by Terry Pratchett

Cover image

Series: Discworld #34
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2005
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233498-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 434

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Thud! is the 34th Discworld novel and the seventh Watch novel. It is partly a sequel to The Fifth Elephant, partly a sequel to Night Watch, and references many of the previous Watch novels. This is not a good place to start.

Dwarfs and trolls have a long history of conflict, as one might expect between a race of creatures who specialize in mining and a race of creatures whose vital organs are sometimes the targets of that mining. The first battle of Koom Valley was the place where that enmity was made concrete and given a symbol. Now that there are large dwarf and troll populations in Ankh-Morpork, the upcoming anniversary of that battle is the excuse for rising tensions. Worse, Grag Hamcrusher, a revered deep-down dwarf and a dwarf supremacist, is giving incendiary speeches about killing all trolls and appears to be tunneling under the city.

Then whispers run through the city's dwarfs that Hamcrusher has been murdered by a troll.

Vimes has no patience for racial tensions, or for the inspection of the Watch by one of Vetinari's excessively competent clerks, or the political pressure to add a vampire to the Watch over his prejudiced objections. He was already grumpy before the murder and is in absolutely no mood to be told by deep-down dwarfs who barely believe that humans exist that the murder of a dwarf underground is no affair of his.

Meanwhile, The Battle of Koom Valley by Methodia Rascal has been stolen from the Ankh-Morpork Royal Art Museum, an impressive feat given that the painting is ten feet high and fifty feet long. It was painted in impressive detail by a madman who thought he was a chicken, and has been the spark for endless theories about clues to some great treasure or hidden knowledge, culminating in the conspiratorial book Koom Valley Codex. But the museum prides itself on allowing people to inspect and photograph the painting to their heart's content and was working on a new room to display it. It's not clear why someone would want to steal it, but Colon and Nobby are on the case.

This was a good time to read this novel. Sadly, the same could be said of pretty much every year since it was written.

"Thud" in the title is a reference to Hamcrusher's murder, which was supposedly done by a troll club that was found nearby, but it's also a reference to a board game that we first saw in passing in Going Postal. We find out a lot more about Thud in this book. It's an asymmetric two-player board game that simulates a stylized battle between dwarf and troll forces, with one player playing the trolls and the other playing the dwarfs. The obvious comparison is to chess, but a better comparison would be to the old Steve Jackson Games board game Ogre, which also featured asymmetric combat mechanics. (I'm sure there are many others.) This board game will become quite central to the plot of Thud! in ways that I thought were ingenious.

I thought this was one of Pratchett's best-plotted books to date. There are a lot of things happening, involving essentially every member of the Watch that we've met in previous books, and they all matter and I was never confused by how they fit together. This book is full of little callbacks and apparently small things that become important later in a way that I found delightful to read, down to the children's book that Vimes reads to his son and that turns into the best scene of the book. At this point in my Discworld read-through, I can see why the Watch books are considered the best sub-series. It feels like Pratchett kicks the quality of writing up a notch when he has Vimes as a protagonist.

In several books now, Pratchett has created a villain by taking some human characteristic and turning it into an external force that acts on humans. (See, for instance the Gonne in Men at Arms, or the hiver in A Hat Full of Sky.) I normally do not like this plot technique, both because I think it lets humans off the hook in a way that cheapens the story and because this type of belief has a long and bad reputation in religions where it is used to dodge personal responsibility and dehumanize one's enemies. When another of those villains turned up in this book, I was dubious. But I think Pratchett pulls off this type of villain as well here as I've seen it done. He lifts up a facet of humanity to let the reader get a better view, but somehow makes it explicit that this is concretized metaphor. This force is something people create and feed and choose and therefore are responsible for.

The one sour note that I do have to complain about is that Pratchett resorts to some cheap and annoying "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" nonsense, mostly around Nobby's subplot but in a few other places (Sybil, some of Angua's internal monologue) as well. It's relatively minor, and I might let it pass without grumbling in other books, but usually Pratchett is better on gender than this. I expected better and it got under my skin.

Otherwise, though, this was a quietly excellent book. It doesn't have the emotional gut punch of Night Watch, but the plotting is superb and the pacing is a significant improvement over The Fifth Elephant. The parody is of The Da Vinci Code, which is both more interesting than Pratchett's typical movie parodies and delightfully subtle. We get more of Sybil being a bad-ass, which I am always here for. There's even some lovely world-building in the form of dwarven Devices.

I love how Pratchett has built Vimes up into one of the most deceptively heroic figures on Discworld, but also shows all of the support infrastructure that ensures Vimes maintain his principles. On the surface, Thud! has a lot in common with Vimes's insistently moral stance in Jingo, but here it is more obvious how Vimes's morality happens in part because his wife, his friends, and his boss create the conditions for it to thrive.

Highly recommended to anyone who has gotten this far.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-11-20

Last modified and spun 2023-11-21