Insurrection is in the air in Ankh-Morpork. The Haves and Have-Nots are about to fall out all over again. Captain Sam Vimes of the city’s ramshackle Night Watch is used to this. It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Well, to drink more. But this time, something is different – the Have-Nots have found the key to a dormant, lethal weapon that even they don’t fully understand, and they’re about to unleash a campaign of terror on the city. Time for Captain Vimes to sober up.
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett is the eighth novel in the comic fantasy Discworld series, and the first to feature the character Sam Vimes and the guards of the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. I have a particular relationship with this cast of characters, having first been introduced to the entire series through them in Men at Arms years ago, the 16th Discworld novel and second book to feature Captain Vimes and the Watch. This had an unfortunate effect on me coming into this one, however, because while I was excited to read about the characters again, I was also a little dismayed that because I’d read the sequel, which refers to the events of this book, any suspense or tension might be diffused. Fortunately, the book had more in store for me than I expected.
Many consider this novel to be one of the better in the series and I now stand among them. Pratchett does his best work when he’s telling a story first, rather than using the plotline as a vehicle for his humour, and this book definitely fits that category. Sam Vimes and the Watch have a rather dramatic arc over the course of the story, going from a pathetic ramshackle organization with no real authority or sense of will, to one that’s more assertive with a growing sense of duty. They still have a long way to go, but it was satisfying to see a ragtag group come together and be better than they thought possible. Much of this is thanks to their newest volunteer recruit Carrot Ironfoundersson, a large young man raised by dwarfs, whose dedication to being a paragon of the law spurs Sam to be a better Captain of the Watch and show diligence in the face of a looming crisis.
I’m particularly endeared to the cast of characters in this novel. Captain Vimes is a breath of fresh air from the typical stock protagonists I’d been finding in the series, starting pretty much at bottom but clearly made of a more fortified stuff that need only claw its way out of the gutter. While only a support character, Carrot is a wonderful foil for Vimes and the Watch itself too, which also allows for some especially funny moments thanks to his adamant adherence to an outdated book of laws and his general literal-mindedness. The rest bring a lot of character to the story as well, from the sketchy but oddly dependable Corporal Nobby, to the oafish Sergeant Colon, to the strong-will Lady Ramkin with her expertise on meagre swamp dragons.
With the Watch the novel plays a lot with the Film Noir/Crime genre, but the conflict they’re concerned with deals with monarchy, folklore, and the way societies function. The last of these includes the different ways people respond to a crisis, be it panicking, taking advantage of other people’s panic, or accepting the way things go, regardless if they’re good or bad, for the sake of convenience. The book uses familiar tropes of rightful heirs returning and dragon slaying, which many of the characters are consciously aware of, to explore this idea. A charade by a secret society to instate a puppet monarch after dispatching a dragon they summon completely backfires, making conditions in the city more oppressive than ever. The Discworld is one that follows tropes and conventions more closely than real life, thanks to the gods, but it seems they do not abide manipulation of circumstances. Meanwhile, in the background a rightful heir has indeed returned, with all the natural abilities befitting one in the archetypical role, though his interest in kingship appears nonexistent.
I always knew this story involved a large, “noble” dragon attacking the city, and while I thought I could see where the plot was going once the setup was underway in the early parts of the novel, I was pleased to see things take a dramatically different turn than I expected. Ankh-Morpork does indeed get a new monarch for a time, but it has nothing to do with bloke reduced to ash on his coronation day. I always love when Pratchett goes to less expected places, and the ways the mounting issues get resolved was satisfying without overextending the abilities of the characters or being too predictable.
Guards! Guards! is definitely one of the better books in the Discworld series, and definitely a good starting place since it is the first in a subseries about the City Watch. Pratchett’s comedic writing was once again very on point, which I feel is obligatory to state somewhere, but the book is very clever in how it deals with human nature, mostly tongue-in-cheek all the while. Knowing where the characters end up in the follow-up book did hurt things a little, as certain developments were not a surprise, but it did not diminish the quality of the story.