March 2, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along #8: Guards! Guards!


Continuing my occasional series where I work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one book at a time.

This week’s entry covers the 8th book, Guards!  Guards!

First appearances:  Captain Sam Vimes, Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson, Sgt. Fred Colon, Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Lady Sybil Ramkin, Detritus the troll (small silent part), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler

Introduced to Discworld:  competent law enforcement to Ankh-Morpork.

The plot:  A shadowy conspiracy manages to summon a noble dragon out of wherever dragons come from.  These animals have been believed to be extinct to ages, leaving only the smaller, highly unstable swamp dragon cousins as far as most people know.

But it’s a noble dragon, so naturally, after its roasted a few people, the good citizens of Ankh-Morpork decide to make it their new king.  The Patrician, Lord Vetinari, doesn’t even object in the slightest to being put in his own dungeons.  But the whole thing seems off to some people.

Those “some people” are primarily the four members of the City’s Night Watch:  Captain Sam Vimes, Sergeant Fred Colon, Corporal Nobby Nobbs, and new recruit Lance-Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson.  Together with help from Lady Sybil Ramkin, an expert on swamp dragon breeding, and the Librarian of Unseen University, they’ll have to figure out a way to save the day without being barbecued.

Commentary:  This was the first of the City Watch books, which always were among my favorites.  The Watch grows over time, adding new members, but for now it’s just the original four guys.  Vimes spends most of the first half of the book drunk, which seemed off, but as soon as he stopped drinking, he became the hard-charging Vimes longtime readers will recognize, who may not be as smart as some but is considered a good “copper”, someone who knows a crime has been committed and won’t rest until the perpetrator is captured.  Readers can also see his first encounters with his future wife, Sybil, a noblewoman who is apparently quite large since she’s frequently compared to, well, continents, and hasn’t much in the way of ladylike manners and behaviors.

Also, there’s the future Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson, seen here as a naive new recruit.  Carrot, named for his general shape (think on that for a moment), was a human raised by dwarves.  He’s big, strong, and carries a sword that probably belonged to his birth father, a sword that is special because it may be the only non-magical sword on the entire Disc.  It’s just really, really sharp.  Carrot doesn’t understand metaphors, like all dwarves (including adopted ones), and was sent out to what he was told is  good profession for a young man to make a real man out of himself.  Carrot’s always had the undercurrent that he is, in fact, the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork.  People tend to do what he says, and he has some sort of natural leadership abilities.  Plus, he’s the most heroic man the Watch has seen in years, someone who actually tries to fight crime.  On his first day, he arrests the Master of the Thieves Guild, since he doesn’t understand theft is sort of legal in the city.  He almost arrests the Patrician, and does arrest the dragon at the end of the book.

Carrot, upholding the longstanding Discworld tradition of choosing his own path through life, seems to prefer being a guard over being the king, even if no one really suggests the idea directly to him.  Other characters get the idea that he is the rightful heir, but that’s about it.

As for the rest of the Watch, the great comedy duo of Colon and Nobby don’t seem to interact much right away.  Nobby’s general shiftiness is on display, but the constant humor that many people have a hard time understanding he actually is human is a bit more downplayed here.  Colon, described as someone who would go no higher or lower than “Sergeant” in any organization, has a bit more brains than generally given credit for here, but the broad sketch of these two is firmly established for future appearances.

There’s also a good deal of competence from the Librarian, as well as showing the concept of L-Space, or the way all Libraries connect throughout the multiverse.

I’ve argued in the past that Pratchett is more interested in satire, and there are hints of that here.  The citizens of Ankh-Morpork are not particularly heroic, and the Patrician actually states his view near the end that people are generally evil, so the best way to deal with them is use evil to fight evil.  Vimes, and I sense Pratchett, do not agree with that assessment, and characters like Carrot and Sybil certainly make the argument about there being no good people a poor one.

Likewise, in the one scene where the dragon communicates with another person, the dragon is shocked at what human beings do to each other.  The dragon knows he himself is cruel and vicious, but he’s a dragon; knowing human beings come up with reasons to do what dragons do all on their own is actually rather outrageous to the dragon itself.

On a final note, Pratchett dedicated this book to those nameless characters, various guards in various stories, whose only task seems to be to allow themselves to be mowed down by a story’s protagonist.  Giving the Watch their due leads to greater things later, especially as the Watch grows to include a wide range of non-human characters, starting with the very next book in the City Watch Cycle.

Next book:  When last we saw Rincewind and the Luggage, they were trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions.  Now they somehow return in the Discworld version of the Faust story, Eric.

Previous entries:

The Color of Magic

The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites



Wyrd Sisters