Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

“Murder was in fact a fairly uncommon event in Ankh-Morpork, but there were a lot of suicides. Walking in the night-time alleyways of The Shades was suicide. Asking for a short in a dwarf bar was suicide. Saying ‘Got rocks in your head?’ to a troll was suicide. You could commit suicide very easily, if you weren’t careful.” Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Men at arms brings things back to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. And what a story to do it with. I am not going to bother beating about the bush or leaving it to the end to leave my overall opinions on this because. It’s pretty simple – I love it. This is the second or third time I have read this book, and yet somehow didn’t remember as much of it as I expected to. It’s great fun, it brings more of Sam Vimes’ character to the fore, alongside those of Nobby Nobbs, Fred Colon and Carrot the not-so dwarf. We also meet another City Watch regular in the making, werewolf Angua.
So, to the story. The Night Watch has expanded and diversified at the instruction of Lord Vetinari to now include a dwarf, troll and a werewolf. A spate of mysterious crimes including theft of an unknown item and some grisly and hard-to-explain “suicides” (read: murders) spread throughout the city, all as Captain Vimes prepares to relinquish his position in the Night Watch as he prepares for his impending nuptials to Lady Sybil Ramkin.

Deceit, political wrangling and a nefarious criminal or two make for a good old fashioned whodunit story. I love the police procedural feel that it has alongside the now well-honed Pratchett humour. But it also brings in yet more connections to reality. Pressure from certain important members of society on the Patrician tried to divert the tenacious Vimes is not all that far fetched. History has shown too often that power, or money, greases the wheels of society, if not the palms. The inclusive, multicultural direction taken by the City Watch just feels so familiar with the direction the world has taken of late, as does, sadly the tensions between the trolls and dwarves.

There are no dragons, witches, or wizards here. And this book doesn’t need them. Yes, the Discworld is a fantasy series, but this story is so enjoyable, even without the stereotypical fantasy tropes. It does feature dwarves, trolls and a werewolf, but they aren’t what this story is about. To me, even less than the City Watch as a whole, this is the story of Sam Vimes. Who he is and how he works comes through in buckets. And running through it all, Men At Arms tells the story of how the topsy turvy city that is Ankh-Morpork works, where it’s come from, and a glimmer of where it might be headed.

I love the nods to the plethora of TV shows in the police and crime genre that Pratchett employs throughout the book. As a fan of crime and mystery, along with fantasy and comedy, the fusion of these normally very different themes is refreshing and funny. I love the growth of the City Watch characters, and the city itself seems to really come to life in the writing of this book. I think this is my favourite book in the Discworld series so far.

My rating:

Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett

Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett

“…no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away… The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.” – Terry Pratchett 

Reaper Man is the next book in the Discworld series, and upfront I am going to give my opinion – I love this book. And that’s no exaggeration. Officially, this great little book sits within the Death series, but it has cameos from the wizards of Unseen University and a few appearances from Sergeant Fred Colon of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.
wp-1453731647321.jpgThis book moves off in a different direction for Death as a main character, and that for me is a key part of why I really like this story. It brings up the idea of making the most of life. As Pratchett has shown in past appearances, Death has an interest in the human condition, and almost displays slight glimmers of humanity in himself. This, however, presents a problem – Death isn’t isn’t meant to show compassion, interest or any of the other features of the human condition. Death is the end. That’s it. So universal forces are brought in to strip him of his role, his purpose. And his immortality.

So what does the former reaper of souls do know he has time on his hands? He sets out to experience life. Death has always had a curiosity about humans, and their lives, but only when he has a finite amount of sand slowly trickling from the top bulb to the bottom of his life timer, only then does he truly start to live. Much as we tend to do in reality.

But why? Why do we so often wait until we have precious little time left, to make the most of it? Because we are, at the heart of it only human. But with His new found time, Death turns his hand to labour. He makes friends, he lives a life. All the while, the dead aren’t staying fully-dead. Without Death to shepherd them into the great beyond, they are forced to walk the world. And some of them prefer it this way.

