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Some years have passed since Terry Pratchett was awarded his OBE - four, in fact. In that time he has produced yet more of his extremely popular Discworld novels. One wonders if, perhaps, his honours might be due for an upgrade! Certainly his readership, both at home and abroad, hence his monetary value to Britain, must likewise be increasing.
Discworld first saw the light reflected from the back of the Giant Tortoise, the Great A'Tuin, with the publication of The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic. Since then, Discworld, like other worlds, has felt the impact of evolution. Unlike our own planet, that evolution has not been of the Darwinian kind but of writing style. The first Discworld narratives poked gentle fun at our terran institutions such as tourism, insurance, religion (the wonderful Small Gods) Hollywood (Moving Pictures) and many other (dare I say it?) icons of Terra. I had noted with some interest the apparent loss of the innocence of that incredible Disc in latter works such as The Truth and Thief of Time where the reader actually encounters swearing - or the substitute, but we know what asterisks and dashes mean, don't we! - and a rather darker side of both the author and his world than in, say, Witches Abroad. A friend to whom I had introduced the Discworld books tut-tutted at this one, saying she did not like the violence in it. Huh? There was violence a-plenty in the earlier books but I suppose it is fair to say that it did not seem quite as real as in Night Watch.
Commander Sam Vimes is uneasy. He has had to forgo the dubious pleasures of the real work of being a Watchman, namely, patrolling the streets and meeting the real villains. Add to that, his wife, Sybil, is about to give birth. It is also an important anniversary. Sam and various older members of the Watch pluck sprigs of lilac to wear in memory of one of their fallen comrades from many years past. Then Sam finds himself caught up in the pursuit of a criminal - the wicked Carcer. Sam tackles Carcer in the Library of Unseen University during a storm and the combination of electrical and magical fields sends the two back in time. Sam is wounded, nearly naked, very ashamed, and in a past where the rules of modern Ankh-Morpork no longer apply. Why, thieves don't leave receipts for the goods they steal!
Sam manages to get himself appointed Sergeant-At-Arms in his beloved Night Watch after having met a strange order of monks who are able to control Time and with whom lies his only hope of returning to his own era. He is determined to bring Carcer to justice and return to Sybil and his as yet unborn baby. His task is made very complicated because there is a plot afoot to rid the city of its current Patrician and install a new, albeit no better successor, Lord Snapcase. Vimes has to take on the persona of his old sergeant, John Keel, as he attempts to restore what passes for order in Ankh-Morpork.
Carcer penetrates the ranks of the Night Watch's daylight counterpart and, of course, infiltrates the evil sector of that far from decent community. He, of course, is determined to rid the world - and every Time - of Sam Vimes and therefore insinuates himself into the group of conspirators. Eventually, despite all of Vimes' stratagems for a non-violent confrontation, a rebellion breaks out and much blood is spilled.
In this dark but excellent and, as is customary with Pratchett's Discworld novels, chapterless book we meet the younger versions of well-known and well-loved denizens of the 'present day' Ankh-Morpork. Young Sam Vimes, a lance-constable(!) becomes the protégé of Sergeant Keel and we meet Nobby Nobbs as a boy as well as Reg Shoe (before he becomes a zombie), Mr. Slant the lawyer, Vetinari as a very young yet very accomplished Assassin, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (before he acquires that sobriquet) and many others. Death, too, puts in a brief appearance. I was interested to note that the wonderful Josh Kirby was not the artist for the jacket, packing the entire story into his busy illustration. Instead, Pratchett's other collaborator, Paul Kidby, provides the front cover illustration in cooperation with Rembrandt who monopolises the back jacket.
There is far less overt humour in this account than in Pratchett's previous oeuvres even including the latter, less light hearted tales. To my mind, this does not detract from the excellent qualities previously displayed by the author. I felt that perhaps Mr. Pratchett was sickened by the corruption and convoluted politics (including that which has caused the term 'friendly fire' to enter our vocabulary) extant in our world and was attempting to strike a blow against what may be perceived as rampant evil abroad.
Note: This review is based on the Australian edition which was released at the same time as the US edition
Reviewed by Denise Wels, December 2002
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