Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett

monstrousGood evening, gentlemen!  Please pay attention.  I am a reformed vampire, which is to say, I am a bundle of suppressed instincts held together by spit and coffee.  It would be wrong to say that violent, tearing carnage does not come easily to me.  It’s not tearing your throats out that doesn’t come easily to me.  Please don’t make it any harder.
-Private Maladict, Black Ribboner and soldier in the service of Borogravia, to recent captures

It is not an unusual story; a woman dresses as a man to get into the army, for various reasons; this story can be seen in history as well as fiction.  When the woman lives on the Discworld, though, the story takes one of those off-kilter spins.  This is the rather simple opening of Monstrous Regiment.

Polly Perks wants to join the army-specifically, the army of Borogravia, which is a small country with a short temper, ruled by Duchess Annagovia (at least in name).  It’s also got a fairly strict religion following the god Nuggan that has declared a whole bunch of things as Abominations.  You know, the usual list:  chocolate, dwarfs, the color blue, and clacks towers (this religion’s got the only holy book with a appendix with room for additions).  Another Abomination is the idea of women owning property.  Borogravia also has an irritating habit of taking lands that really doesn’t belong to it.  This has given it no shortage of enemies.

Polly wants to join the army mainly because of the aforementioned Abomination laws (women can only inherit “the things of women”, which property definitely doesn’t fall under); in order for her to keep her family’s inn-ironically named “The Duchess”-she needs to get her brother, Paul.  Who was last seen serving in the army’s Tenth Foot, a.k.a “The Ins-and-Outs”.  So when they happen to be passing through, Polly cuts short her hair, and dresses appropriately to have a man made of her (er, so to speak).  It turns out that Paul is presently MIA, but she doesn’t have any other leads.  Besides, the crew she falls in with is a handful enough.  It would be bad enough trying to keep her gender a secret among a “normal” army.  However, the new recruits include a vampire with a craving for coffee, a troll, and an Igor (who always believe in recycling parts….).  And she soon discovers that many of these people have their own secrets.

Throw in the fact that one of the latest enemies is a city that is miffed by having its clacks towers burned down (that would be “Ankh-Morpork”), and the situation becomes very slippery indeed; it doesn’t help that along with soldiers, Ankh-Morpork has sent the second most powerful man in the city and nicknamed “The Butcher” to see to things.  There’s also little details like opportunistic national neighbors and the media that also enjoys to get involved with times of turmoil; all of which keep the Ins-and-Outs occupied; and nobody’s quite sure what’s become of the Duchess herself….

In all honesty, this book didn’t grab me as much as other Discworld offerings, and I can’t really put my finger on why; it isn’t because of the characters-between Maladict the vampire, Polly, Sergeant Jackrum (I love the character’s way of speaking-“Upon my oath!”), and “The Butcher”, there’s not any shortage of interesting characters.  Perhaps it is a bit of the plot, which seems to meander at times (although, I’ll admit, when you’re on the side of the army that is losing, your options get a little limited).  Or perhaps there’s a bit too much going on at once; we’ve got Polly’s infiltration of the Ins-and-Outs, the broader picture of the war, the Ankh-Morpork point of view, the media involvement….

All the same, Monstrous Regiment does have a large number of fun moments, and Pratchett once again manages to take some shots at the various conventions (for some reason, of the entire regiment, Polly doesn’t have any trouble at all with “pretending” to be a woman, just as one example).  And given the way things tend to trend up to midway through the books, some of the final revelations won’t be horribly surprising, although there quite a bit of irony involved.  This isn’t a bad book at all, but it didn’t really turn out to be my cup of tea (I’ve probably been spoiled by the City Watch grouping of books, and the Death grouping, and the Witches grouping….)

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Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

guardsYou, er, want us to attack him?
Of course, you idiot!
But, er, there’s only one of him.
And he’s smilin’.
Prob’ly goin’ to swing on the chandeliers any minute.  And kick over the table, and that.
-The argument with the Palace Guard, who are all-too-aware of the usual conventions

It’s astounding how quickly I’ve become sucked into the Discworld.  It wasn’t all that long ago that I’d picked up Mort, and now, I’ve picked up a small horde of these books!  One of the things I’ve noticed is that we’ve got perhaps four or five different settings (for lack of a better word) that Pratchett covers.  First off, there’s the stories about Death.  An interesting character, sure, especially for the big truths of Discworld (take that as you will); then there’s the witches led by Granny Weatherwax; then the most inept wizard on Discworld, Rincewind.  There’s a bunch of miscellaneous books.  But the ones that really got my attention centers on the City Watch (specifically, the Night Watch) of the self-proclaimed greatest city on Discworld, Ankh-Morpork.