This book rates highly for me, as I am a keen fan of the Death subset of stories from Terry Pratchett. He is a likeable character that only gets better the more we see him, and the more subtle human traits he picks up. Throw in the wizards as well and this is a fun travel around Ankh-Morpork and outlying settlements. Once again, the locations feel a bit richer, the characters a little deeper as Pratchett really gets to grips with the direction and future ideas for this epic series.

My rating:

Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett

Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett

“The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it’s as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no-one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all yourself from the clues.” – Terry Pratchett

“…inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” – Terry Pratchett

Cinema – a place where dreams are made, lived, sold and, quite often, destroyed. We all go to the cinema to be told a story, to escape reality and to explore exotic locales. In short, cinema allows us to live dreams in vivid, high definition and immersive content. As children we almost hope that if we believe in those Hollywood dreams hard enough, they may just come true. Some of us do as adults – I know I’d love to join the ragtag crew of the Millennium Falcon in a galaxy far, far away! For some Hollywood represents a different dream – the chance to make it big, to shoot for the stars and earn all the trappings of fame.
But what about on the Disc? Welcome to Holy Wood – a scrubby hill covered with a small stand of scraggly trees, in the middle of the sand dunes on the coast. It looks deserted, mainly because it is. Except for the sunken city, now home to the fish and lobsters. But as with the Hollywood we know and “love”, it calls out to those seeking fame, fortune, and the chance to make a fast buck.

For years people have packed up and headed out to Hollywood, California with a bunch of clothes, hopes and dreams, and very little else. The dream of becoming the next Marilyn Monroe or James Dean is a very attractive idea. Sadly, it is attractive to many, and only a few will strike it lucky and hit the big time.

Moving Pictures charts the journey of a brilliant, if lazy, young wizard – Victor Tugelbend. He works exceptionally hard at being average, doing just enough to stay enrolled at Unseen University, without having to graduate. Holy Wood calls to him, leading him to make the trip to the fast-growing world of cinema. Although this book sits within the Wizards miniseries, other than Victor, the majority of the wizards have relatively small roles. But this isn’t a criticism of this book – I actually quite like its loose connection to the miniseries while almost serving as a standalone book at the same time.

I like the way Terry Pratchett describes the early days of cinema, starting out with the discovery and creation of the Disc’s version of film – octo-cellulose. He adds to the mystique of film in having its creation attributed to the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork. Throughout the book, Pratchett charts the rise and rise of Holy Wood, in what imagine to be a parody of the growth of its Earthly twin city, with an added comic twist. Think amazing wonder-animals, in this case with the ability to speak; think dashing and brave heroes; think beautiful damsels in distress; think hideous monsters.

The other aspect of this tale that I really enjoy is that Pratchett hasn’t painted an entirely rosey, saccharine view of the Hollywood dream. There is a dark side to the fame and glory sought by the people who visit, where the dreams and greed take hold and the power of Holy Wood turns those dreams into nightmares. The way the birth of cinema is portrayed throughout is brilliantly fun, from its rise to the fall near the end. And any film nut will quickly spot many entertaining parodies of some of the classic films from the heyday of Hollywood.

With Moving Pictures, I felt Pratchett was cementing his vision for this series that had already had strong foundations laid in Guards! Guards! I think overall the latter was a more entertaining story in my own opinion, but this one certainly kicks on with his vision and paving the way for a great number of wonderful stories to come.

My rating:


Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett

“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” – Lord Havelock Vetinari

Guards! Guards! is one of my favourite books in the wonderful Discworld series. What makes a fantasy story? Magic? Brave men? Dragons? “Damsels in distress”? Check, check and check in the case of this installment. And even better, it features even more of Terry Pratchett’s dry wit and real world parody. This book features healthy doses of fantasy, human greed, cynicism, idealism and dark humour to form a well rounded, laugh-out-loud adventure that introduces the haphazard group of mismatches, The Ankh-Morpork City Watch.
Power is a major thread of the story once again, but in a slightly different light than in Sourcery. Such is the desire of a hooded wannabe-tyrant, he opts for a convoluted way of making a power grab. Using a group of dull-witted followers to help,  he summons a dragon that is to be “slain” by the long lost heir to the throne of the city. He will then, naturally, act as advisor, pulling the strings while hidden from sight. As is so often the case in reality, the greed of man and lust for power consumes all – promotion in a comfy career is not enough, and being all-powerful is all that will do.

