The Fifth Elephant

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #24
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2000
Printing: May 2014
ISBN: 0-06-228013-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 455

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The Fifth Elephant is the 24th Discworld and fifth Watch novel, and largely assumes you know who the main characters are. This is not a good place to start.

The dwarves are electing a new king. The resulting political conflict is spilling over into the streets of Ankh-Morpork, but that's not the primary problem. First, the replica Scone of Stone, a dwarven artifact used to crown the Low King of the Dwarves, is stolen from the Dwarf Bread Museum. Then, Vimes is dispatched to Überwald, ostensibly to negotiate increased fat exports with the new dwarven king. And then Angua disappears, apparently headed towards her childhood home in Überwald, which immediately prompts Carrot to resign and head after her. The City Watch is left in the hands of now-promoted Captain Colon.

We see lots of Lady Sybil for the first time since Guards! Guards!, and there's a substantial secondary plot with Angua and Carrot and a tertiary plot with Colon making a complete mess of things back home, but this is mostly a Vimes novel. As usual, Vetinari is pushing him outside of his comfort zone, but he's not seriously expecting Vimes to act like an ambassador. He's expecting Vimes to act like a policeman, even though he's way outside his jurisdiction. This time, that means untangling a messy three-sided political situation involving the dwarves, the werewolves, and the vampires.

There is some Igor dialogue in this book, but thankfully Pratchett toned it down a lot and it never started to bother me.

I do enjoy Pratchett throwing Vimes and his suspicious morality at political problems and watching him go at them sideways. Vimes's definition of crimes is just broad enough to get him fully invested in a problem, but too narrow to give him much patience with the diplomatic maneuvering. It makes him an unpredictable diplomat in a clash of cultures way that's fun to read about. Cheery and Detritus are great traveling companions for this, since both of them also unsettle the dwarves in wildly different ways.

I also have to admit that Pratchett is doing more interesting things with the Angua and Carrot relationship than I had feared. In previous books, I was getting tired of their lack of communication and wasn't buying the justifications for it, but I think I finally understand why the communication barriers are there. It's not that Angua refuses to talk to Carrot (although there's still a bit of that going on). It's that Carrot's attitude towards the world is very strange, and gets stranger the closer you are to him.

Carrot has always been the character who is too earnest and straightforward and good for Ankh-Morpork and yet somehow makes it work, but Pratchett is doing something even more interesting with the concept of nobility. A sufficiently overwhelming level of heroic ethics becomes almost alien, so contrary to how people normally think that it can make conversations baffling. It's not that Carrot is perfect (sometimes he does very dumb things), it's that his natural behavior follows a set of ethics that humans like to pretend they follow but actually don't and never would entirely. His character should be a boring cliche or an over-the-top parody, and yet he isn't at all.

But Carrot's part is mostly a side plot. Even more than Jingo, The Fifth Elephant is establishing Vimes as a force to be reckoned with, even if you take him outside his familiar city. He is in so many ways the opposite of Vetinari, and yet he's a tool that Vetinari is extremely good at using. Colon of course is a total disaster as the head of the Watch, and that's mostly because Colon should never be more than a sergeant, but it's also because even when he's taking the same action as Vimes, he's not doing it for the same reasons or with the same stubborn core of basic morality and loyalty that's under Vimes's suspicious conservatism.

The characterization in the Watch novels doesn't seem that subtle or deep at first, but it accumulates over the course of the series in a way that I think is more effective than any of the other story strands. Vetinari, Vimes, and Carrot all represent "right," or at least order, in overlapping stories of right versus wrong, but they do so in radically different ways and with radically different goals. Each time one of them seems ascendant, each time one of their approaches seems more clearly correct, Pratchett throws them at a problem where a different approach is required. It's a great reading experience.

This was one of the better Discworld novels even though I found the villains to be a bit tedious and stupid. Recommended.

Followed by The Truth in publication order. The next Watch novel is Night Watch.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-12-10

Last spun 2023-01-16 from thread modified 2022-12-11