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A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Having got almost as far as I'm planning to go with my City Watch re-read (I might re-read Thud!, I probably won't re-read Snuff), I decided to take a diversion into the subset of books branching off it which could loosely be described as "Ankh-Morpork's Industrial Revolution", beginning with The Truth and then continuing with the Moist Von Lipwig books. (Some people seem to include Moving Pictures in this subset, but I don't, because in Moving Pictures it's basically all eldritch forces and things return to "normal" at the end, whereas the changes which happen in The Truth and the Moist Von Lipwig books are permanent and influence the Ankh-Morpork shown in later books.) In this one, movable type printing comes to Ankh-Morpork, and leads in short order to the launch of the Discworld's first newspaper. Meanwhile, there's yet another conspiracy among the rich and influential to bring down Lord Vetinari and replace him with a Patrician who is more to their taste, but while Vimes and the other members of the Watch are certainly on the case, this time the focus is on William de Worde, an underemployed intellectual with an unwavering dedication to truth and fairness who is estranged from his wealthy and bigoted father and who suddenly finds himself editor and lead writer of the Ankh-Morpork Times.

I remember enjoying The Truth a lot when I first read it; on re-reading I still think it's one of the best Discworld books, and it is also the perfect Pratchett for the era of fake news and alternative facts, because it's all about how the news media shapes people's understanding of the world around them, the way people are more likely to believe stories which confirm their existing biases even if they're lies, and the difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in. (It also features a character saying that they can't instruct the assembly of Guild leaders to reverse a legitimate decision, even if it turns out to be based on erroneous information, which hit fairly hard given recent and ongoing events.) It's also about the immigrant experience, the reasons why people move to another country, the difficulties they face, and how hard it is even for the more open-minded native-born citizens to appreciate the true extent of cultural difference. It's definitely one of my favourites.
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Given the time of year, I thought Hogfather might be an appropriately seasonal re-read. I have to say that it's never been one of my favourite Pratchetts; I love Susan Sto Helit, and really like the central exploration of the relationship between fantasy and humanity, but there are a lot of subplots and some of them seem a bit superfluous, and Teatime is a fairly cartoonish villian and a lot less chilling than similar characters in some of the other books. I enjoyed re-reading it, but it didn't leave me with the overwhelming sense of how much of a loss to the world Pterry's death was that some of my other recent re-reads have done.
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Night Watch is arguably the Best. Discworld. Book. Ever., and definitely one from the phase when Pratchett had completed the transition from the parody of the earliest books in the series to the more pointed satire of the later ones, after a mid-period where the two coexisted a little uneasily. This is the point at which I came back into step with the books, having not really managed to get what Pterry was trying to do in the half-dozen or so before it on first reading (actually, I think I had to give Night Watch a second reading, but I obviously managed to see that there was enough there to merit a second reading, whereas I spent an embarrassingly long time thinking Jingo was dreadful).

Unlike its precursors, Night Watch really is a Sam Vimes book, rather than a City Watch book. Carrot and Detritus both appear briefly, Cheery Littlebottom gets a couple of lines, Angua doesn't appear at all, because for most of the time Vimes is adrift from his own time; after falling through the dome of the Unseen University Library while pursuing a murderer, he finds himself sent back thirty years and becoming part of a very different City Watch. This isn't the run-down rump of the Watch we saw in Guards! Guards!, but it's a Watch where bribery and paying less attention to evidence than to who it would be easiest to pin a crime on are rife, and where none of Ankh-Morpork's ethnic minorities are represented, while Ankh-Morpork as a whole is also a lot less diverse than in Vimes's present. It's really a lot like Life on Mars, although as that was made four years after Night Watch came out if that's more than coincidence the book must have influenced the TV show, and not the more usual other way round.

