Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett is the 19th novel in the author’s Discworld series and the third novel in the City Watch sub-series. There’s murder afoot, as the bodies of a priest and a baker have been found bludgeoned in their respective homes. Headed by Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, werewolf Corporal Angua, and their new forensics expert Cheery Littlebottom, the City Watch is on the case. Despite the talents each bring to the case, however, it seems no other living thing was present for either murder, though a lot of clay was.
Golems are made of clay, but they’re just things that do as they’re told, not alive, and murder goes against the sacred scrolls that make them function. With the case only getting foggier, the Patrician of the city, Lord Vetinari, suddenly falls victim of poison from an unknown source, weakening him but not killing him outright. Vimes and the Watch’s policing skills are put to the test as they must uncover not only whodunit, but howdunit.
What was quickly apparent about this book was that it wasn’t going to follow the typical structure of so many other Discworld novels that came before it. Following in the footsteps of the previous novel, Maskerade, which was akin to a murder mystery, Feet of Clay felt firmly like detective fiction, with a Discworld-y twist. Pratchett’s talents as a humorist are still written into the world’s DNA, but the writing style felt an appreciable shade more serious. Though there are plenty of antics between the characters, the gravity of the murders, the poisoning plot against the Patrician, and especially the collateral damage caused by the latter, never felt downplayed.
A new concept at the heart of the novel were the golems. Unlike the mineral-based trolls or stone-bodied gargoyles, which we’ve met before and appear in this novel, golems are formed out of clay, baked, and then “animated” by putting a scroll written with sacred words into their bodies. Though how they work is fantastical, they are ostensibly the robots of this world. The words on the scroll are their programming and they are set to perform menial tasks and dirty jobs that living people don’t want to do. The only reason there aren’t more of them is it’s considered sacrilegious to make them (that being a big deal in a world where gods are very apparently vengeful), so the only ones still operating are those that were made a long time ago.
Though secondary to the mystery, I really enjoyed the exploration of whether or not the golems should be considered beings and not just things, and more importantly how we define what sentient life is. It tied well into the social hierarchies of city of Ankh-Morpork that the City Watch series so often explores. The city is a melting pot of humans, dwarfs, trolls, numerous types of undead, and other oddities, all them trying to eke out a living and most often butting heads with one another. While the series strives to show them working together for the betterment of city life, through the Watch itself, it more prominently highlights the discord between these groups and how quickly mobs can turn on an easy scapegoat.
Though I really enjoyed the book’s characters and ideas, I’m of two minds about the main plot and the mystery therein. On the one hand, I did really like the way it was ultimately fairly grounded, with enough clues building up to it that fit together really snugly once all was said and done. More importantly, it built upon details laid down about characters in the Watch from previous books. Along the way, however, I found it all to be a bit too muddy, even convoluted at times. Though I had no trouble following from moment-to-moment, I was also inching towards impatience waiting for the picture to be made clearer. It was just a little too all over the place for me.
It must be reiterated just how much the characters continued to engage me with this book, as they have with others in this sub-series. Though I wish the subplot had gone somewhere more meaningful, I enjoyed the tension in Carrot and Angua’s relationship, which I suspect will continue going into later books. Cheery Littlebottom was a great addition to the Watch as well, giving us insight into the gender expression of dwarfs and the problems some of them have with it, which I found really fascinating. Vimes continued to be a compellingly flawed paragon of policing, embodying some of its best intended qualities while having plenty of shortcomings he must continually battle with. He may be rough, irreverent, and cynical, but at the end of the day he wants to do right by the common person.
Feet of Clay is a great Discworld novel and a worthy continuation of the City Watch sub-series, full of a colourful cast of characters that’s only getting more vibrant. It introduces some great new ideas and concepts to the world too, confronting interesting ethical quandaries that go along with them. Your mileage may vary with how the book juggles the various threads of the mystery plot line, but it all comes together in the end in a good way. Not a book I’d start the series with, but a great story to eventually get to.
My Rating: 4 out of 5