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Moving into the realms of mostly fantasy for once, Bellarius takes a look at Night Watch from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
“Satirical commentary, humour, subverted science fiction and fantasy tropes and Sam Vimes. A gem of a novel worthy of any Discworld fan’s bookshelf.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
One of the many Discworld novels focusing upon the Anhk-Morpork police force, Night Watch is an interesting tale taking Sam Vimes even further out of his element than usual.
Pursuing a wanted criminal across the rooftops of the Unseen University, Vimes is caught in a magical storm and thrown into a frighteningly familiar world: His past. It’s a time of total corruption, repression and with the downtrodden on the verge of revolution. Worse still, these are not his Watch anymore; they’re as big a joke as ever and rotten to the core. As an utter non-person in the city, Vimes must try to survive and consider whether to use his knowledge to change things. Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple as that.
Being a Terry Pratchett book about revolution and corruption, it’s the mixture of humorous fantasy and satirical elements you would expect. It spends time making fun of Communism, Capitalism, Republics and efforts at revolutions with the end result effectively changing very little. The revolution itself is also far from glorified or presented as successful, but instead displayed in a very different light than you would expect. It ends up showing the origins of the movement far beyond what many glorified tales usually depict them as being and the real events which tend to drive them. Often by people more interested in business, politics and power rather than truth, justice and freedom.
Much of the drive for the tale comes from Vimes’ personal knowledge of what will happen and his older and wiser self reliving it again. It’s through his eyes that we see much of what’s outlined above and makes full use of the opportunity to reflect upon his past decisions. It wasn’t too long ago in his time that the Watch still was a joke, and seeing their current form compared to his far more effective version does a lot for the character. Even more so given the people he ends up working alongside, many of who will serve him in the future. Some of who he knows are a far cry from who they will become, others who are a terrible influence upon the force.
Besides him however, we do see a number of additional characters in a surprising new light, especially one assassin. A man who, while having shades of his future self, is still far from the figure he will become. While it would be a spoiler to truly reveal his identity, his scenes do a lot to develop the character to a surprising degree.
The city of Ankh-Morpork also proves to have far more character than even the protagonists of some books we’ve reviewed on the site. It’s examined through brilliant sequences, thoughts and descriptions the details interwoven through people’s thoughts helps to give more weight to the conflict. Giving a great deal of impact to the locations they speak of when setting up barricades and even burning down parts of the city.
A further addition is the inclusion of a number of effective villains. With Vimes himself refusing to take a side, it would have been easy to present the revolution and government as largely faceless organisations. Especially as Vimes and co. never meet a real figure in power, let alone the Patrician himself. Despite this, the criminal Vimes was pursuing, Carcer, proves to be an excellent if not especially deep antagonist in his gleeful sadism and surprising intelligence. The same goes for Captain Swing of the Patrician’s secret police, charged with silencing and torturing dissenters.
The real problem with the book is two things: The continuity and character involved. Being the latest in a universe of almost thirty books with several directly preceding novels, many characters only really work if you’ve read Guards! Guards! or Feet of Clay. Colon, Nobby and many others are barely outlined before Vimes heads back in time so their addition ends up really meaning very little within context of this book alone. Others like Carrot and Detritus are both barely present and you’d never guess they were important from their extremely short involvement. This is not to mention that the story ultimately links into at least one other tale, focusing upon time travel to explain Vimes’ involvement and travelling back to the past. Furthermore, even a number of the characters involved in the book feel oddly superfluous. Terry Pratchett novels always have huge casts but in this case more than a few feel wasted like Coats, Wiglet, Nancyball and largely unnecessary. Some even feel wasted given their knowledge and suspicions of Vimes.
Is it flawed? Definitely. Yet at the same time this is still one of the strongest Discworld books around. There’s no review which can really do it justice given the way the plot curves from one time period, subject and character to the next, but it feels extremely well balanced and never without focus. If you’re a fan of the universe, definitely take the time to get this. If not, start with Feet of Clay then move onto this if you like what you see.