Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of Guards ! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Many science fiction and fantasy writers pass away each year, but few cause me personal pause.  Hearing yesterday of the passing of Terry Pratchett, however, a heaviness hung on my heart - exacerbated by his final, fitting tweet "AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER."  The following review was queued but not scheduled to be posted for a few weeks.  As small a memento as it is, I've bumped it up in honor of truly one of the greatest figures the speculative fiction field has ever known, and ever will.  Much more to his stories than brilliant humor, the world would truly be a better place if everybody went out and read a Pratchett novel.  Thanks for the stories, Terry.

For those who missed it, the duology which opened Discworld, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic respectively, was a shot across the bow of epic fantasy.  Pratchett undermining familiar elements and having a laugh at its stereotypes, the two novels, however, proved not enough.  The 8th Disc novel Guards! Guards!, on top of introducing the City Watch sub-series and a couple of characters who would go on to achieve Hall of Disc status (Commander Vimes and Corporal Carrot), continues to dig at epic fantasy’s tropes, dismantling them in humor with every spadeful.  The farmboy slays a dragon to become king the stereotype targeted, the roast succeeds behind all of the humor Pratchett is known for.  Whether or not it works as a thematic whole, well…

The Supreme Grand Master of the appropriately named Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night has an idea: to overthrown the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork and install a puppet ruler, himself Geppetto.  The details: find a long lost heir to the throne, find him a dragon to slay, and install him as king.  Using the magic he has acquired in a book stolen from the Unseen University library, the Supreme Grand Master sets about his nefarious scheme.  Meanwhile, Carrot Ironfounderson is being sent into the world of men by his dwarf parents.  Given the massive sword he was found abandoned with as a baby and a letter of recommendation to the City Watch, he leaves the mines for a new life—all 6’-6” of him. And he certainly finds a new life in Ankh-Morpork.  With the drunk Commander Vimes at the helm, the group stumble and bumble over one clue at a time trying to find a stolen book before the chaos of a dragon descends on the city. 

Of course, the Brethren of the Ebon Night’s plot fails. But this is Pratchett, after all: one does not read his novels for the destination, rather the journey.  The Brethren laugh-out-loud funny, Pratchett’s musings on secret societies and the doggerel that defines their rote and ritual are hilarious.  And the dragon that is conjured (of course its conjured) sets loose a turn of events all the more funny.  From the breeding practices of swamp dragons to the book of common medical problems dragons face, Pratchett cashes in on the classic big green scaly fire breathing lizard with claws for full comedic effect.

But unlike Pyramids, Equal Rites, Mort, and a host of other novels that followed, including the City Watch novels Jingo and Monstrous Regiment, Guards! Guards! feels more of a lark (fun deconstruction to be more precise) than politicized examination of epic fantasy.  Pratchett seeming to realize this later, The Last Hero goes into much further depth about heroes and heroic deeds.

In the end, Guards! Guards! is a raucous tackling and takedown of the classic epic fantasy farmboy becomes king trope.  Introducing the City Watch to Discworld, Vimes, Nobby, Colon, Carrot, and others must track down the thieves who unleashed a mighty dragon on Ankh-Morpork, hilarity ensuing.  While I personally enjoy Discworld titles with more substance, Guards! Guards! remains a lot of fun.

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