Men At Arms by Sir Terry Pratchett

I did not intentionally pick this book because of recent world events. Nevertheless, they have added an extra level of… immediacy, I suppose, to the story.

This blog is not for politics. But it is not not for politics. This blog is for discussing the fantasy genre and what is good and interesting, and occasionally what is bad, in it. Given how many people deliberately put real world parallels to painful issues such as politics and racism into their fantasy works, it is impossible to avoid them entirely and insulting to try.

Therefore, when reading Men At Arms, a fantasy story all about the difficulties of policing in non-monolithic societies and the intoxicating effect of power, that will be at the centre of the review. I can’t put it anywhere else. And while you can read Men At Arms without paying too much attention to theme, just enjoying the story and scenes for what they are on the page, it’s difficult not to notice Pratchett’s points. This is not a particularly subtle book.

Consider the premise. After rescuing the city in Guards!Guards!, the Night Watch is rewarded with new recruits. They are Detritus (a troll), Cuddy (a dwarf), and Angua (a w… oman). “Representation from minority groups” as Carrot puts it. It’s a small and non-cohesive force but when species tensions flare in Ankh-Morpork thanks to a series of mystery killings made with a new weapon then, well, the City Watch might need men but this is what it has. 

The story itself is wonderful. In G!G!, Pratchett was still feeling out what he had, more interested in jokes about fantasy guardsmen secret cultists than the potential of a really good investigation story. We get one here and while Pratchett’s showing of both sides of the situation means it’s not a true Whodunnit, enough details are left out until needed that the mystery is left alive. The humour is more focused and makes better use of absurdist situations and observation than before (and anyone who’s ever talked to a copper knows very few people know more about either as part of their daily life). The decision that the Night Watch weren’t the guards who get their heads kicked in except this one time, and that they’re fantasy policemen is huge in just about every sense.

If the plot takes a leap forwards to rather good in its own right, the characterisation takes a huge leap forwards. The main characters feel like living, breathing people I might know, if I knew incredibly fascinating people. The little nuances and seeming inconsistencies in their depiction add a huge amount of depth and entertainment to what had once been stock stereotypes, making them both archetypal and atypical in the best possible way, as easy to root for and laugh with as to ponder. I stated in the G!G! review that this is the best series in fantasy. While everything is done to a high quality, the characters are why it is the best.

The best way to get across how good Men At Arms is how difficult it is to think of anything where it looks like Pratchett didn’t do what he intended to do. Some people won’t enjoy the humour, or want something more action-packed and bloody, or with a tighter world (but while the worldbuilding might be loose at times, it’s hard to imagine worlds that feel more alive than Discworld), or, well, something Pratchett wasn’t trying to do. But for anyone who wants a mix of comic fantasy and police procedural that delivers a quick-paced romp across satirical territory with plenty of asides on the human condition, or even just doesn’t hate the idea of it, this is fantastic reading.

For the Already Reads

Before I get stuck into the prejudice stuff, let’s talk about kingship.

Pratchett takes the jokes about how the true king reappears and the idea of everybody missing the true heir and doubles down in this book. Any ambiguity about Carrot’s status flies out of the window (and pretty early too or I wouldn’t talk about it this high up). And because he’s taking a more real world, satirical tone here, a lot more meaning dribbles in. In particular while Pratchett is very, very clearly against the idea of kingship, the idea that one person is higher and more sacred than us and it gives them authority and it goes by blood, he does seem kind of interested in the idea that the world could be a better place if there was just that one right person in charge. 

Vetinari is that man in Ankh-Morpork but Carrot is a type of wistful dream. Page by page, we see the full magnificence of his character come to flower, and the way he rises to the challenge. He leads by charm, straight-forwards talking, a genuine desire for the best and the occasional act of menace. It is perhaps telling that even in Pratchett’s more utopian moments, his ideal king is a man who can punch out a troll. Of course, this is at least partly because he’s playing off of mythology’s and fantasy’s conceits, but I suspect it’s that Pratchett doesn’t believe in humanity’s ability to be governed without a final recourse to violence being available.

It’s also telling that Carrot, the nicest man alive, still struggles with the idea that the Undead are people just like everybody else. Something that Pratchett makes forcefully clear is that just about everybody is bigoted in some way. Sam Vimes, arguably the most honest man alive, is particularly bigoted to the point of clear speciesism at points, although he’s also a straight up misanthrope as well to boot. Of course, we also see Sam mocking other bigots and defending other species from them. Why? 

Sybil: ‘But I’ve often heard you being . . . rude about dwarfs and trolls.’ 
Sam: ‘That’s different. I’ve got a right. That idiot wouldn’t know a troll if it walked over him.’ 

First off, you’ve got consider that this is Pratchett showing Sam excusing himself when maybe he shouldn’t. This is not necessarily Pratchett’s own view. What he is depicting however is the difference between someone who genuinely interacts with a culture, and someone who believes a lot of nasty stuff about them from a distance. Sam knows what dwarves and trolls are like; not perfectly, but he’s met them. That’s his excuse to holding to his prejudices about them but it’s also his reason for defending them. It is, at the very least, a starting point.

