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City Watch trilogy by Terry Pratchett
(Victor Gollancz, £16.99, hardback, 759 pages; published 1999, received 3 December 1999.)

'"To the axeman, all supplicants are the same height."'

'"Yet verily, the rose is within the thorn."'

'"The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy,"' said the voice behind the door.

There was a pause, broken only by the sound of the rain. Then the visitor said, 'What?'

'"The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy."'

There was another, longer pause. Then the damp figure said, 'Are you sure the ill-built tower doesn't tremble mightily at a butterfly's passage?'

'Nope. Bean soup it is. I'm sorry.'

Yes, dark deeds are afoot in the 'oldest and greatest and grubbiest of cities', Ankh-Morpork.

cover scanPretty soon, a dragon is on the loose, turning the occasionally-good citizens into charred marks on the walls. And the Unseen University's Librarian - an orang-utan, in case you didn't know - is getting upset about a stolen book. And a rather tall dwarf by the name of 'Carrot' volunteers to join the City Watch to enforce the ancient laws of the city, to the letter, when everyone knows that just isn't the way things work in a city that has an annual quota for thefts because it's so much more efficient that way. And poor Captain Vimes would far rather just have another drink and deal with it all tomorrow. If he must.

One way of rating a Terry Pratchett novel is on the frequency of jokes and passages you simply have to read aloud to whoever is nearby. In this respect, Guards! Guards! is a fairly quiet book for the reader's family. It's more a decent tale with lots of wry grins and the customary eternal truths about the human condition that Pratchett works so effortlessly into his work. Not at all bad, then.

Men at Arms, the second novel included in this omnibus edition, follows in the same vein: good, solid Pratchett that you just can't help liking even if it's not among his best.

The 'men' of the title should be taken in the broadest sense of the word, as it has been stretched to embrace a dwarf, a troll, a woman and a ... well, they're taking all sorts these days in the City Watch, as political correctness reaches Ankh-Morpork.

Early on, Carrot the rather tall dwarf who's not really a dwarf at all but may even have some royal blood in him gets caught up in the plotting of one Edward d'Eath (the 37th Lord of d'Eath) to return royalty to the throne, regardless of whether anyone actually wants it. Pretty soon, a series of deaths stirs up inter-guild and inter-species rivalry and the city is threatened with chaos.

Indeed, for much of the novel, the main puzzle is what on earth is going on, but Pratchett's track record is such that you trust him to be orchestrating rather than simply losing control. Suffice to say, he pulls it all together at the end as much as is necessary, although the twists and turns of Men at Arms don't exactly display Pratchett plotting at its peak. Perversely, perhaps, one of the novel's strengths is in the characterisation, or rather, the relationships between the characters, as the initial animosity between the dwarf Cuddy and the troll Detritus get put aside in their growing mutual respect. Their developing friendship is a neat counterpoint to the looming racial conflict between dwarves and trolls in the city: there are, you see, no dwarves or trolls in the Watch, but simply Watchmen, and Watchwomen, and, er...

The final novel in this omnibus, Feet of Clay, reveals what we already knew: this is not a trilogy, as such -- the story of the City Watch develops through the three stories, but there is no resolution, no grand plan. It is simply three connected books bundled together. There will very likely be a fourth and perhaps further stories in this strand of the Discworld series.

Feet of Clay is about what it is to be human. Or rather, in this multi-species world, what it is to be a person. Golems, for instance, are not people: they are made of clay, controlled by the words in their head cavities, mere tools to be bought and sold and worked around the clock. They don't complain, either, because they don't know any better. Until now...

Everyone knows Golems don't come cheap, so why the strange knock on the door (or rather, through the door)? Why are they almost willing to give away this shiny new golem? And will there be any connection between this and the strange murder at the Dwarf Bread Museum and the very tidily dead priest they find with grease under his finger nails? It's all up to Commander Vimes and crew to find out.

Feet of Clay is as deftly constructed as ever, although the plotting is perhaps a bit too heavy-handed and obvious. The humour is Pratchett at his sharpest, though, combining incisive insight with comedic genius that is hard to match:

It was Carrot who'd suggested to the Patrician that hardened criminals should be given the chance to 'serve the community' by redecorating the homes of the elderly, lending a new terror to old age and, given Ankh-Morpork's crime rate, leading to at least one old lady having her front room wallpapered so many times in six months that now she could only get into it sideways.

I tend to find that I have differing reactions to Discworld novels: some are breathtakingly funny and clever, while others are simply well crafted entertainments. And although I've read many books in the series, I still haven't worked out if that's a genuine distinction or more an indication of my own receptiveness when I read them: sometimes I'm simply in the right frame of mind for a Pratchett, and others, perhaps not.

As far as the City Watch Trilogy is concerned, the first two novels were merely decent Pratchett, while the third was a much fresher return to form. But that may simply have been me.

Also noted:

Guards! Guards! A Discworld Graphic Novel
by Terry Pratchett, adapted by Stephen Briggs, illustrated by Graham Higgins
(Victor Gollancz, £9.99, 122 pages, tradecover scan paperback; hardback also available, £16.99; published 14 December 2000.)

A splendidly illustrated graphical version of the novel. As with any adaptation, much is lost, but fortunately in this case a lot is gained in Graham Higgins' wonderfully atmospheric comic strip illustrations. At first it's something of a shock, to be forced to leave behind Josh Kirby's imagery which has always been so closely associated with Pratchett's novels, but Higgins' starker style is well suited to this exploration of Ankh-Morpork's darker side.

It does conjure up an intriguing alternative, with Higgins and Pratchett as an alternative Goscinny and Uderzo, and a reviewer ending up discussing the wisdom of allowing Pratchett to start writing novelisations of the stories which had first appeared in comics. Perhaps not. It would certainly be interesting to see more of these graphical versions.

Review by Nick Gifford.

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© Nick Gifford 17 February 2001