Carpe Jugulum

by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #23
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1998
Printing: May 2014
ISBN: 0-06-228014-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 409

Buy at Powell's Books

Carpe Jugulum is the 23rd Discworld novel and the 6th witches novel. I would not recommend reading it before Maskerade, which introduces Agnes.

There are some spoilers for Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade in the setup here and hence in the plot description below. I don't think they matter that much, but if you're avoiding all spoilers for earlier books, you may want to skip over this one. (You're unlikely to want to read it before those books anyway.)

It is time to name the child of the king of Lancre, and in a gesture of good will and modernization, he has invited his neighbors in Uberwald to attend. Given that those neighbors are vampires, an open invitation was perhaps not the wisest choice.

Meanwhile, Granny Weatherwax's invitation has gone missing. On the plus side, that meant she was home to be summoned to the bedside of a pregnant woman who was kicked by a cow, where she makes the type of hard decision that Granny has been making throughout the series. On the minus side, the apparent snub seems to send her into a spiral of anger at the lack of appreciation.

Points off right from the start for a plot based on a misunderstanding and a subsequent refusal of people to simply talk to each other. It is partly engineered, but still, it's a cheap and irritating plot.

This is an odd book.

The vampires (or vampyres, as the Count wants to use) think of themselves as modern and sophisticated, making a break from the past by attempting to overcome such traditional problems as burning up in the sunlight and fear of religious symbols and garlic. The Count has put his family through rigorous training and desensitization, deciding such traditional vulnerabilities are outdated things of the past. He has, however, kept the belief that vampires are at the top of a natural chain of being, humans are essentially cattle, and vampires naturally should rule and feed on the population. Lancre is an attractive new food source. Vampires also have mind control powers, control the weather, and can put their minds into magpies.

They are, in short, enemies designed for Granny Weatherwax, the witch expert in headology. A shame that Granny is apparently off sulking. Nanny and Agnes may have to handle the vampires on their own, with the help of Magrat.

One of the things that makes this book odd is that it seemed like Pratchett was setting up some character growth, giving Agnes a chance to shine, and giving Nanny Ogg a challenge that she didn't want. This sort of happens, but then nothing much comes of it. Most of the book is the vampires preening about how powerful they are and easily conquering Lancre, while everyone else flails ineffectively. Pratchett does pull together an ending with some nice set pieces, but that ending doesn't deliver on any of the changes or developments it felt like the story was setting up.

We do get a lot of Granny, along with an amusingly earnest priest of Om (lots of references to Small Gods here, while firmly establishing it as long-ago history). Granny is one of my favorite Discworld characters, so I don't mind that, but we've seen Granny solve a lot of problems before. I wanted to see more of Agnes, who is the interesting new character and whose dynamic with her inner voice feels like it has a great deal of unrealized potential.

There is a sharp and condensed version of comparative religion from Granny, which is probably the strongest part of the book and includes one of those Discworld quotes that has been widely repeated out of context:

"And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that—"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

This loses a bit in context because this book is literally about treating people as things, and thus the observation feels more obvious when it arrives in this book than when you encounter it on its own, but it's still a great quote.

Sadly, I found a lot of this book annoying. One of those annoyances is a pet peeve that others may or may not share: I have very little patience for dialogue in phonetically-spelled dialect, and there are two substantial cases of that here. One is a servant named Igor who speaks with an affected lisp represented by replacing every ess sound with th, resulting in lots of this:

"No, my Uncle Igor thtill workth for him. Been thtruck by lightning three hundred timeth and thtill putth in a full night'th work."

I like Igor as a character (he's essentially a refugee from The Addams Family, which adds a good counterpoint to the malicious and arrogant evil of the vampires), but my brain stumbles over words like "thtill" every time. It's not that I can't decipher it; it's that the deciphering breaks the flow of reading in a way that I found not at all fun. It bugged me enough that I started skipping his lines if I couldn't work them out right away.

The other example is the Nac Mac Feegles, who are... well, in the book, they're Pictsies and a type of fairy, but they're Scottish Smurfs, right down to only having one female (at least in this book). They're entertainingly homicidal, but they all talk like this:

"Ach, hins tak yar scaggie, yer dank yowl callyake!"

I'm from the US and bad with accents and even worse with accents reproduced in weird spellings, and I'm afraid that I found 95% of everything said by Nac Mac Feegles completely incomprehensible to the point where I gave up even trying to read it. (I'm now rather worried about the Tiffany Aching books and am hoping Pratchett toned the dialect down a lot, because I'm not sure I can deal with more of this.)

But even apart from the dialect, I thought something was off about the plot structure of this book. There's a lot of focus on characters who don't seem to contribute much to the plot resolution. I wanted more of the varied strengths of Lancre coming together, rather than the focus on Granny. And the vampires are absurdly powerful, unflappable, smarmy, and contemptuous of everyone, which makes for threatening villains but also means spending a lot of narrative time with a Discworld version of Jacob Rees-Mogg. I feel like there's enough of that in the news already.

Also, while I will avoid saying too much about the plot, I get very suspicious when older forms of oppression are presented as good alternatives to modernizing, rationalist spins on exploitation. I see what Pratchett was trying to do, and there is an interesting point here about everyone having personal relationships and knowing their roles (a long-standing theme of the Lancre Discworld stories). But I think the reason why there is some nostalgia for older autocracy is that we only hear about it from stories, and the process of storytelling often creates emotional distance and a patina of adventure and happy outcomes. Maybe you can make an argument that classic British imperialism is superior to smug neoliberalism, but both of them are quite bad and I don't want either of them.

On a similar note, Nanny Ogg's tyranny over her entire extended clan continues to be played for laughs, but it's rather unappealing and seems more abusive the more one thinks about it. I realize the witches are not intended to be wholly good or uncomplicated moral figures, but I want to like Nanny, and Pratchett seems to be writing her as likable, even though she has an astonishing lack of respect for all the people she's related to. One might even say that she treats them like things.

There are some great bits in this book, and I suspect there are many people who liked it more than I did. I wouldn't be surprised if it was someone's favorite Discworld novel. But there were enough bits that didn't work for me that I thought it averaged out to a middle-of-the-road entry.

Followed by The Fifth Elephant in publication order. This is the last regular witches novel, but some of the thematic thread is picked up by The Wee Free Men, the first Tiffany Aching novel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-11-02

Last modified and spun 2022-11-27