Guards! Guards!: Terry Pratchett

★★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book VIII

In the series so far, we haven’t seen much of the Ankh-Morpork City Guard. One or two guardsmen have had speaking roles, but essentially they’ve occupied the place that such figures occupy in traditional fantasy: bland figures, so expendable that they don’t even have names, whose function is to fight, pursue or be killed by the maverick hero. This novel goes a long way towards rectifying that, as the estimable men of the Night Watch have their moment in the sun (so to speak) at last – introducing some of my favourite characters along the way.

On the day that Sam Vimes wakes up in a gutter with a terrible hangover, the day after burying an old colleague, he imagines things can’t get much worse. He’s middle-aged, drunk most of the time, and has never progressed beyond being Captain of the Night Watch. Not that he’s ever really wanted to. He isn’t good with authority and the Watch suits him fine, as it does his two colleagues: Sergeant Colon, whose night shifts prevent him from ever having to meet his wife; and Corporal Nobbs, who is basically the Discworld equivalent of Baldrick. But Sam Vimes’s life is about to change. The Watch’s new recruit, a dwarf from the Ramtop Mountains called Carrot Ironfoundersson, turns out not to measure down to expectations: he’s actually six foot six and is a dwarf only by adoption, as well as being fanatically well-informed on Ankh-Morpork’s laws and ferociously determined to enforce them. Oh; and someone’s summoned up a dragon.

As the dragon swoops over Ankh-Morpork, torching buildings and incinerating the odd citizen, it’s down to Vimes and his gang of misfits to find out who’s responsible. Rather like a whisky-soaked hybrid of Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood and Philip Marlowe, Vimes is determined to save his city: it might be a dank, filthy, crime-ridden fleapit, but it’s his fleapit. As he investigates, he encounters Ankh-Morpork’s finest: some familiar faces, like the Librarian, Cut My Own Throat Dibbler and the Patrician (who begins to grow deliciously ever more like Machiavelli), but also new characters like Lady Sibyl Ramkin, who’s so upper class that she can go round wearing old boots and a singed jacket, and can say exactly what she bloody well thinks, thank you very much. I have a big soft spot for Lady Ramkin who, in lieu of being horsey (as she would be if she lived in our world) breeds small swamp dragons and becomes Vimes’s adviser on all matters draconian. And perhaps something more…

This is a really lovely instalment in the series. Unlike the ‘concept’ novels, it never feels restricted by its subject, instead merrily subverting cherished fantasy cliches: the dragon; the eldritch secret society; the king returning to save his people in their hour of need… And its real strength is in the characters. Though this is very much a comedy, there’s a real poignancy to the men of the Night Watch, especially Vimes, with a grim life of wasted potential behind him and only a flicker of hope left. Yet, although Carrot is the physical model of a hero, it’s Vimes whose grit, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness will come to the fore as his troop seeks to defeat the dragon, save the noble damsel and restore peace to the city, etc.

A smart, rip-roaring adventure, this is one to savour, with nods to Dirty Harry and Casablanca, along no doubt with many other references I missed. It also introduces the concept of L-space, which will be immediately familiar to anyone who, like me, has spent long hours in second-hand bookshops. A measure of its popularity is that, like Wyrd Sisters, it has been adapted for the stage, and you can also enjoy exploring the Watch’s territory for yourself on an Ankh-Morpork map.

Buy the book

Guards! Guards! has provided Paul Kidby with a lot of inspiration. His Vimes and Lady Ramkin have both become my fixed mental images for the characters, and I’ve included a small selection of his related works below.

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