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The Fifth Elephant
Terry Pratchett
Doubleday Books, 316 pages

The Fifth Elephant
Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett lives in Somerset, England, where he spends all his time, and more, writing his rigorously naturalistic, curiously entertaining, shamelessly popular Discworld novels which have earned him extravagant acclaim and puzzled stares from millions of readers around the world.

SF Site Reading List: Terry Pratchett
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SF Site Review: The Discworld Assassins' Guild Yearbook and Diary 2000
SF Site Review: The Science of Discworld
SF Site Review: The Last Continent
SF Site Review: Hogfather
SF Site Review: Jingo
SF Site Review: Feet of Clay
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A review by Steven H Silver

Terry Pratchett's Discworld is carried on the backs of four elephants who ride through space on the back of Great A'tuin. In Uberwald, a country populated by dwarves, werewolves, vampires and trolls, the people know that there was once a fifth elephant, whose meteoric descent saturated their land and gave rise to the Schmalzberg fat mines. The Fifth Elephant takes Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork city watch and turns him into a diplomat on a visit to Uberwald for the crowning of the new dwarven Low King.

The twenty-fourth novel in the Discworld series, The Fifth Elephant is not, unfortunately, a good starting place for someone who is unfamiliar with the series. It builds on the events chronicled in earlier books about Vimes and the City Watch (i.e. Guards, Guards, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, and Jingo) and some knowledge of these books is necessary to fully appreciate the characters and situations related in The Fifth Elephant.

The primary story of The Fifth Elephant places Vimes as a fish out of water, a technique which Pratchett has used numerous times before with his main characters, visiting a land far from his native Ankh-Morpork and separated from his power base. Nevertheless, Pratchett's answer to Sherlock Holmes must use his skills of deduction to solve a mystery concerning the disappearance of the dwarven Scone of Stone, an ancient rock-hard pastry which is a necessary part of the dwarven coronation rite.

The mystery regarding the scone is well thought out and Pratchett gives the reader the clues which are necessary to solve the crime before Vimes explains what happens. While the scenes of Vimes committing diplomacy could have been increased, there are enough of them to allow Pratchett to take shots at both diplomacy and the politics which accompany it.

Subplots involve Captain Carrot's attempts to find the AWOL Sergeant Angua and the effects Vimes' absence has on the Ankh-Morpork City Guard. Frequently, because they deal with more familiar characters and locations than the main plot, these sections of the novel are more entertaining than the portions dealing with Vimes.

As always, Pratchett includes a variety of references to popular culture. In doing so, he manages to pay homage to films, books, etc. that everyone knows and to lampoon them at the same time. While not always working, most of Pratchett's gags manage to elicit a grin and few fall absolutely flat. In some cases, the references are specific to British culture and American readers are likely to miss all of the nuances.

While The Fifth Elephant may be the weakest of the books featuring the City Watch, it is still a good novel, for even the weak Pratchett books are better than many of the works which appear on the shelves of the bookstores. Pratchett provides a well-written mystery which may give clues to why he is such a successful author. While nominally fantasy, the stories he tells and the issues he tackles can cross a variety of genres.

Copyright © 2000 by Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He sits on concoms for Windycon, Chicon 2000 and Clavius in 2001 and is co-chair of Picnicon 1998. Steven will be serving as the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. He lives at home with his wife and 3200 books. He is available for convention panels.

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