Once again, very much like in reality people need to be careful what they wish for, as in this case, the dragon takes control of its’ own destiny, returning to overthrow the city. This book is for my money, the most like a true fantasy story in so far as it features the villainous dragon terrorising the city, and a group of brave men saving the day.

This book continues the trend of the early books in the Discworld series in introducing new characters and groups that have significant bearing in the future. We meet Lady Sybil Ramkin. Born to a noble family, she has a soft-spot for dragons, caring for them and learning all there is to know about them. Swamp dragons at least, not the enormous city-wrecking type. She brings an almost-permanent sense of optimism to things, and sees the best in almost anyone, including a couple of members of the Watch.

Which brings me back around to one of the aspects of this book that makes it one of my favourites – the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. As I’ve mentioned before,  the Discworld series is made up of 41 main books split into a range of mini-series. The City Watch compromise a whole mini-series of its own. The group starts off as a ragtag bunch of possibly the worst guards on the Disc. Their hearts are in the right place, but they are not the City’s finest. I love their leader, Commander Samuel Vimes, even if he is a bit of a downbeat man with a penchant for drink. This book introduces the group and sets the scene for what is a fantastic thread in the narrative of the Discworld series.

This is my second read through of this fantastic book, and if anything it just gets better. And it reminds me why I love the City Watch. I cannot wait to read more in the series, but next up for me is a book I haven’t yet read – Eric, part of the Rincewind series. Let’s see what this one has in store for me.

My rating:

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

“Tomorrow here is just like yesterday, warmed over” – Terry Pratchett

While the last book on my Discworld revisit wasn’t one of my most favourites, the next novel certainly goes some way to redressing the situation. Pyramids takes place in a centuries-old desert kingdom named Djelibeybi. And as with other locations on the Disc, this one parodies the ways and workings of Ancient Egypt. It comes with all the things I like about Pratchett’s work – wit, humour and a certain level of cynicism used to good effect. Pyramids also introduces characters that, unlike the books up until this one, won’t appear again in the series. That the author has created such rich characters in just one outing is testament to his writing abilities.
The mocking tone and humour is out in force in this installment. It is quite evident in what is my favourite character in this book – You Bastard the camel. The name wonderfully speaks to the perceived nature of camels in all their stubbornness. But as is often the case, this ungulate is treated in the usual manner of animals put to work – whacked with bloody big stick, pushed, shoved and yelled at. This parodies the way humans throughout history have always held a sense of self-importance and superiority over all other sentient creatures. Ironically, You Bastard just so happens to be the Disc’s greatest mathematician.

The kingdom of Djelibeybi worships a great myriad of gods, it almost seems there’s a god for everything here. And they continue to build great pyramids to inter their mummified dead. Why? Well why not-it’s worked for seven thousand years or so, why bother changing things now? Progress, that’s why.

Pratchett wonderfully illustrates the differences between remaining so isolated and true to tradition, and moving with the times. The return of a prince to ascend to the throne following an education at the Assassin’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork shows how back-looking the kingdom is. Rather than bring in new ideas – engineering, plumbing, proper beds – the people of Djelibeybi live a life dictated by the weight of history. Too often, here on Roundworld, we are guilty of this. How often do we do things that aren’t entirely logical, or are harder, more time costly? And too often, the reason is simple – that’s what we’ve always done, and that’s the way we’ve always done it!

Just because our ancestors didn’t have proper sanitation, plumbing or high-thread count bedding doesn’t mean we should keep going with these traditions. The pyramids are another part of this point in this book. Has anyone asked those put in them what they think? Well, of course not, they’re dead. But when they reanimate then they can voice their annoyance at being stuck in the dark under thousands of stone blocks! These same pyramids leach time in this kingdom, leading to it being stuck in the past compared to the rest of the Disc.