It’s not exactly what you look for in fantasy cities.  The place is so corrupt that the law enforcement mostly relies upon the guilds to take care of offenses (it’s a bad idea to be an unlicensed thief, for example).  It’s a city without a king, but run by a Patrician named Havelock Vetinari, a schemer without peer.  However, there are individuals in the city who feel that maybe it’s time for a king to rule again-as long as the king is under their control.  And how better to find a “rightful king” than by having him slay a dragon?  Of course, the next trick to to get a dragon to the city.

Meanwhile, the tallest dwarf on the Disc named Carrot Ironfoundersson (he was adopted) is sent to the city by his father to mix a bit with his own people.  He’s steered towards joining the Night Watch, but he has far too noble an idea of just what the Watch is.  However, Carrot is just so filled with…well, righteousness that it doesn’t even enter his head to just do as the other officers do (all three of them).  And what a trio they are:  Sergeant Colon, a fellow who you could tell by looking would never promote any higher up; Corporal Nobbs, who barely qualifies as being human; and Captain Vimes, who runs the Night Watch half-drunk, but has a core sense of decency which hasn’t been let out nearly often enough.

Things start hitting the fan when the dragon makes an appearance….

This was a great book!  The secret society working to bring forth the dragon puts a new spin on crazy password rituals (not to mention demonstrating how low one can get in terms of intelligence).  Lord Vetinari is a fellow who thinks about twenty moves ahead of everyone (his dungeons are proof enough of that).  Nobbs is one of those folks who believes that if it ain’t nailed down, it’s his (and if he can pry it loose….).  But the characters who really stand out for me were Vimes and Carrot.  Carrot is one of those folks who just reek of being the Ultimate Boy Scout, but a little slow with metaphor; and Vimes is the classic hard-bitten detective (or he would be, if it were a different genre).

The city of Ankh-Morpork was also about as interesting as any of the characters.  One character observes that no invader has ever conquered the city, mostly because the city tends to absorb the invaders and make them its own.  It’s a place where laws are more of a guideline than an actual rule (although a certain character has a little trouble with that concept).  It’s a place where an orangutan could be a Librarian of the Unseen University for wizards, and know secrets that very few Librarians were permitted to learn.  And it’s a place where sometimes you have to work to get to the million-to-one chance…because it might just work.

The book is loaded with wit; finding a quote for this review was difficult because frankly, there were just too many good ones (like the one about the games the gods play, or the secret behind the dungeons, or the problem with throwing the book at a criminal).  Yet for all the humor, the plot of the book hangs together, and makes for an extremely satisfying read.  For anyone who felt sorry for and rooted for the men who, as mentioned in the book’s dedication, “rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered”, this one’s for you.

(2015 note:  last week, Terry Pratchett passed away.  RIP.)

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Mort, by Terry Pratchett

What was your job again?
Ah, of course, of course, sorry, should have guessed from the clothes.
-Lezek speaking with Death

I’d been meaning to read some of Terry Pratchett’s books for a while.  It had begun in ’98 with a hardcover book with the simple title of Legends.  It was a bunch of short novels written by a number of the most popular fantasy authors today, based in their best known settings.  For George R. R. Martin, it was a story from the world in his ongoing series A Song of Ice and Fire.  For Stephen King, there was a tale of Roland from his Dark Tower books.  And for Terry Pratchett, it was a story of Discworld.  It hit my funny bone hard enough to get me interested, but I’d put off purchasing any of his books…until recently.

So, I finally picked up Mort.

Discworld is a strange world.  It’s a flat, circular planet resting on the backs of four elephants…who are standing on a very large turtle.  There are a number of kingdoms around, on four continents (details can be found in the back of the book, in a travel guide called Discworld on $30 a day).  Near the Ramtops mountains, there is a grassy area where a young boy-who perhaps isn’t the sharpest blade in the scabbard-is presented at the hiring fair in hopes of becoming somebody’s apprentice.  Near the very last minute, however, the boy-Mort-and his father is approached by the last person one would expect to be looking for an apprentice-Death.

In his apprenticeship, Mort is introduced to what Death calls The Duty, where he must be on hand for the deaths of important personages (or cats)-or as he puts it, “SPECIAL OCCASIONS”.  That isn’t all that surprising, really:  what is surprising is Death’s houseguests…an old man named Albert, and Death’s daughter, Ysabell.  And a horse named Binky.  We get introduced to some of the facts of death as Mort travels a bit with Death; then disaster strikes:  Death lets Mort perform the Duty on few people solo.  And that’s when things start to get interesting.

There were a significant amount of moments in this book that had me bursting out laughing-and it’s been a while since I’ve done that.  Death was at once an inhuman being and in some ways, all too human.  Mort undergoes a great deal of growth in this book, from the somewhat less swift to a very significant person in his own right…although he kind of has to grow up quickly.  There is a subplot running through the book involving a princess that Mort meets under the expected circumstances, and is a major cause of trouble in the book.  I also enjoyed the room with hourglasses measuring out every living being’s life, and a library that contains the book of every being’s life…works in progress, until the end.

