Sunday, September 19, 2010

CBRII: Feet of Clay and Thud by Terry Pratchett.

I’ve got most of the discworld books, but not Feet of Clay, so it’s been years since I’ve read it.  It’s a Watch book, which is my favourite series.  Instead of the pure satire of the Rincewind books, these are mysteries, set in Discworld.  Occasionally, the ‘mystery’ spans entire countries and involves intricate political maneuvering, but, for the head of the Watch in Ankh-Morpork (Discworld’s largest city), Sam Vimes, it’s all about solving the murder.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t recognise the larger crimes - he’s been known to arrest entire armies because they were about to start a war.

In the first Watch book, Sam Vimes was the alcoholic Captain of the Night Watch, which consisted of three other people.  A dozen or so books later, he’s Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork, and Commander of an enormous Watch (so well regarded, in fact, that officers do the training, serve a year or two, and relocate to other Discworld cities, where they are instantly promoted.  ‘Sammies’, these officers are known as).  He’s happily married to Sybil, who just happens to be the richest woman in the city, and the devoted father of Sam Jnr, lover of that fine piece of literature, ‘Where’s my cow?’.

Sam Vimes is my favourite character in Discworld.  He’s not a genius, but he’s tenacious.  One of his nicknames has been ‘Vetrinari’s Terrier’, Vetrinari being the deliciously manipulative Patrician of Ankh-Morpork.  He grew up in the slums of the city, and still has ‘feelings of gilt’ about being a duke, well aware of his good fortune.  He keeps his Beast chained up, and Watches his Watchman.   He rises up.

Feet of Clay is one of the earlier Watch books, not long after Sam and Sybil married.  In earlier books, Sybil was much more in the background.  She was certainly part of Sam’s motivations and the power and privilege her position afforded often came in handy, but beyond that, she could have been anybody.  Later on, her character was developed (and as a side note, I love that, instead of ignoring her ‘blue blood’ history, Pratchett uses it to explain a core of strength that comes to the fore whenever things get difficult.  Sybil’s ancestors gave birth on camels or arranged tea-parties while war raged around them, so she’s more than capable of defending her family with a coal-stuffed dragon, negotiating international agreements or singing dwarf opera to win over a crowd).

But for now, she’s background.  For now, the only reference to Sam’s personal life is his difficulty adjusting to being ‘the master’ and the occasional home-front battle with a member of the Assassins guild.  With that out of the way, we move directly onto the mystery at the heart of the novel, the brutal murder of two elderly men, one a priest, the other the head of the dwarf bread museum.  Oh, and Vetrinari has fallen victim to poison.

Tied into all of this are the Golums, enormous ceramic ‘men’ who are bought and sold amongst the factories to do all the dirty work.  Aside from tackling the obvious questions about the Value of Man (even ceramic ones), Pratchett also touches on bigotry.  Corporal Angua, the beautiful woman and occasional werewolf, despises the Golums, even though she knows that it’s unfair.  Meanwhile, she’s formed a friendship with the Watch’s newest member, Cherry Littlebottom, who has been brought up to fear werewolves, even going so far as to wear a silver vest.  Cherry, a dwarf, is from a culture that does not allow men and women to physically distinguish themselves.  Awkwardly, Cheri, as she renames herself, starts wearing earrings and make up, to the horror of many of her fellow dwarfs (and the desire of others to follow suit).

Comparing this book to later one, I get the feeling Pratchett’s just getting a grip on his characters and their world.  The confidence that defines his later works is here, but it’s just a little wobbly around the edges.  He’s exploring topics like gender and slavery, in unexpected ways.  Secondary characters have vitally important roles.  Here’s where Pratchett decides that yes, he may have a glorious returned king in the mould of Aragorn walking the streets of Ankh-Morpork, but he’s not the hero, and neither is Vimes.  It’s nice to be able to share your admiration with the main character.

There’s so many elements of Feet of Clay that form vertebrae of later books that I couldn’t resist reading one of those books, Thud.  A lot has changed.  Dorfl, the golum of Feet of Clay, is a respected member of the Watch (along with several other Golums).  Nobby Nobs and Fred Colon, are considered dinosaurs, but, to Sam, they are ‘old street monsters’ still deserving of respect.  The changes to Sam and Sybil, I’ve already mentioned. 

If Discworld is just a fractured mirror of our world, in Thud we find the reflection of the endless battle between the Muslims and the Jews, played out as Trolls versus Dwarfs.  Tied into that story is the battle between old traditions and modern life.   Cheri’s innocent attempts to be feminine have not impressed everybody; although the ‘Low King’ of the dwarfs has indicated support, there are others who find it utterly offensive.  City Dwarfs are caught between their way of life and being a ‘true dwarf’.  The Trolls, meanwhile, are experiencing their own political change.  Trolls are, essentially, sentient rock, and every thousand years or so, one comes along who is, not the regular sandstone and basalt, but diamond.  This troll is, automatically, their king. And then, the battle of ‘Koom Valley’, happens all over again.   

Unless, with lots of tongue-in-cheek references to The DaVinci Code, the secret of Koom Valley is revealed, giving a Low King and a Diamond King who believe that keeping your own people alive is more important than killing your enemy, the power to preserve peace.

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