Time for another entry in the Great Terry Pratchett Re-read-athon, and as it happens, time is what this one is all about. Well, sort of. After the diversion into “younger readers” territory in the last book, it’s back to Ankh-Morpork and our old friend Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch and a man with several titles he’d prefer not to admit to. Now for Vimes to really work as a character, he needs to be taken out of his comfort zone, so to speak, and that’s precisely what happens to him here.
In pursuit of a singularly nasty murderer called Carcer, Vimes gets caught up in a temporal wossname which sends him somewhere very uncomfortable indeed. His own past, where he finds himself having to take the part of John Keel, who was an influential figure in his early career in the Watch. And he has to guide his younger self towards becoming the man he became, which is precisely the kind of thing that makes time travel so inconvenient. Sam has some help from our old friend Lu-Tze and his fellow History Monks, who are trying to get time back where it belongs, but it’s up to him for the most part.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Carcer has also been dragged back in time, and he finds a place where a vicious psychopath will always be welcome – that rather special variety of police popularly known as the Unmentionables. Here’s what Sam (that’s Sam’s younger self) has to say about them
“Yeah, all right, but everyone knows they torture people,” mumbled Sam.
“Do they?” said Vimes. “Then why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?”
“‘cos they torture people.”
There’s more going on than that, of course. The current Patrician, Lord Winder, is paranoid (though to be fair, people are trying to kill him), and generally quite oppressive. There is, of course, a conspiracy to remove him and replace him.
All of which leads to trouble on the streets, martial law, and barricades being built. And as if that’s not enough, Sam really needs to get back to his own time, as his wife Sybil is about to give birth…
There are, as usual, lots of jokes, such as Sam’s dislike of his ceremonial uniform:
Sam Vimes felt like a class traitor every time he wore it. He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armour. It was gilt by association.
And we get to see younger versions of some familiar characters, which is great fun. The young Vetinari is particularly interesting. And the young Nobby Nobbs is particularly, err, Nobby.
But this time the jokes are more there to counterpoint what is a very serious story indeed. It’s as much about Vimes as a man than anything else. We see the reasons why the Vimes we first met in Guards! Guards! was a drunk, and why he still struggles with his inner beast.
Good stuff, one of my favourites of the series.
Oh yes, and if you’re after a printed version, look out for the original cover, wwith its superb Paul Kidby illustration on the front, which is based on Rembrant’s The Nightwatch, with Sam and Sam in the lead. The back of my original hardback has the Rembrant version, which is nearly as good.
It does make me wonder what marketing genius thought that the simple black covers with minimal illustrations were a good idea. I think it was some kind of attempt to appeal to people who don’t want to buy fantasy books, but I suspect it wasn’t all that successful. I’m happy to see that the latest paperback editions are using the original cover art.
 Technical expression