Guards! Guards! ~ Terry Pratchett

  • Title: Guards! Guards!
  • Author: Terry Pratchett
  • Series: Discworld #8
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Format: paperback
  • Source: own
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  Here there be dragons . . . and the denizens of Ankh-Morpork wish one huge firebreather would return from whence it came. Long believed extinct, a superb specimen of draco nobilis (“noble dragon” for those who don’t understand italics) has appeared in Discworld’s greatest city. Not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling everything in its path, in rather short order it is crowned King (it is a noble dragon, after all).

Meanwhile, back at Unseen University, an ancient and long-forgotten volume–The Summoning of Dragons–is missing from the Library’s shelves. To the rescue come Captain Vimes, Constable Carrot, and the rest of the Night Watch who, along with other brave citizens, risk everything, including a good roasting, to dethrone the flying monarch and restore order to Ankh-Morpork (before it’s burned to a crisp). A rare tale, well done as only Terry Pratchett can.

Review: 

This introduction to the City Watch theme on Discworld is a great novel. I loved it.

The story is simple – on the surface. The City Watch of Ankh-Morpork is a pitiful trio, commanded by a drunkard Sam Vimes. Their main occupation each night is walking the streets, ringing bells, and shouting that all is well. And running to the crime scenes slow enough to let the culprits escape. No use in risking their lives, right?

The city functions perfectly well without them, until a dragon comes to terrorize the citizens. And until the Watch acquires a new recruit – Carrot, an adopted dwarf and a treasure of this series. Simultaneously a naïve boy, a dauntless leader, and an intrepid warrior, all rolled into a muscular, six-foot-tall body of a country bumpkin, Carrot is too honorable for the corrupt city, and he doesn’t even realize it. He flips the Watch on its multiple heads, makes them all ashamed of their cowardice, and transforms the worthless bunch of incompetents into a real police unit by the sheer force of his personality. Almost.

Carrot’s unique (for Ankh-Morpork) penchant for courage and integrity seems to be catching. Confronted with the threat of draconic incineration, Carrot’s fellow Watchmen dredge up their hidden valor, sober up, run uncustomary swiftly for once in their lives, and save the city and her ruler, Lord Vetinary, from the dragon’s tyranny. They even get a new kettle as their reward. 

My summary follows the plotline vaguely, but this novel is much more than its plot. Like many Pratchett’s novels, this one is a contemplation of human nature, and the picture the author paints is grim. Are we all really as bad, I wonder? Is there even a shred of decency in any of us?

The novel starts as a satirical farce, with a number of hysterical pages. In the beginning, I laughed myself to tears, until the mood turned midway through the novel, and I stopped laughing. Nothing the author said in the last third of the book was funny. The dragon was defeated, yes, but in Pratchett’s interpretation, the implied triumph of freedom became a rather morbid study of human guile and its inescapable companion – stupidity.  

Characters are the unquestionable forte of this book, foremost of them Carrot. A star of the tale, Carrot doesn’t change. Instead, he is a catalyst of change. Like a real star, he causes the others to revolve around him, to absorb his inner light and become better in the process. I’m absolutely fascinated by Carrot, and even more by the writer who invented him and put him in the middle of his very cynical series.

Captain Sam Vimes and the members of his Watch are also worth mentioning. They are people ground into the dirtiest dirt by life and self-disgust and then pulled out of the gutter by Carrot. They rise to the occasion, becoming reluctant heroes. Almost. At Carrot’s side, they all try to be taller, bolder, smarter. It’s a fascinating metamorphosis and fun to watch – how men learn to respect themselves. Occasionally, they even leap to the highest levels of heroism and perception. Here are Sam Vimes’ s insights about the origins of dragons:

A realm of fancy, Vimes thought. That’s where they [dragons] went, then. Into our imagination. And when we call them back we shape them, like squeezing dough into pastry shapes. Only you don’t get gingerbread men, you get what you are. Your own darkness, given shape…

Vimes speculations prove correct. The dragon in this book is as evil as his conjurer, the villain of the story. A petty conman with delusions of grandeur, this piddling swindler is contemptuous of everyone, even his followers.   

The Supreme Grand Master smiled in the depths of his robe. It was amazing, this mystic business. You tell them a lie, and then when you don’t need it any more you tell them another lie and tell them they’re progressing along the road to wisdom. Then instead of laughing they follow you even more, hoping that at the heart of all the lies they’ll find the truth. And bit by bit they accept the unacceptable. Amazing. 

Unfortunately, there is so much truth in his attitude, I wanted to wail in frustration. It is us who allow such scoundrels to succeed in their crooked schemes. More often than not, we pave the way to our own slavery ourselves and humbly thank the ones who wield metaphorical whips over our heads. History is full of examples – to our collective shame. No surprise, Lord Vetinary holds such a low opinion of humanity.  

Lord Vetinary, the ruler of the city, is a recurring character in the series, one of my favorites. Almost a tyrant but not quite, he is as interesting and multifaceted a personage as Carrot, although he is Carrot’s opposite – a genius manipulator with no illusions about people’s nature. Unlike Carrot, Vetinary doesn’t believe in universal virtue. He despises people, their pettiness and their stupidity, but he uses those weaknesses to strengthen his rule. He would’ve been the best villain in literature, if he acted for personal gain. But he doesn’t. He acts for the good of Ankh-Morpork, and as such, becomes almost an altruistic hero himself. Or rather, a depressing antihero.

Here is a fragment of his conversation with Captain Vimes:

‘Down there,’ he said, ‘are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. 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. I’m sorry if this offends you,’ he added, patting the captain’s shoulder…

Anyone you recognize? I cringe in embarrassment.