I have to say, once I finished reading this book, I wondered to myself, “What the hell have I been waiting for?”  On my hitlist for future purchases-and soon-will be as many Discworld books as I can lay my hands on.  I haven’t enjoyed a good humorous fantasy book this much since Robert Aspirin’s Another Fine MythMort is a book I’d recommend to anyone who has a funny bone!

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Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

You haven’t killed your wife.  Anywhere.  There is nowhere, however huge the multiverse is, where Sam Vimes as he is now has murdered Lady Sybil.  But the theory is quite clear.  It says that if anything can happen without breaking any physical laws, it must happen.  But it hasn’t.  And yet the ‘multiverse’ theory works.  Without it, no one would ever be able to make a decision at all.
So what people do matters!  People invent other laws.  What they do is important!  The Abbot’s very excited about this.  He nearly swallowed his biscuit.  It means the multiverse isn’t infinite, and people’s choices are far more vital than they think.  They can, by what they do, change the universe.
-Lu-Tze, Monk of History, and Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch

If you’ve read Pratchett’s books, you know may have a feeling for what you’re in for.  If not, Night Watch isn’t a bad book to get your feet wet in.

A lot has changed since Sam Vimes was a simple captain of the Night Watch.  Due to a number of odd events (even for the city of Ankh-Morpork), the Watch has increased in size, he’s been promoted all the way up to nobility, gotten married, and is perhaps a day away from the birth of his first child.  But sometimes, Sam misses the days where he could just walk the beat of the streets, feel the city through his boots.  Now he feels more like a politician or administrator.  Unfortunately, in Discworld, nobody’s yet coined the phrase “Be careful what you wish for”.

On the anniversary of a revolution, when several good men died above and beyond the call of duty, the Watch manages to corner a murderer named Carcer, with enough dementia to fit two heads-both of them nasty.  Even on this day, even with his wife just about ready to give birth, Sam is on the job, and makes a good play at capturing the killer.  Unfortunately, their chase takes them near Unseen University, and they happen to be falling through the ceiling during a thunderstorm…with lightning.  And that isn’t good in a place where the laws of physics tend to be considerably looser than other places on the Disc.

As a result, Sam wakes up in the past, and inconveniently a few days prior to that same revolution-and thanks to Carcer, history itself is already in danger.

This book is the latest of the Discworld books, but it is also the latest chronicling the…well, adventures isn’t quite right…of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork.  While the previous books have been mostly an ensemble cast production, this one belongs to Sam Vimes, probably one of my top three favorite characters in the setting.  Honest (when he needs to be) and realistic (unless the cost is too high), he’s the very definition of a copper.  Not necessarily a good copper (he’s been known to toss aside the badge), but he always ends up doing the right thing.  So it isn’t surprising that he tries to step in someone’s shoes to fill the gap inadvertently opened up by Carcer’s murderous ways.

Night Watch gives the reader a peek at the early days of the career of Sam Vimes, showing the influence a man named John Keel had on him.  But we also get to see the early days of the other old members of the Watch, Nobby Nobbs and Fred Colon.  Even better, we see some of the early moments of some of Ankh-Morpork’s more famous (or at least infamous) individuals, including Patrician Vetinari and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler.  And then there’s the revolution; readers might be interested to see how the city functioned before Vetinari came to power, and see just how much worse things were before he stepped into the scene.  The corruption even in the City Watch puts a city already on edge slowly over that edge.

It’s also interesting to see how Sam adapts to the past.  He’s a very different man now than he was then, and we get a good look at the contrasts between the two-and some of the similarities that seem to have held true over the years.  His experiences put him ahead of virtually everyone in the Watch, even though they don’t really know that.  It also means that things he considers old are new again.  Unfortunately, Carcer realizes that too, and he cashes in on some of his knowledge-and his rather unsavory habits-to put himself in positions where Sam can’t conveniently catch him and cause him “grievous bodily harm”.  However, Sam comes to realize that if Carcer can change history, he can too….including trying to ensure that there are a few less graves in the Cemetery of Small Gods.

Strangely enough, even though this is the latest of the City Watch books, it stands on its own two feet quite nicely.  Previous exposure to Discworld is hardly a requirement, as everything you need to know are contained between the two covers.  On the other hand, longtime readers will certainly appreciate references to characters and events in other Discworld books; they’ll also be better prepared to deal with Pratchett’s writing style.

If this review makes you think this is a serious book…well, it is.  At least it’s more serious than many of the other Discworld books, where insanity is a watchword, where Death has an odd sense of humor and the sense of a wizard’s power is how often he doesn’t need to fall back on his magic.  But this is Terry Pratchett we’re talking about, so there’s still a fair chunk of humor to be found, with a side of the ridiculous-it’s just not as obvious as in previous books.  Don’t let this put you off, though; Night Watch is a fine novel of Discworld, and a good fantasy novel to boot.  With this book, Pratchett demonstrates (again) that the Discworld isn’t just good for the funny bone; it’s also good for fantasy readers in general, too.

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