Feet of Clay

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #19
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 1996
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227551-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 392

Buy at Powell's Books

Feet of Clay is the 19th Discworld novel, the third Watch novel, and probably not the best place to start. You could read only Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms before this one, though, if you wanted.

This story opens with a golem selling another golem to a factory owner, obviously not caring about the price. This is followed by two murders: an elderly priest, and the curator of a dwarven bread museum. (Dwarf bread is a much-feared weapon of war.) Meanwhile, assassins are still trying to kill Watch Commander Vimes, who has an appointment to get a coat of arms. A dwarf named Cheery Littlebottom is joining the Watch. And Lord Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, has been poisoned.

There's a lot going on in this book, and while it's all in some sense related, it's more interwoven than part of a single story. The result felt to me like a day-in-the-life episode of a cop show: a lot of character development, a few largely separate plot lines so that the characters have something to do, and the development of a few long-running themes that are neither started nor concluded in this book. We check in on all the individual Watch members we've met to date, add new ones, and at the end of the book everyone is roughly back to where they were when the book started.

This is, to be clear, not a bad thing for a book to do. It relies on the reader already caring about the characters and being invested in the long arc of the series, but both of those are true of me, so it worked. Cheery is a good addition, giving Pratchett an opportunity to explore gender nonconformity with a twist (all dwarfs are expected to act the same way regardless of gender, which doesn't work for Cheery) and, even better, giving Angua more scenes. Angua is among my favorite Watch characters, although I wish she'd gotten more of a resolution for her relationship anxiety in this book.

The primary plot is about golems, which on Discworld are used in factories because they work nonstop, have no other needs, and do whatever they're told. Nearly everyone in Ankh-Morpork considers them machinery. If you've read any Discworld books before, you will find it unsurprising that Pratchett calls that belief into question, but the ways he gets there, and the links between the golem plot and the other plot threads, have a few good twists and turns.

Reading this, I was reminded vividly of Orwell's discussion of Charles Dickens:

It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's "as good is from evil." Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a "change of heart" — that, essentially, is what he is always saying.

If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A "change of heart" is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.

and later:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, "Behave decently," which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, "an expression on the human face."

I think Pratchett is, in that sense, a Dickensian writer, and it shows all through Discworld. He does write political crises (there is one in this book), but the crises are moral or personal, not ideological or structural. The Watch novels are often concerned with systems of government, but focus primarily on the popular appeal of kings, the skill of the Patrician, and the greed of those who would maneuver for power. Pratchett does not write (at least so far) about the proper role of government, the impact of Vetinari's policies (or even what those policies may be), or political theory in any deep sense. What he does write about, at great length, is morality, fairness, and a deeply generous humanism, all of which are central to the golem plot.

Vimes is a great protagonist for this type of story. He's grumpy, cynical, stubborn, and prejudiced, and we learn in this book that he's a descendant of the Discworld version of Oliver Cromwell. He can be reflexively self-centered, and he has no clear idea how to use his newfound resources. But he behaves decently towards people, in both big and small things, for reasons that the reader feels he could never adequately explain, but which are rooted in empathy and an instinctual sense of fairness. It's fun to watch him grumble his way through the plot while making snide comments about mysteries and detectives.

I do have to complain a bit about one of those mysteries, though. I would have enjoyed the plot around Vetinari's poisoning more if Pratchett hadn't mercilessly teased readers who know a bit about French history. An allusion or two would have been fun, but he kept dropping references while having Vimes ignore them, and I found the overall effect both frustrating and irritating. That and a few other bits, like Angua's uncommunicative angst, fell flat for me. Thankfully, several other excellent scenes made up for them, such as Nobby's high society party and everything about the College of Heralds. Also, Vimes's impish PDA (smartphone without the phone, for those younger than I am) remains absurdly good commentary on the annoyances of portable digital devices despite an original publication date of 1996.

Feet of Clay is less focused than the previous Watch novels and more of a series book than most Discworld novels. You're reading about characters introduced in previous books with problems that will continue into subsequent books. The plot and the mysteries are there to drive the story but seem relatively incidental to the characterization. This isn't a complaint; at this point in the series, I'm in it for the long haul, and I liked the variation. As usual, Pratchett is stronger for me when he's not overly focused on parody. His own characters are as good as the material he's been parodying, and I'm happy to see them get a book that's not overshadowed by another material.

If you've read this far in the series, or even in just the Watch novels, recommended.

Followed by Hogfather in publication order and, thematically, by Jingo.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-06-25

Last spun 2022-09-11 from thread modified 2022-06-26