14 May, 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

1. Now we’re talking! This book shows everything that I love about Discworld, in one novel—and it’s a unique one to boot. The biggest step out of the normal for Pratchett is that this puts all the pieces of the earlier novels together in a confident way. Most notably, it features the multiple primary perspectives of Sourcery, and the ensemble cast structure of Wyrd Sisters. Where the prior seven novels had multiple characters, five were run through the lens of a central character: Rincewind, Mort, Eskarina, or Pteppic. Sourcery had multiple primary perspectives, but its own set of problems with pacing and story. Wyrd Sisters had an ensemble cast, but was so heavily focused on the eponymous three characters that they essentially functioned as the Rincewind to the rest of the characters—the base from which the tone and illumination was built from. Guards! Guards! is an ensemble novel, with multiple stories coming together to form a whole better than its parts. Multiple prime perspectives combine to explore a central theme and story to its conclusion. Where most of the rest struggled to be novels in places, this is a complex novel and pulls it off. Vimes and Carrot and Lupine Wonse and the Patrician play off each other so well, and have such different perspectives on life, that the whole thing impresses me in the craft. This is four stories in one, tied together by an overarching plot. Perhaps the city, Ankh-Morporkh, is the main character of Pratchett’s series as a whole, and this is the first book where he really digs into life in that city, with all the ups and downs, from multiple perspectives. The differences between the perspectives illuminate the city in a way that this architecture student had been looking for. The story itself involves all four characters and requires all four.
I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.

2. So I think that’s the main theme here: cities and how people live in them.
—Carrot is the recent immigrant, eyes still full of the bright lights and beauty of it all. He believes in the city’s inherent goodness and follows its laws so that he can be a benefit to the society. He is the optimist.
—The Patrician runs the city by making sure all the elements balance out. For instance, rather than trying to eradicate crime, he creates guilds for the criminals, and allots them a certain amount of crime every year. He’s hands off most of the time, but subtle with the way he influences things. He is the practical man.
—Captain Vimes is part cynic, part incompetent. He also experiences the most change throughout the novel. He’s an officer of the Night Watch, which Carrot joins, but aware of his position as top of the trash bag. He’s riding out his term, really. His job has lost its luster, as has his uniform. He’s the pessimist.
—Lupine Wonse is the head of a secret organization intending to change the basic structure of the city because it was better back in the day. He’s the nostalgically bitter old man and busybody who thinks he knows how to run things better.
—These four characters encapsulate views of the city. They put categories to the stages of city living, to the thoughts of city dwellers. They have been useful in my life, here in a small city in the Inland Northwest. I recognize these characters in people I meet, and vice-versa. It’s a startlingly discerning portrait of a city, through the eyes of four archetypes of city dwellers.
If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn't as cynical as real life.

3. Pratchett doesn’t let the jokes run away with the story at all. Don’t get me wrong, there are many funny points here. Yet the funny isn’t the point the way it is in earlier novels. This is less slapstick and more wry wit. In other words, the jokes here illuminate and explore the theme, rather than the other way around. It’s more darkly humorous. It’s more ironic and cerebral instead of in your face and unexpected. Where he used to throw two crazy characters together and watch what happened until he ran out of funny ideas, here he throws them together and watches what happens until they wander away from the point of the novel—and this is a big improvement. He certainly uses jokes still, but he also uses them for a point, and that point is his exploration of city-ness. Urbanity. Whatever the hip architecture kids call it now.
Down there—he said—are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no.

4. At its base, the story is a detective novel. This fundamental plot and driving force benefits the novel by making it go forward in a way that’s not too distracting, but still engages. This is a hard thing to say, and I think that prior sentence said it wrong. I will take two examples: The Odyssey by Homer, and A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars is an engaging story that goes from conflict to conflict quickly and carries the reader along through cliff-hangers, murders, exploration, and fight scenes. The Odyssey has all the same pieces—exploration, cliff-hangers, murders, and fight scenes—yet is more focused on the theme of hospitality and how people react to this long war that just got over. A Princess of Mars is pulp fiction—there for the entertainment almost exclusively—while The Odyssey is literature based on a pulpy plot line—the pulp stuff drives the book forward in a way that engages, but doesn’t distract me from the theme. This Pratchett novel, Guards! Guards!, is more like The Odyssey than A Princess of Mars. It’s a book that rewards digging past the surface layer, but still relies on that surface to push the characters around, to pull the plot along, to engage the reader but not distract them, to pace the book appropriately. It’s a brilliantly pulled off tactic.
These weren't encouraged in the city, since the heft and throw of a longbow's arrow could send it through an innocent bystander a hundred yards away instead of the innocent bystander at whom it was aimed.

5. In closing, the prior seven novels—I use that term loosely—struggled to find the right balance between humor, story, characters, and ideas. Here, at last, Pratchett is confident with the experimentation in his earlier works. The books before this one were partially misses and partial misses, but this one shows a confident Pratchett incorporating all of the earlier novels’ successes, perfectly balancing the result of his learning. This one is an absolute hit. His confidence comes out as much in the flawless pacing as in the integration of multiple perspectives, as much in his humor as in his characters. This was the book that got me into Pratchett originally, and it’s my favorite that I’ve reviewed here so far. It’s a great place to start in on Pratchett.
It was the usual Ankh-Morpork mob in times of crisis; half of them were here to complain, a quarter of them were here to watch the other half, and the remainder were here to rob, importune or sell hot-dogs to the rest.

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