Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett is the 15th novel in the author’s Discworld series and the 2nd book in the sub-series about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Sam Vimes, captain of the city’s Night Watch, is getting married soon to the wealthy Sybil Ramkin. On his wedding day he intends to retire, hanging up his badge after many years of service. In the meantime, he has to deal with a handful of new recruits foisted upon him by the city’s Patrician in the name of diversity; a troll, a dwarf, and female werewolf. Trying to get the Watch in order before his departure is enough trouble, but matters are made worse as somebody in the shadows has been getting ideas about the rights of kings and destiny. Believing he has discovered the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, this person steals a secret and deadly weapon to upend the current social order and make way for this king’s return.
This was more of a special read for me, as it’s actually the first novel that I’ve reread in a rather long time. I first read it over 10 years ago and it was my introduction to Pratchett and the Discworld series. I’m emotionally attached to my copy as a result, which is a shame in a way because it has the cover pictured above. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to make Discworld novels look like unassuming literature, but here we are. It wasn’t until about half a decade later that I started reading more of the books, but I never forgot Men at Arms. With so much time since I last read it, and having a lot more context for the world after reading the prior 14 books, it was like reading it for the first time all over again.
It was exciting to rediscover all of the characters that have appeared in previous books that have a role here. Some are just cameos, such as Mrs. Cake who first appeared in Reaper Man, while others like Detritus the troll and Gaspode the dog are more active characters after being notable supporting characters in Moving Pictures. Though there’s emphasis on Captain Vimes having to come to terms with his shifting status in society, the novel has more of an ensemble cast rather than a singular main character. Carrot Ironfoundersson, a simple and good-hearted corporal in the Watch, is an important focal point too though. He must grow into a leadership role as Vimes becomes increasingly absent, a role that comes uncannily natural to him.
The plot itself is a sort of whodunit revolving around a mysterious robbery and a string of murders that leave the Watch baffled. The Patrician forbids Vimes from investigating (believing this will insure that he does), and the Watch slowly pieces together what is going on and who is behind it all. What I love about this elegantly simple premise is thus: in a fantasy world of swords and sorcery, somebody has a gun. Reading as the Watch must puzzle out what the killer is using was both humorous and made for a compelling mystery, as it becomes very apparent just how dangerous a gun in this world.
Perhaps more importantly, the gunman’s actions lead to a lot of social upheaval that the Watch must contend with. Namely, a dwarf is killed by the gun, but the Day Watch decide to pin it on a random troll, despite the fact that circumstances indicate a troll could not have done it. This whips the dwarfs into a frenzy against the trolls, and pits the trolls violently against the Watch, wanting to free their wrongly imprisoned compatriot. The attitude that “he must be guilty of something, so who cares” brings to the forefront the warped sense of justice that plagues Ankh-Morpork. With Vimes dealing with his own issues, I loved how Corporal Carrot and company worked to make it right. Progressively in this series the Watch is becoming a more respectable institution, and I appreciate that it has been happening gradually, rather than being resolved in one story.
Many of the characters get paired off with one another, the most notable being Lance-Constables Cuddy and Detritus, a dwarf and a troll respectively. The discord between these two species of people plays a big part in the story, as I’ve already indicated, but there’s a long history of discord between the two groups that contributes to it all. The relationship between the two Lance-Constables is tense at first, to say the least, but the way they both learn to understand and respect each other, as people and as officers of the law, was rather heartwarming and serves as a strong emotional centre to the story. I especially like how we come to understand troll physiology, something most residents of Ankh-Morpork don’t understand either, and how they’re so much more than big, dumb rock people.
Lance-Constable Angua, the werewolf, is herself paired off with either Corporal Carrot or, humorously, Gaspode the dog. The former is typically when she is human, the latter while in her wolf form. The clumsy romance that develops between Angua and Carrot is sweet, only really in its early stages in this book. I enjoyed that while a will-they-won’t-they isn’t left hanging by the end, I did not get the sense that they’re running off to get married either. There’s a mutual attraction, but they step on each others’ toes a lot too and have much to learn. Gaspode’s inclusion didn’t feel all that necessary, but I enjoyed his squalid perspective on life in the city, often providing his own coarse but not unwise insight when he can. He was one of the best parts of Moving Pictures too, so it’s great to see him back.
I’ve talked about Discworld books often being formulaic in the past, as much as I still love them, but Men at Arms is yet another example of a book a cut above the others. The best of them are still funny but have something to say, and this book does in many respects. I’ve shied away from the aspects of rightful kingship that catalyze the story so as not to spoil things, but I love the way Pratchett plays with this longstanding fantasy trope, making an appreciable suggestion of where a “rightful” king’s place really ought to be.
My Rating: 5 out of 5