Men at Arms

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #15
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1993
Printing: November 2013
ISBN: 0-06-223740-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 420

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Men at Arms is the fifteenth Discworld novel and a direct plot sequel to Guards! Guards!. You could start here without missing too much, but starting with Guards! Guards! would make more sense. And of course there are cameos (and one major appearance) by other characters who are established in previous books.

Carrot, the adopted dwarf who joined the watch in Guards! Guards!, has been promoted to corporal. He is now in charge of training new recruits, a role that is more important because of the Night Watch's new Patrician-ordered diversity initiative. The Watch must reflect the ethnic makeup of the city. That means admitting a troll, a dwarf... and a woman?

Trolls and dwarfs hate each other because dwarfs mine precious things out of rock and trolls are composed of precious things embedded in rocks, so relations between the new recruits are tense. Captain Vimes is leaving the Watch, and no one is sure who would or could replace him. (The reason for this is a minor spoiler for Guards! Guards!) A magical weapon is stolen from the Assassin's Guild. And a string of murders begins, murders that Vimes is forbidden by Lord Vetinari from investigating and therefore clearly is going to investigate.

This is an odd moment at which to read this book.

The Night Watch are not precisely a police force, although they are moving in that direction. Their role in Ankh-Morpork is made much stranger by the guild system, in which the Thieves' Guild is responsible for theft and for dealing with people who steal outside of the quota of the guild. But Men at Arms is in part a story about ethics, about what it means to be a police officer, and about what it looks like when someone is very good at that job.

Since I live in the United States, that makes it hard to avoid reading Men at Arms in the context of the current upheavals about police racism, use of force, and lack of accountability. Men at Arms can indeed be read that way; community relations, diversity in the police force, the merits of making two groups who hate each other work together, and the allure of violence are all themes Pratchett is working with in this novel. But they're from the perspective of a UK author writing in 1993 about a tiny city guard without any of the machinery of modern police, so I kept seeing a point of clear similarity and then being slightly wrong-footed by the details. It also felt odd to read a book where the cops are the heroes, much in the style of a detective show. This is in no way a problem with the book, and in a way it was helpful perspective, but it was a strange reading experience.

Cuddy had only been a guard for a few days but already he had absorbed one important and basic fact: it is almost impossible for anyone to be in a street without breaking the law.

Vimes and Carrot are both excellent police officers, but in entirely different ways. Vimes treats being a cop as a working-class job and is inclined towards glumness and depression, but is doggedly persistent and unable to leave a problem alone. His ethics are covered by a thick layer of world-weary cynicism. Carrot is his polar opposite in personality: bright, endlessly cheerful, effortlessly charismatic, and determined to get along with everyone. On first appearance, this contrast makes Vimes seem wise and Carrot seem a bit dim. That is exactly what Pratchett is playing with and undermining in Men at Arms.

Beneath Vimes's cynicism, he's nearly as idealistic as Carrot, even though he arrives at his ideals through grim contrariness. Carrot, meanwhile, is nowhere near as dim as he appears to be. He's certain about how he wants to interact with others and is willing to stick with that approach no matter how bad of an idea it may appear to be, but he's more self-aware than he appears. He and Vimes are identical in the strength of their internal self-definition. Vimes shows it through the persistent, grumpy stubbornness of a man devoted to doing an often-unpleasant job, whereas Carrot verbally steamrolls people by refusing to believe they won't do the right thing.

Colon thought Carrot was simple. Carrot often struck people as simple. And he was. Where people went wrong was thinking that simple meant the same thing as stupid.

There's a lot going on in this book apart from the profiles of two very different models of cop. Alongside the mystery (which doubles as pointed commentary on the corrupting influence of violence and personal weaponry), there's a lot about dwarf/troll relations, a deeper look at the Ankh-Morpork guilds (including a horribly creepy clown guild), another look at how good Lord Vetinari is at running the city by anticipating how other people will react, a sarcastic dog named Gaspode (originally seen in Moving Pictures), and Pratchett's usual collection of memorable lines. It is also the origin of the now-rightfully-famous Vimes boots theory:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

Men at Arms regularly makes lists of the best Discworld novels, and I can see why. At this point in the series, Pratchett has hit his stride. The plots have gotten deeper and more complex without losing the funny moments, movie and book references, and glorious turns of phrase. There is also a lot of life philosophy and deep characterization when one pays close attention to the characters.

He was one of those people who would recoil from an assault on strength, but attack weakness without mercy.

My one complaint is that I found it a bit overstuffed with both characters and subplots, and as a result had a hard time following the details of the plot. I found myself wanting a timeline of the murders or a better recap from one of the characters. As always with Pratchett, the digressions are wonderful, but they do occasionally come at the cost of plot clarity.

I'm not sure I recommend the present moment in the United States as the best time to read this book, although perhaps there is no better time for Carrot and Vimes to remind us what good cops look like. But regardless of when one reads it, it's an excellent book, one of the best in the Discworld series to this point.

Followed, in publication order, by Soul Music. The next Watch book is Feet of Clay.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-08-30

Last modified and spun 2020-08-31