And here we are with the latest instalment of the Great Terry Pratchett Re-read-athon. Men at Arms follows on from Guards! Guards! and takes the story of the Night Watch to a new phase. Captain Sam Vimes is about to retire from the Watch to marry Lady Sybil Ramkin and begin a new life as a man of property.
The Watch itself has been expanded, in keeping with the Patrician’s policy of reflecting the ethnic diversity of Ankh-Morpork. So, the new recruits are Cuddy (a dwarf), Detritus (a troll) and Angua (a w-, err, a woman, mostly). Well, actually, it soon becomes clear to everyone apart from Corporal Carrot that Angua is a werewolf, but that’s a minor detail.
We also have the return of Gaspode, the dog who insists he can’t talk because obviously dogs can’t do that sort of thing, can they? Having got over err, not talking when the nasty business at the Holy Wood came to an end in Moving Pictures, he found himself with an excess of intelligence again after sleeping a bit too close to Unseen University.
The story involves a weapon, invented by the slightly warped genius Leonard of Quirm, and supposedly destroyed on the orders of the Patrician. It was actually kept by the Guild of Assassins in their museum, which leads to a lot of trouble when it’s stolen. As the body count rises, and Sam’s retirement gets closer, it’s up to the Watch to work out what’s going on and who’s doing it, not to mention stopping all out war on the streets between dwarfs and trolls, who don’t generally need much of an excuse to not get along…
There’s the usual array of jokes, references and moderately serious thoughts lurking behind the laughs, such as a reference to the attitude dwarfs have to religion.
Dwarfs were not a naturally religious species, but in a world where pit props could crack without warning and pockets of fire damp could suddenly explode they’d seen a need for gods as the sort of supernatural equivalent of a hard hat. Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it’s nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, “Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!” or “Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept-on-a-crutch!”
And now I’ve got a mental image of Richard Dawkins doing exactly that…
Gaspode and Angua have a run-in with Big Fido, who’s a very Bad Dog indeed.
“Good grief,” said Angua, when they had put several streets between them and the crowd of dogs. “He’s mad, isn’t he?”
“No, mad’s when you froth at the mouf,” said Gaspode. “He’s insane. That’s when you froth at the brain.”
And there’s this, which I was reminded of when I muttered about the Doctor Who episode A Good Man Goes to War:
If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat.
They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar.
So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.
And later we find that Carrot is just such a good man (or dwarf, depending on how you look at it). We also find that he’s not so much the kind of man (or dwarf) who can pull a sword out of a stone (allegedly the sign of the rightful king) as the kind who can drive a sword right though stone…
And when all is said and done, the Watch is reformed, with Carrot as Captain and the freshly knighted Sam Vimes as its Commander, which leads in to some more books which I’ll come to in the next few weeks.
Loads of fun all round and some excellent character development. Oh, and trolls aren’t stupid, it’s just that their brains are too hot to work…