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Night Watch
Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins, 338 pages

Night Watch
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 Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
SF Site Review: Thief of Time
SF Site Review: Nanny Ogg's Cookbook
SF Site Review: The Truth
SF Site Review: City Watch Trilogy
SF Site Review: The Fifth Elephant
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
SF Site Review: Maskerade
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A review by William Thompson

Life looks pretty rosy for Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch and His Grace the Duke of Ankh: his wife, Sybil, is expecting their first; the butler, Willikins, knows what should be worn when out in public; he's got a spiffy new wardrobe of duds that includes a gleaming breastplate replete with gold ornament ("gilt by association"); and, through his marriage to the Duchess, is now the richest man in Ankh-Morpork. And what is more, the Assassin's Guild has finally stuck his name from their registers, apparently feeling his "departure would not only spoil the game but also smash the board..." Granted, after a lifetime of devising stratagems and foils to thwart the Assassin's innumerable attempts, Vimes finds himself oddly nonplussed to discover that he is now a figure appropriate only for target practice, the screams heard coming from his yard likely little more than apprentices run afoul of the various traps and snares he has scattered about his estate. However he has grown accustomed, even fond, of his life as a copper, and now misses the routine, bloodied noses and anticipation of padding a beat. Rank has its privileges, but...

Vimes misses the old days. Life was simpler then, when one could define one's life by the feel of the street through thinly soled boots, where each stone had its place, and one always knew where one stood simply by recognizing the rock or cobble or gravel one trod upon. Not that Sam wishes entirely to give up the good life he has, but at times he can grow nostalgic, wondering when the last time was that he had an opportunity to patrol the old neighborhoods. Of course, being the dedicated man he is, he still visits Pseudopolis Yard whenever he can, signs the necessary paperwork, and tries whenever possible to be just "plain old Sam." And when a criminal such as Carcer appears, a nutjob who would happily kill you over a five dollar watch, all the while smiling and assuming an attitude of "Me? What did I do?," a little thing like meeting with foreign diplomats certainly won't stop Sam from assuming his duty. After all, we all have a job to do, "the one right in front of us," regardless of how onerous the task might be. And Sam does know how to control his little pleasures.

So, it is perhaps not surprising to find Vimes almost single-handedly (backed up by Sergeant Detritus' blunderbuss of a crossbow) stalking a nefarious character like Carcer across the slate-shingled rooftops of Unseen University. Of course, such an undertaking carries with it a certain attendant risk beyond the possible number of knives Carcer might have hidden about his person: stray magic has been known to leak out occasionally from the University's arcane precincts. And prolonged exposure to the sorcerous experiments practiced there has been verified at times to produce unanticipated results, as can be witnessed by the flock of daft but talking corbies that roost atop the Tower of Art (one might also recall some rodents from an earlier story that similarly benefited from raiding the collegial dumps). Thus one should not be entirely startled when at the moment of capture, a magical storm brews up and drops a bolt of lightning right upon the head our hero! If one is to wander carelessly round a wizard's realm without an escort, best to carry a big broomstick. And there are a bunch of little, bald-headed monks running about...

Sam in some ways gets his earlier wish: thanks to the magical storm he's back in the good old days and the old gang's all here: Ned Coates, Corporal Quirke, Sergeant Knock, Fred Colon, Billy Wiglet, Snouty Clapman, and Nancyball, along with the rest of the crew of the Treacle Mine Road Watch House. This is where Vimes got his start. The problem is that he's there too, but at the same time not. And the timing's all wrong: "these were not the good times." Looney Lord Winder is Patrician, the city seethes with the rumor of imminent rebellion, and the Watch is a slovenly bunch of misfits (well, I suppose they've always been misfits, just not so misbegotten, er, misconceived... OK, misguided? ) dedicated to petty extortion and corruption. The real police force in the city to be reckoned with are the Particulars, a shadowy group that spy upon the citizenry and are stationed along Cable Street in a building where suspects go in, but never come out.

The premise to Night Watch -- the return of Sam Vimes to his roots -- should naturally intrigue and captivate any long-time fan of the Discworld series. After all, we (and Sam) get to see Vimes as a young and wet-behind-the-ears recruit, as well as Nobby Nobbs when he was still but a street urchin giving a whole new meaning to the notion of unwashed masses. Rosie Palm has just begun her long and much sought after skills as a seamstress hemming men's pants beneath torchlight, and Vetinari is as yet but an apprentice assassin affectionately known among his peers as Dog-Botherer. Cameos are made by the Hon. Ronald Rust and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler at the start to his legendary culinary career, while Reg Shoe makes an appearance as an impassioned revolutionary with but one life to give for his country! And Sam Vimes is confronted with the dilemma of having to be on his best behavior "because I don't want to look bad in front of myself."

Unfortunately, after a successful run of five novels begun with The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett turns in a rather pedestrian effort here. Granted, the novel starts and ends relatively well, with plenty of the punning and wry humor we've come to expect, along with satiric forays into revolution ("You can take our lives but you can never take our freedom... Carcer's men looked at one another, puzzled by what sounded like the most badly thought-out war cry in the history of the universe."), time and the darker side of man's nature. But much of the humor in the middle portion of the novel falls flat, with many of the plot situations failing to fully gel. When at his best, the author's madcap plotting assumes a natural if frantic pacing that at times seems cohesive despite itself, and often with hilarious results. But too commonly this is not the case here, many of the elements of the story, especially pertaining to the Monks of History, seeming only tenuously connected or thought out, whereas other events stall and sputter along. Considering the premise, all of this seems most unfortunate, for the initial set up possesses obvious promise that one would have expected Pratchett to have mastered rather handily. Still, I suppose followers of the series will want to read this, if only for its historical content. It does offer the occasional chuckle...

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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