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The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, £16.99, 317 pages, hardback. Published November 1999.)

Do you remember getting comic annuals as Christmas presents when you were kids, big hardback books like enlarged versions of the comics themselves? Terry Pratchett's annual pre-Christmas Discworld offerings are a bit like them: eagerly anticipated and quickly read, often devoured at one sitting. Pratchett's books have one important distinction, though -- they tend to last a good deal longer than Boxing Day before you're bored with them (if ever)! His offering this year, the excellent The Fifth Elephant, is no exception. The man simply gets better all the time. Just when you wonder if he hasn't wrung every drop of creative juice out of a set of characters, he comes up with a way to revive and rejuvenate them.

This year, it's the turn of Sam Vimes and his fellow officers of the City Watch, always some of TP's finest creations. For reasons best known to Vetenari, Vimes and wife are despatched off on a diplomatic mission to Uberwald, the dark land of the Discworld, inhabited mainly by dwarves, vampires and werewolves. Naturally enough, Sam Vimes as a diplomat is a strong chaos attractor, and it doesn't take long for him to end up on the wrong side of a powerful werewolf family and deeply involved in solving a plot against the soon-to-be-crowned new King of the Dwarves. Only the vampires seem to like him, and that can't be good!

Pratchett seems to get better at plotting book by book. The Fifth Elephant has any number of twists and turns before the plot is resolved. Along the way, we also get just as many chuckles, often at Pratchett's acute observations about life. They may be recast onto the form of a feminist dwarf, or a pair of confused lovers (one of whom happens to be a werewolf), but they resonate beautifully.

Terry's a wise man, a witty writer and a damned clever author. There are not many people who can carry on a series for as long as Pratchett has without falling off into self-parody or plain boring repetition. How he manages it I don't know and I don't really care, just as long as he keeps coming up with ways to fill these cold winter evenings with merriment and magic.

Review by John D Owen.

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© John D Owen 24 December 1999