This accumulation of time leads to the kingdom disappearing from its place in time. As with so much of Pratchett’s work, there is a brilliant point well-illustrated here. Tradition is all fine and well in its proper place. But sometimes we need to look forwards, not back. If we keep looking to what has already been done, we won’t progress. Or worse, we won’t see what’s in front of us, and have a pretty spectacular trip. in evolutionary terms, that’s never good!

I am taking a very brief break from the Discworld for my next read. I have been lucky enough to be asked to read and review an anthology of short stories compiled for a great cause, which I am reading my way through as we speak!

My rating:

Discussion: The many lives, travels and adventures of a bookworm

Discussion: The many lives, travels and adventures of a bookworm

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies”, said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one” – George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

I have read many books over the years – fiction, non-fiction, biographical, action, adventure, historical, futuristic, comic books, horror and fantasy. A lot of them I have read until they become battered, dog-eared, with spines broken and covers and pages coming free from their bindings (though not an issue for my Kindle books). I haven’t read any of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books, though I am a massive fan of the TV series. But I will. That said, I found this quote, and it really resonated with me. We wake up, eat, go to work, do chores, go to bed, repeat. But as readers, the second we open the cover, we slip in to the lives of the characters so well-represented in black and white on these pages. We live vicariously through them, or even alongside them if the descriptive narrative is that rich! But this quote for me doesn’t quite go far enough. It isn’t just the thousand lives we live through books, it is the myriad locales and exotic, alien, barren, urban or otherwise, locations that we visit, inhabit and explore whenever we pick up a book.

As a child I visited Badger’s House and Toad Hall in Wind in the Willows and crept through Mr. McGregor’s Garden with Peter Rabbit. In later years I experienced the horrors inside the possessed Overlook Hotel. I’ve walked the halls and classrooms of Hogwarts and strolled through the alleys and streets of Diagon Alley. And one of my favourites – I’ve wandered the cobbled streets of Ankh-Morpork and enjoyed a bar brawl or three in the Mended Drum.

The best authors create characters we connect with. They make us laugh with them, love them, loathe them. A good character is entertaining, a great character is real. The same goes for locations. If we can almost hear, smell and feel the surroundings, a book is far more engaging. The worlds created in our minds, constructed from varied combinations of the same twenty-six letters of the British language don’t have to be real. But if those letters are made in to words, and those words combined in just the right way, well, then they create something so vivid in our minds’ eye that the locations might as well be real.

Some people say reading a favourite book is like slipping in to a comfy pair of slippers. When I open my favourite books, I get a sense of going home – visiting a location I feel I know, somewhere I could walk blindfolded following my other senses thanks to the vibrant description. And when I read about characters in books I have read many times before, it’s like visiting old friends again. On a level, we know them, and how they work, what makes them tick, if the author has made them deep, multidimensional even.

So yes, a man who reads lives a thousand lives. But he also travels a thousand roads, in a thousand countries, worlds, galaxies, universes. He travels thousands of realities. A well constructed, brilliantly written book isn’t just an escape from reality, but it can be a whole new and wonderful place to visit, with different adventures to enjoy!

Who are your favourite characters and locations in books? Where do you go, and who with when you take your most loved book off the shelf and open the cover? Let me know in the comments section. 🙂

Sourcery – Terry Pratchett

Sourcery – Terry Pratchett

Night spread across the Disc like plum jam, or possibly blackberry preserve.
But there would be a morning. There would always be another morning. – Terry Pratchett

The next book in my revisit of the epic Discworld series is Sourcery. This book is part of the Wizards mini-series, and sees the return of the Death-defying Rincewind. In Equal Rites we learn that the eighth son of an eighth son will grow up to become a wizard. We also learned that wizards don’t get into relationships. And in all honesty most wizards have forgotten the real reason why, but follow the rule out of tradition.
2015-08-11 19.38.50
One wizard, however, chose to break with tradition on this point. Ipslore the Red left the Unseen University to follow his heart, starting a family. And he has children, including eight sons. This is why wizards don’t have relationships-the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son becomes a sorcerer, the most powerful type of wizard. And this is where this story begins – at the end. Well, the end of Ipslore’s life. But when Death arrives, Ipslore evades him, transferring his consciousness into his staff, which his eighth son holds. And it is said that you cannot take a wizard’s staff from him.