Night Watch isn't a book with a lot of laughs. It's a serious book, about corruption and justice and law and freedom and hope, and it's a book that always made me cry even when Pterry was still alive and I wasn't just crying at how much poorer the world is without his clarity of vision (there's a passage about refugees close to the start that got me that way). And it's amazing.
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I had very little memory of The Fifth Elephant, though I knew I had read it before. I bought it in hardback the day it was released, and I think I ended up skim-reading it and finding it disappointing, as I did with a lot of mid-period Discworld books; I missed the broad comedy of the first books, and didn't appreciate the subtler humour of what Pterry was trying to do.

It probably is still one of the weaker books, but a weaker Pratchett is still worth several of most other people. Reading it this week was an interesting experience, because it turns out to be about diplomacy and international relations, and trade agreements, and werewolves who are basically Nazis (but really, quite English Nazis - two are called Nancy and Unity), and racism (well, all the Watch books from Men At Arms on are about racism) and how to be a leader, and what happens in a society when some people want to embrace new ideas and accept people's differences and others want to stick to the old ways, and a lot of it hit very close to home. And then there was this footnote:

Vimes had once discussed the Ephebian idea of 'democracy' with Carrot, and had been rather interested in the idea that everyone had a vote until he found out that while he, Vimes, would have a vote, there was no way in the rules that anyone could prevent Nobby Nobbs from having one as well. Vimes could see the flaw there right away.


Ouch.

Rereading now, I continue to be amazed by the complexity of the Discworld books from the late 90s, and also by the incredible clarity of Pterry's reflection of humanity. I thought I was politically engaged and well-informed about current affairs, but there are so many things recognised here that I didn't become aware of until a good five or ten years later. And I wish, more than ever, that we hadn't lost him so soon, not just because the world is a much poorer place without him, but because we really need people who can see that clearly and the explain it to the rest of us.
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When I first read Jingo, in 1998, I was bitterly disappointed by it. I - and quite a few other Pratchett fans I knew - thought it was probably the worst thing Pterry had ever written. I think this may have been a little while before the phrase "jumping the shark" became common parlance, at least in Coventry, but that was exactly what we thought had happened. I simply couldn't understand why people like A.S. Byatt praised it so highly, when it was clearly the Worst. Discworld. Book. Ever.

Re-reading it now, I can completely understand why I thought that. If you approach Jingo expecting straightforward comic fantasy with many humorous references to real life then there really is no way you aren't going to be disappointed, because straightforward is the last thing Jingo is. It's complicated and subtle. It's a thoughtful novel about war which is at least partly satirising the 1991 Gulf War and partly satirising every war ever. With many humorous reference to real life, just for incidental amusement. And it is stunningly good. This is Pratchett on top form, spinning interlocking storylines together, mixing serious and silly utterly seamlessly. It turns out that he didn't have a slump in the late 90s after all; he was just producing work that was so much more than the light comedy I was expecting that I simply couldn't adjust my frame of reference to it.
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I remember when I was reading Discworld for the first time noticing, sometime around the mid-1990s, that something about what Pratchett was trying to do seemed to have shifted. The books became less straightforward comedy, more thoughtful; less parody, more satire. At the time, I found this quite hard to accept, because what I'd originally loved about Discworld was the lampooning of real-world originals; I started reading the books as light relief after doing an English degree and, two years on, I still wasn't really ready for subtlety or books that made me think. These days, I feel rather different; the earlier books feel a bit silly, and the subtler, more satirical books are the ones that feel like vintage Pratchett.

Feet of Clay is definitely vintage Pratchett. Ankh-Morpork here feels much more three-dimensional than it did in the earlier books, and although it's still very funny the issues it tackles are serious. Plot-specific )
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I re-read Men At Arms the week before last, partly because reading Guards! Guards! last month has put me in the mood for a proper City Watch re-read and partly because [community profile] fail_fandomanon had been talking about Mark Read's reading (or misreading) of it and that made me think of it when I was choosing what to read. Like Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms is a book I didn't really get on first reading; I seem to remember it taking me an embarrassingly long time to work out what a gonne was, never mind appreciating Pterry's brilliant portrayal of a complex and often corrupt multicultural society full of ethnic tensions and the Watch as the thin line holding it back from total chaos. Even though Vimes does get somewhat sidelined for part of the book, allowing Carrot's essential Lawful Goodness a chance to shine, it's still much more his story than I ever realised first time round, as he struggles to enforce the law in a city that still thinks the law is mostly a joke and has to deal with his own internalised prejudices against other species.

