I’ve just finished Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, and it’s going to take some time to digest fully. It’s a whole level up from his earlier works, with everything about it improved. The character of Sam Vimes has now featured in several of his Discworld books, and seems to be serving the same purpose as Jack Ryan does for Tom Clancy – an ordinary man placed in extraordinary situations. In this case, he is accidentally sent back in time thirty years while battling a cunning murderer named Carcer, to a time when Ankh-Morpork was on the verge of rebellion against the current Patrician’s draconian policies. The presence of the two invaders from the future complicates matters, as you can imagine, and their knowledge of the events to come places them at the centre of affairs. Not that it helps them that much, since their presence changes the history they thought they knew.
If Night Watch is more “conventional” than Pratchett’s other novels, it’s also more rewarding, illuminating the history of Ankh-Morpork and its City Guard during those days of civil unrest. The city of Ankh-Morpork is also a character in its own right, imposing its own manners and logic on the others. The cavalry, brought in to quell the rebellion, find this out the hard way and play little real part:
“You know what they call a horse in the Shades?” “Yeah, sarge. Lunch.”
The “rebellion” behind all the trouble is led by one Reg Shoe, a cobbler who thinks too much, egged on by a motley bunch of middle class dimwits. Their attempts to formulate their revolutionary demands run up against the pragmatic Vimes:
Reg had a hunted look. He made a dive for safety. “Well, at least we can agree on Truth, Freedom and Justice, yes?”
There was a chorus of nods. Everyone wanted those. They didn’t cost anything.
A match flared in the dark, and they turned to see Vimes light a cigar.
“You’d like Freedom, Truth and Justice, wouldn’t you, comrade sergeant?” said Reg encouragingly.
“I’d like a hard-boiled egg,” said Vimes, shaking the match out.
There was nervous laughter, but Reg looked offended.
“In the circumstances, sergeant, I think we should set our sights a little higher–”
“Well, yes, we could,” said Vimes, coming down the steps. He glanced at the sheets of paper in front of Reg. The man cared. He really did. And he was serious. He really was. “But… well, Reg, tomorrow the sun will come up again, and I’m pretty sure that whatever happens we won’t have found Freedom, and there won’t be a whole lot of Justice, and I’m damn sure we won’t have found Truth. But it’s just possible that I might get a hard-boiled egg. What’s all this about, Reg?”
“The People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road!” said Reg proudly. “We are forming a government!”
“Oh, good,” said Vimes. “Another one. Just what we need.”
We also learn more about Havelock Vetinari, who later became Patrician (like a Mayor with weapons), but who was a young Assassin at the time of the rebellion. At the end, in the graveyard on the anniversary of the rebellion thirty years earlier, Vetinari as Patrician thoughtlessly proposes a monument to the members of the Night Watch who died then, but Vimes will not hear of it:
“No. How dare you? How dare you! At this time! In this place! They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it, and you can’t give them anything. They fought for those who’d been abandoned, they fought for one another, and they were betrayed. Men like them always are. What good would a statue be? It’d just inspire new fools to believe they’re going to be heroes. They wouldn’t want that. Just let them be. For ever.”
Food for thought, in the light of current events.