From there, there’s actually getting to know them. Cuddy and Detritus start as enemies the way that only two species where one mines rocks and the other is basically rocks can do. But they find themselves lumped together, largely because Sergeant Colon doesn’t really know what else to do, and their choices are to either find a way to get along or have a miserable time. They get along.

More than that, they become cops. 

Something I’ve started to uhm and aah about in the fantasy genre is how, for all the many tight knit warrior brotherhoods, how often they don’t feel quite right. I can’t quite put my finger on it but there’s something, I dunno, something a little too normal about them. You spend your time around a bunch of the lads day in, day out, few nights too, going through weird experiences, and it changes you. Even if normal people become cops, or soldiers, or whatevers to begin with (they don’t) they don’t stay that way. 

Watching Cuddy and Detritus become more aware – more suspicious – its fun. Its real. The first time we see them, they’re quarreling in the face of a troll-dwarf riot while Carrot single-handedly disperses it. The next time, they are uncomfortably aware there’s only them, and that the trolls and dwarves don’t care that they’re a dwarf and a troll, and that they’ve only got each other for help to survive.

I guess that’s part of it really. How many close knit brotherhoods really show the license you give to one of the few people you know will risk their life for yours?

Ultimately, questions like that are central to the theme. One of the central ones is what do you do when granted power?

Edward d’Eath, Lord Cruces and Vimes all get the ultimate power of the gonne (i.e. gun) at one point or another. In Edward’s case, this is what Pratchett has to say about it:

“And that, more or less, was the end of Edward d’Eath. Something continued for a while, but what it was, and how it thought, wasn’t entirely human.” 

It is a very rare abrogation of humanity for Pratchett and in some ways, thematically dissonant given the nature of the book. That he does so is a statement of just how corrupting holding the power of life and death can be.

Cruces does a bit better, but is still willing to break the assassin’s code of close, caring, fair deaths. When arrested for the deaths caused by the gonne, he protests all of them save Lettice Knibbs, killed in the opposite of the assassin’s way – by accident without any way of defending herself. He says nothing about her. What defence can he have by his own moral code? He has broken it thanks to the allure of power. And what attracts him about that power? The ability to reset the world as he sees fit. At least, that’s the promise made to Vimes:

“All that you hate, all that is wrong – I can put it right.”

Within moments, he’s face to face with an assassin (one of Vimes’ pet hates) snobbishly barring his way. The gonne shoots by itself but Vimes jerks it up. Why? Because it’s not right. It’s not a legal or necessary killing. But even his morals aren’t completely proof against it. When he’s got Cruces at his mercy for a moment, he’s ready to simply count down the chimes until he’s no longer a watchman. Vimes can’t kill him as a watchman. It’d go against everything he think a watchman should be; killing Cruces as a watchman isn’t putting a wrong right. But just as Sam Vimes? He’s not against Sam Vimes killing Cruces. It takes Carrot to talk him down and there’s a few particular words that are important here.

“Personal isn’t the same as important.”

He’s saying this because Cruces shot Angua, his newfound romantic interest, but really it’s at the heart of it. Vimes, Cruces, d’Eath – their personal prejudices aren’t important as to how the world should run. They can try and impose them with a gun but that’s wrong. D’Eath  and Cruces, they don’t get it. They can’t separate it. Vimes gets it, just about, with Carrot’s help. That is part of what makes Carrot the utopian ideal of a ruler – he completely totally buys into the idea that personal isn’t important, and he is able to make other people see it too.  

But it is incredibly difficult. Carrot’s virtually a superhuman. Vimes – a scrupulously honest, justice-minded man – can’t do it. Vetinari, a man with almost no personal interests beyond the good running of the city, cannot make other people see it and part of his genius is he doesn’t try. His method is to find ways to align other people’s ideas of personal with what is important. But Vetinari’s interest in only the public good is also virtually superhuman. We must try to put important before personal, but it’s not always going to happen. For ourselves or other people. But it’s easier when you have other people to help. And it’s easier when it’s people like Carrot with his ability to see the best in other people, and convince other people they’re good. It’s quite notable that it’s Carrot’s charisma that brings the watch together, not Colon’s sniping or castigations.

Ultimately, one of Pratchett’s great charms and strengths was the ability to suggest we be better people with gentleness and warmth, as well as anger. It’s the call for morality of a man who believes we’re all flawed, and will remain flawed, and that we should (at times) forgive and seek to actually inspire others to be better rather than just snarling (although there is snarl and always while upholding a standard). Men At Arms is a good example of that tendency.  It is a book that mostly lionises the work of the police in terms of stopping criminals while containing lines like:

“So many crimes are solved by a happy accident – by the random stopping of a car, by an overheard remark, by someone of the right nationality happening to be within five miles of the scene of the crime without an alibi.” 

Any conclusion taken from the book must be nuanced, and probably deserves more words than it got here (or less and be to the point). However the basic points that prejudice is cured by talking and empathy, and that those given the power of life and death need to be reminded that their personal feelings are not the same as their important duty, seem to be more important now than where they were written. And they are points that add extra depth and satisfaction to the reading experience when born in mind. 

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