By way of introductory remarks, let me state that Feet of Clay is the best City Watch novel and this is a scientific fact.
That is not to say everyone will think it is the most enjoyable read, or have the greatest wow factor. In fact, I suspect that if I got people to vote on this, it’d be a fair way towards the bottom (but then we are talking the single greatest series in fantasy in my opinion). But while the other books in the City Watch sub-series might be better in general, they’re not better at being about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. From here on Pratchett has a tendency to remove them from the city and split up the characters, tinkering and playing with the creation of genius he made. It is typical of the man that as soon as he perfected the idea, he moved on.
I put this first because this shadows my view of it, and I wanted people to know. Anyway –
First Time Reader
Most first time readers will know what to expect from this book by now, because they’ll have probably read Guards!Guards! and Men At Arms. They could skip to here if so inclined with relatively little loss; some character dynamics lose a little pep, but it still stands well as a book in its own right and its contents offer few big spoilers to the preceding two books.
In any case, this is a refinement and expansion on what came before. The focus is on the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, most boisterous and jaded of fantasy cities, as they struggle with a new plot to replace the Patrician with a King and their new expanded role as a force that’s actually expected to fight crime. Foiling the plot against the Patrician – which features a mix of golems, arsenic and aristocrats – forms the main arc, with the various changes to the nature of the Watch making for endless subplots that weave in and out. Pratchett’s ability to tie loose ends together in a seamless and artless way is masterful here.
The use of the subplots makes the book lively and full of fun, each page filled with comedic scenes where Pratchett doesn’t have to particularly manipulate the dialogue to get his laughs. More than anything else, Feet of Clay is entertaining as all hell, a finely balanced mix of comedy and twisty mystery. There’s a limitation to how twisty the mystery is because we’re shown early what has happened and why but nevertheless, the mystery of how Sam Vimes and the Watch put it together is very rewarding.
In fact, watching Sam Vimes go about his business is in general just a pleasure and a privilege. We’ve all got our sweet spots and I am very much suckered in by stories that focus on the intricacy of character. I also have a big fondness for cynical, flawed, ageing characters with big hearts behind sometimes clouded eyes, but that’s largely because of reading so much Sam Vimes to begin with. He is that archetype to a T.
And because of this, Feet of Clay isn’t just fun, it’s got a streak of darkness and thoughtfulness that makes this an all-round treat. The theme, as you might expect from such a title, focuses heavily on individual flaws, with many of them centering on individual prejudices. The best subplot here is the friendship between Cheery Littlebottom and Angua. Cheery is the dwarven alchemist hired to be the Watch’s first forensics officer; a female dwarf who wants to be outwardly female like human females rather than adopting one size fits all dwarfishness and who hates werewolves in the way someone from an area with an aggressive werewolf aristocracy will. She naturally gravitates to Angua, who’s mastered the art of being one of the boys without sacrificing her femininity, and who is also a werewolf. It’s a sweet, tangled maze of secrets shared and hidden, with Captain Carrot and his socially conservative dwarven upbringing acting as a good counterweight at times. It’d be easy to make Angua out as the good one here, but she’s got her own prejudices about golems. As she notes, everybody needs somebody to look down. That and her crack about you can be whoever you want in the boy’s club as you long as you act like a boy both still ring viciously true, both in the specific sense and in a fill in the blanks way.
There is a huge amount more I can say but I don’t want to overwhelm any would-be first time readers. Feet of Clay teems with detail but it’s heart is easily discerned. It’s a glorious romp of a police procedural with sharp characterisation and plotting, coating in a fine layer of bastard with a little core of hope at the heart. The character dynamics are fantastic.
Maybe it is just the best novel in the series.
Second Time Reader
Guards!Guards! was a series of jokes about the guys who get hacked down by the heroes and a bunch of other stuff starting with the heroes who kill dragons, with a few grizzled detective things. Men At Arms expanded that to being about a small group of crazy police and inter-species problems. Feet of Clay is a further expansion. There’s a real police department feeling to it, that of a large and not entirely wieldy organization; Vetinari doesn’t know why the Watch have been indenting for pigeons until he meets the gargoyle officer. Which incidentally doesn’t feel very Vetinari but that’s besides the point.
If the police department has expanded, so too have the inter-species issues. The gargoyles are no problem; they just stay where they are and eat pigeons. The addition of a few extra types of Undead add a little spice. The expansion of dwarven culture so it’s no longer just one story adds a few problems. The super strong gnome Wee Mad Arthur is hilarious. But the real cherry on the cake here are the golems.
You can see why the rest of the cast are creeped out by them. They’re silent. Expressionless. Uncanny valley giants. They’re life, but the type of life that doesn’t seem to think at all like us. What’s more, you can see why they’re threatened by them. They’re not just hugely strong and seemingly immune to pain and everything else, they never stop working. It’s really easy to see how the people of Ankh-Morpork think there mightn’t be room enough for both them and golems.
That is one of the big damn themes here. People thinking there’s not enough room for two communities. There’s not room for dwarves if there’s going to be dwarves who act like women. There’s not room for coppers like Colon in the Watch if there’s troll and dwarves and there’s not room for the aristocracy if the guilds have money. There’s not room for dwarves if there’s werewolves who might eat dwarves. And that’s a good one, because dwarves aren’t wrong that people who eat them are pretty darn hard to co-exist with, but not all werewolves eat people and the dwarves can miss some good things if they forget that. It’s not too good for werewolves if they start thinking they can’t do anything other than eat people.
The two characters who seem most free of it are Vimes and Carrot. Vimes is partially free because he thinks the worst of everyone. He thinks everyone is a bastard-coated bastard with a bastard filling. And yes, at times that takes the form of prejudiced thoughts, but it almost never strays into thinking there’s no room for the people he’s prejudiced against because at the end of the day, they’re no bigger bastards than anyone else. About the only time he goes against that are Vampires, who have to drink blood (although more on that later), and Assassins, who have to kill. If you’re going to have to give in to your prejudices, it’s a solid list.
Meanwhile, Carrot is the opposite. It’s in this book that Carrot really takes his first big stride into being the man who understands the rest of the world doesn’t see things his way, and that he can rely on that divergence of opinion to his advantage. He still sees the world in a very simple way but he understands what levers to pull. And do you know one of the things I like about Carrot, the mythical ideal king? He pretty much always leaves the other person with a way out. He’s not interested in humiliating people or utterly defeating them. He just wants what’s best and fair for everyone, and knows allowing people to feel alright about going along with it matters.
In many ways, Feet of Clay is a manifesto for being hard (within reason) on your own flaws and kind (also within reason) on other people’s for after all, don’t we all have our own? The reason bit is important. Sam Vimes doesn’t lash out at a bigoted snob by hiring zombies to patrol outside his house because Pratchett believes in unlimited tolerance. But it was always one of Pratchett’s gifts to give humanity to all – even those with none, like the golem – and to be friendly even in his anger, like he believed our flaws would surface again and again so often it really wasn’t worth getting more than exasperated for all but the worse. Which may be a true reflection and may not.
What I think is true though, is that Pratchett believed you could be flawed and be good. That you could be fighting part of your nature, your beliefs about yourself – some true, some untrue – and still ultimately treat the world with decency. Just because we all have feet of clay does not mean our trail will only leave destruction. Not if we want it.
p.s. The Angua-Cheery relationship is really fantastic. I can’t really say much more about it than is said here but it might be Pratchett’s single best.