After that, I was in the mood for more hardbitten detective action, so decided to read The Silkworm, the second of JK Rowling's novels written as Robert Galbraith. I read The Cuckoo's Calling a few months ago and liked it a lot, and for my money The Silkworm was even better. Her detective, Cormoran Strike, and his assistant, Robin, are likeable and engaging characters, the plot was as enjoyably twisty as I'd expect from Rowling, and the supporting cast of literary types was entertainingly grotesque. I also enjoyed the way she manages to weave in enough of Strike and Robin's personal lives to make me interested in them as people, as well as in the whodunnit plot (I want to read the next book to find out how they're doing*) but not so much that it makes it all about them and not the crime. Ultimately, she may not be the greatest writer of all time, but she's really good at plot and character and it's rather nice to read an old-fashioned detective novel that doesn't involve serial killers**.

* Though I am a little worried that the series is going to end up with them together, because I rather like them as friends and colleagues.

** I hate serial killer stories, though I did read Val McDermid's The Mermaids Singing a couple of years ago and hated that less than normal because the serial killer - unusually, as far as I can see - wasn't targetting women.
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Having re-read all of Pratchett's Witches books last year I decided it was time to tackle the City Watch books and picked Guards! Guards! when I needed something to read the other day. This is one of the ones I first read in the summer of 1995, when, home from university for the final time, unemployed and fed up with serious reading after spending three years studying English literature, I read my way steadily through my brother's Discworld collection, starting with The Colour of Magic and making it through to Men At Arms before I finally managed to move away again*. To be quite honest, it wasn't one of my favourites then; I loved the Witches and Death and even, heaven help me, Rincewind**, but the City Watch left me a bit cold.

Partly, I think it's that I didn't really get them. Being young and stupid and fairly familiar with the tropes of fantasy, and unfamiliar with police procedurals, I immediately identified Carrot as the hero and couldn't quite work out why Pterry kept focusing on the dull, middle-aged, alcoholic Vimes instead***. I think someone finally explained to me that Vimes was the hero after we'd seen Paul Darrow playing him in a theatre production of Guards! Guards!.

Re-reading it now, Carrot is obviously just part of the ensemble cast of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, along with Colon and Nobby; the heart of the book is Vimes' redemption and rediscovery of his sense of purpose, a good man in an ugly world, a man with an unshakeable sense of right and wrong and a determination to punish wrongdoers, however powerful or influential they may be, whatever the personal cost might be.

What I was surprised at was how dark the book was in places. I know that the later Watch books are often very dark, but I'd thought that came later. I would have said that the first few were simply lighthearted fun and things took a darker turn round about, say, Jingo. But it turns out that I was as wrong about that as I was about who the hero was. The depiction of Ankh-Morpork under the control of the dragon, and the things that people will allow to be done to other people to preserve their own skins, is easily as dark as anything in Night Watch or Thud!. No wonder I didn't like it much when I was young and green and didn't really believe evil existed outside books. At that age, I think I had an innocent optimism that had quite a lot in common with Carrot; now I'm older and more cynical, more aware of what the world is really like, I've grown into Vimes, and I'm looking forward to following his journey again, this time with more understanding.

*I love my family, but at the age of 21 being forced to abandon the throbbing metropolis of Coventry for a Hampshire commuter town where I didn't know anyone any more was no fun at all.

**What can I say? I was young and stupid and had grown up on the kind of fantasy they were taking off, though I don't think I could bring myself to re-read them, now.

***I really don't know how I can have just managed to persuade a reputable university to award me a 2.1 in English literature.

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