quotes come into play several times in the novel, yielding some of Pratchett’s best lines, lines such as: “When a defender occupies an impregnable fortress, see that he stays there”, or “when outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned, don’t have a battle”. As Vimes seeks the truth, we see how badly Rust has ignored Tacticus’ advice — at Jingo’s climax, Rust is about to try to assault the enemy’s impregnable fortress with an outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned army — the question is, in fact, whether Vimes can figure out what’s going on before Rust leads Ankh-Morpork to certain disaster.

So far in the series, Vimes has been antipolitical. Not so much apolitical: he speaks his mind with brutal honesty, and this is a quality that Vetinari prizes in him but also thinks of as a weakness. But in Jingo, we see the next major change in the Watch novels’ tenor — by the end of the novel, Vetinari sees the political value of Vimes’ antipolitical approach to politics, thus setting us up for the next novel, The Fifth Elephant, where Vetinari throws Vimes to the political wolves.

In Jingo, in short, the Watch goes from CSI: Ankh-Morpork to Homeland: Discworld. And as always, Terry Pratchett makes sure we enjoy the ride.