Night Watch: You can’t repeat the past (Of course you can)

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNight Watch by Terry PratchettNight Watch by Terry Pratchett

Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch has all but arrested Carcer, a serial killer who specifically targets members of the Watch, when they are thrown back in time.

Time travel is always inconvenient, but it is particularly trying for Sam Vimes, who is about to become a father. Worse, Vimes soon realizes this time in Ankh-Morpork’s history is especially awful because the city is about to revolt against the Patrician, Lord Winder. The people will revolt, Vimes remembers, and cavalrymen will put them down.

Vimes had only just joined the Watch when he first lived through the revolution, but he remembers many of the details, especially his old mentor, Sergeant John Keel. Keel taught Sam how to be a copper, and he saved lives during the revolution by maintaining order around the Treacle Mine Road watch house. In this past, however, Carcer has already murdered Keel.

The last thing the Watch needs is another problem. Underfunded, understaffed, and deeply corrupt, the Night Watch is just one of many unjust institutions in Lord Winder’s city. Though most of the men in the Watch are incompetent, they are certainly less harmful than the Unmentionables, a secret police that tortures its prisoners to extract information from them.

Naturally, Vimes assumes Keel’s identity, becomes a Sergeant at Arms in the Night Watch, and mentors Sam, the younger version of himself. He also has to catch Carcer and he plans to save lives during the revolution that is about to begin.

I loved reading Night Watch, so, in the interest of appearing objective, let’s consider some complaints that could be lodged against it.

At times, the writing could be described as lazy. The Librarian is a wizard who turned himself into an orangutan, which is simply stated in a footnote.* Further, the logic of time travel is not very convincing, even by the standards of an SFF novel. Vimes is thrown back in time by a storm that collects “natural background magic.” Vimes meets monks that monitor the time line, but every time one of them uses an analogy to explain how time travel works, another scoffs at the gross simplifications and misunderstandings the analogy introduces. This is a highly dubious magic system.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAnd although it would seem that the time travel device should allow Pratchett to take Vimes – soon to be a father – back in time so that he can mentor a younger version of himself and confront the realities of fatherhood, Vimes just isn’t worried about becoming a father. Although the reader gets to learn a lot about what Vimes (Pratchett) thinks about revolutions, Vimes himself does not really “learn” anything. At this point in the series, Vimes (like Terry Pratchett?) is well established and widely respected. In his own words, Vimes explains to Vetinari that:

There’s nothing I want. You can’t promote me any further. There’s nothing left to bribe me with. I’ve got more than I deserve. The Watch is working well. We don’t even need a new bloody dartboard.

Vimes could also mention that he is financially secure, politically influential, and happily married. Sam Vimes has met his demons and has more or less reined them in. At this point in his life, his worst enemy is usually the incompetence of the people trying to help him.

In theory, Vimes should bore readers because he has become a static hero. Perhaps this will be true for some readers, but I still enjoyed following this revolutionary time-travel adventure. Perhaps Vimes remains compelling here because, like time travel, the Commander of the City Watch is a paradox in Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett highlights this paradox when Vimes arrives in the past. A woman sees him and wonders whether Vimes is an officer; after all, he looks like an officer:

It’s the way you stand. Officers stand like that. You eat well. Maybe a bit too well. You could lose a few pounds. And then there’s the scars all over you. I saw ‘em in Mossy’s place. Your legs are tanned from the knees down, and that says ‘watchman’ to me, because they go bare-legged. But I know every watchman in the city and you’re not one of them, so maybe you’re a military man. You fight by instinct, and dirty, too. That means you’re used to fighting for your life in a melee, and that’s odd, because that says to me ‘foot soldier,’ not officer. The word is that the lads took some fine armor off you. That’s officer. But you don’t wear rings. That’s foot soldier—rings catch in things, can pull your finger off if you’re not careful.

Or perhaps Vimes remains compelling in the way that Neal Stephenson’s heroes remain compelling: sometimes we have enough problems in life and just want to read about likeable and broadly capable heroes who can handily solve their own problems – the tougher the better.

So, thankfully, Night Watch offers a lot of difficult problems and sets Vimes to work on them. Vimes is pitted against a serial killer, a collection of Lord Ranks and other Lord Whosits, and an Ankh-Morpork revolution. It also offers an origin story for Nobby, Fred Colon, and even Vetinari. Night Watch is sometimes funny, but it veers serious more often than slapstick. There’s also a lot of action, a lot of brass knuckles, and a lot of kicks to the belly and the knee.

Night Watch is the 29th DISCWORLD novel and the sixth to follow the adventures of Commander Samuel Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Readers should read the previous Watch novels, but they should also want to skip ahead to this one. Although there are complaints that could be made about Night Watch, they never once caused me to put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed Night Watch and suspect that it will be remembered as the climax of the Watch novels and one of the best novels in the DISCWORLD series. Highly recommended.

*For the record, I actually thought this use of a footnote was appropriate. I generally dislike when fantasy authors create elaborate and lengthy excuses to provide backstory.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  1. I think the reason Pratchett asterik-ed (astericized??) the backstory how the University’s librarian became an orangutan is because it’s been explained in so many other Discworld novels.

  2. I agree.*

    *In fact, I think a lot of fantasy authors go out of their way to “naturally” remind the reader of what’s happened in previous novels when an asterisk will often suffice.

  3. I’d rather be asteracized than ostracized.

  4. Love this

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