Guards! Guards!

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #8
Publisher: HerperTorch
Copyright: 1989
Printing: 2001
ISBN: 0-06-102064-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 355

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This is the eighth Discworld book by publication order, but it's one of the generally accepted starting points that can be read without knowledge of the previous books. You miss a few back-references, but it stands alone quite well.

The Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork are a sad bunch. The captain, Vimes, is a drunk, Nobbs is only a bit less shady than the criminals, and the sergeant is just generally ineffective. But more fatally, they have no real job. The Patrician made crime the responsibility of the thieves and beggars. Quite literally: they're responsible for all crime that happens whether they authorized it or not. They have a quota and they stick to their quota and ensure everyone else does too, making laws and the Night Watch rather obsolete. The Night Watch doesn't even dare venture into the bad parts of the city at night. About all they do is wander about, saying the hours.

Into this comes Carrot, an orphan raised by dwarves and sent to take a place in the city with the Guard, full of idealistic notions about what the Guard would do. He's also huge, strong, utterly persistent, and, in the characteristic way of so many of Pratchett's characters, intent on forcing his view of reality on the universe whether it likes it or not.

In the meantime, a rather incomptent secret society has managed to summon a dragon, and a book on summoning dragons is missing from the library. The last leads the Librarian (a brilliantly funny orangutan, for those who haven't read the previous Discworld books) to report the theft to the Watch and expect them to do something about it.

Guards! Guards! is partly a parody of hardboiled detective novels, cop movies, and cop TV shows, with Vimes as the cynical anti-hero. The trappings are there, and one is pushed towards the parody by several quotes and numerous references. I must admit, however, that it just didn't work for me. It was apparent what Pratchett was going for, but the tone felt too far from noir to create any strong mental connection. As a result, a lot of the related humor fell flat for me, and I found the opening city sections of the book rather slow and pointless.

Thankfully, there's quite a bit more going on in the story than that parody. I was worried I'd get tired of Carrot as the naive outsider, but once again Pratchett shows his skill at writing the persistent character with such a deft blend of humor and admiration that one can't help but love them. After a bit of excessive cuteness, the dragon breeding bits, the swamp dragons in general and Errol in particular, and Lady Ramkin all become rather entertaining (and I think a more effective parody of horse and dog breeding than the main story is a cop/detective parody). We also finally get to see the Patrician in considerable detail, one of Pratchett's better supporting characters in a universe full of excellent ones, and quite a bit more of the Librarian, my favorite Discworld character by some margin.

I found Guards! Guards! less generally funny than the previous books in the series but a better plot-driven story. Once the plot revs up in the second half of the book, there's a lot of great action and surprising twists. There's also some wonderfully cynical commentary on governance: the most memorable part of the book is the mental conversation between the noble dragon and Wonse about the nature of humanity. It's a truly brilliant bit of dark satire.

I've heard Guards! Guards! mentioned as a favorite Discworld book. It's not that for me: I found it less funny and less delightfully twisted than some of the previous books in the series (most notably Sourcery). It is, however, a good independent starting point and a solid Discworld entry with a few great moments. It's also one I'd recommend if you're not sure you'll like Pratchett's humor and want a strong plot to fall back on amidst the references and puns. Of the Discworld books that I've read so far, I think Guards! Guards! made me care the most about the fate of the main characters as people rather than as humor opportunities.

Followed by Eric in the chronological sense and (later) by Men at Arms in the plot sense.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-02-26

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21