Over the years the staff guides the boy, named Coin, moulding him, teaching him and refining his powers, growing in strength. At the age of ten, his power is great and, urged on by his staff (inhabited by Ipslore), Coin heads to Ankh-Morpork to overthrow the Unseen University and become Archchancellor, returning sorcery to the Disc.

Once again, Pratchett wonderfully parodies real world history here. Not satisfied with taking over the university, the spirit of his father urges Coin to take over Ankh-Morpork, then, before long, the Disc. Like so many historic figures, power starts to warp the mind and corrupt the soul.

Whether for the betterment of their fellow man, or for sheer greed and power, someone has risen up and wrested power from those already at the top. And in much the same way as Coin in Sourcery, this first taste of power is only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. Rather than sating their thirst, often this first taste of power leads to delusions of grandeur and a desire for an even bigger power grab.

And as so often is the case in the round world, Coin is coerced and cajoled into it all be the spirit of his father, residing in the young sorcerer’s staff. When a student of the University, Ipslore found himself thrown out for his desires to have a family, cast out in disgrace. Without significant achievement to his name, and a disgraced past, the spirit of the wizard lives vicariously, and vindictively, through his son – pushing him towards power no matter the outcome.

Years of inactivity and status quo see the wizards, excluding Rincewind, back their young leader, enjoying their new found powers and the elevated status it affords them. As with so many Roundworld examples throughout history, people have a nose for power and so follow the tides as they swing towards victory, wealth or power. History repeats itself, with the wizards striking out against their brothers in for’n parts and the power of sorcery grows on the Disc. In the past, the Disc was left scorched and scarred by the last battle between sorcerers. Large areas are uninhabitable due to latent magic, and many aspects have been altered immensely. It was these wars that lead to the end of sorcery, and is the reason why wizards don’t have children.

The battle heads towards an inevitable zenith – the Apocraplypse (a bit like the Apocalypse). The Four Horseman, however, get waylaid due to the theft of their horses by Rincewind and his merry band of misfits, well, that and the significant amount of alcohol they imbibe. The Ice Giants even march forth across the plains to reclaim the world.

Thankfully, sense prevails. As Rincewind tries to reason with Coin, or hit him with a half-brick in a sock, Coin begins to question the blind faith he puts in his father’s words. As has happened all too often on Roundworld, realisation hits and suddenly those in power don’t seem quite like the best people to follow after all.

Rather than destroy the sorry figure of Rincewind, Coin turns on the staff. A quick trip to the Dungeon Dimensions as a result of destroying his staff, and the entrapment of Rincewind there, see a complete change of heart for the young sorcerer.

He offers to make the University good as knew, but the Librarian insists on it being made good as old. He can see the Disc is too fragile for the almost-limitless power of sorcery, so creates a new world into which he can go and live, in an alternate dimension.

Obviously the story ends happily ever after, sort of. Rincewind may well be trapped in the Dungeon Dimension, but the Apocralypse is averted, and the wizards realise a sedentary life is far better, and easier than one of limitless power.

This book is one of my favourites that have featured Rincewind so far. Firstly, it makes a nice change that impending doom and the end of the world isn’t the fault of the luckless wizard. But also, Terry Pratchett continues his use of Roundworld events to make a light-hearted parody on the Disc. While the outcomes are different, the ideas presented in Sourcery are very similar. You only need look at the numerous wars throughout history – civil, world, revolutionary, crusading or just plain power grabbing – to see the parallels. Where there is power to be taken, someone, often led by someone of greed behind the scenes, will make a grab for it. And seeing an opportunity for easy glory, many will follow these people into the fray.

And often, as happens in this book, when the tables turn against them, the followers flee, claiming only to have acted on orders, leaving a misguided, misinformed soul to face the music their actions and rhetoric has earned them.

While I will be continuing my Discworld read through, I will be taking a brief pause for my next book. Following its release, I am keen to read the lecture Sir Terry Pratchett wrote for the BBC Richard Dimbley Lectures – Shaking Hands With Death. It touches on some divisive subject matter, so am keen to read his views, and give my thoughts on it.

My rating: