Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review of Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Fifteenth Discworld novel and second to star the City Watch, Terry Pratchett’s 1993 Men at Arms is a funny romp on the streets of Ankh-Morpork that brings together some of his most beloved characters.  Compared to some other Discworld offerings, the novel is less focused thematically, but makes up for it with a quantity of trademark humor—slapstick, satire, wordplay, and otherwise—beyond what is standard in the series.

Men at Arms opens with Corporal Carrot Ironfoundersson writing home to his family, describing to them the current events of the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork.  A few new recruits have been landed, including a dwarf, a troll, and a woman—strange newcomers for what has been a WASP institution since the Watch took its place in the city.  Right off the bat the group’s tenor is tested by having to put down a minor dwarf-troll insurrection—the two groups’ enmity threatening to erupt violently.  Captain Vimes has also announced his retirement from the Watch.  He quickly discovers, however, his final days are to be anything but relaxing.  With a rogue member of the Assassin’s Guild chasing a fool dream to reinstate a king in mayor Vetinari’s place, Vimes must use all of his alcohol riddled wits to trace the mysterious assassin as he moves from one bizarre murder scene to another, the weapon of choice unlike anything the city has seen before.

With the unlikely duo of Cuddy (a dwarf) and Detritus (the troll of Moving Pictures' fame- ha!) walking the beat, humor runs high.  The two seemingly forever in banter about the “intrinsic value” of their respective ethnicities, jokes on height and stupidity flying.  Their duties also take them to the city’s various workmen’s establishments, the fertile grounds of the Clown’s, the Beggar’s, and the Assassin’s Guilds proving ripe for Pratchett’s wit.  Side stories involving a Gaspode the talking dog (also of Moving Pictures' fame), Corporal Carrot’s heritage, and a band of mongrel hounds fill out the remaining story arcs. 

Humor in full swing, theme is flaccid, however.  Though working with the subjects of guns and racism/ discrimination, Pratchett’s story never takes full thematic flight.  Notable topics are discussed, but never linked to plot in the same analogous fashion that time was in Thief of Time or religion in Small Gods.  Moreover, the solutions to the problems presented are nothing new or inventive, rather the standard politically correct mindset, which, as we have seen, doesn’t make the problem of racial prejudice disappear.  Likewise, the notion of guns—an idea seemingly ready and willing to be examined on the Disc—never manifests itself in salient fashion.  Like Sauron, it is only a thing of evil—which as true as it may be, never falls under discussion in any fashion which truly displays its relationship to society.

There is one interesting aspect to the theme of discrimination, however.  Gaspode the talking dog hounded by a group of mongrels into joining a sorry insurgency (sorry for the pun), the idea of rebellion for rebellion’s sake falls under discussion.  Pratchett’s deflation of the topic is as proper and as welcome as can be, but is developed only in the latter third of the novel.

In the end, Men at Arms is a solid entry to the Disc.  Pratchett does not display the same strong linkage of theme to plot and consistency of storytelling that he has with some of the other offerings, but the humor is all there.  If you’re looking for funny, the novel will not disappoint.  Corporal Carrot, Captain Vimes, the Assassin’s Guild, Venarati, and Ankh-Morpork the feature elements, by all means have a read if these are your favorite parts of Discworld.

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