It’s a long way into reviewing and re-reading this series – I started last Wyrd & Wonder with Guards!Guards! – and there’s something both humbling and frustrating at getting to read back through so many reviews and see how I have expressed (or not) my building thoughts. The sense of building is important for this book and this review.
By way of further introductory remarks, I must note that I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of the best books in fantasy, because sometimes it’s a very futile debate and sometimes a very interesting one. I believe strongly in both individual standards and consensus standards (albeit with all sorts of caveats). As such, if you ask me to name the best book in fantasy, I will hedge and hem and fence sit like I’m actually some sort of fence-centaur who’s all wooden obstacle from the hip down, but I will give you book titles. I can’t tell you which titles I’d give each particular time either, because I am contrary and variable, but I can guarantee I will name this book in the first thirty seconds of speaking.
Which I guess is my confused, mildly cowardly way of saying I think this is on the list for the best fantasy book ever, insofar as that list is worth anything.
That belief will shadow everything I say and be revisited. Without further ado:
First Time Reader
I do not know whether you are reading this with thoughts of reading the whole series, or ploughing straight into this one like a maniac, or have just read it all anyway and are ploughing through. I am very pro-maniac but something would be lost. Night Watch is the sixth book in the series, with each book increasing the size and ambition of the City Watch and its sarcastic, seething, anti-authoritarian authority figure commander Sam Vimes.
Night Watch isn’t just a book that builds on that, it’s a book that takes a trip down memory lane to observe that journey – very literally.
Because a book that starts with a bad day for Sam Vimes – bad memories, a wife about to give birth, and a serial killer named Carcer on the loose – gets so much worse when a magical storm sends Vimes and Carcer back in time, to a very different Ankh-Morpork. A city where the corrupt rule, and the Watch follow their example, and revolution is imminent. There’s a young lad just learning to be a copper. He’s got a big future if he learns from the right people, but who’s he to learn from in this mess?
The fantasy conceit here is absolutely fantastic in a way I don’t think I ever really appreciated. Dragons and magic swords are cool as hell but the depth of story allowed by a character interacting with their past is huge, and Pratchett’s fully intent on mining it for all it’s worth. It also gives him a ton of thematic material to work with – which I’ll get into in the spoilertastic Second Time Reader part – and a whole bunch of references and origin stories to hand out. Ever wondered about a young Lord Vetinari, or Nobby and Colon? Wonder no more.
What makes this story though is the quality of the writing, both prose and plot. I don’t think Pratchett ever went darker, or more sparse with the jokes, and I think it really works for him. The book’s still funny, and I still enjoy his humour, but less humour means more space for drama and deep character voice, which I think he’s even better at. Those things combine to create a story with gripping tension and fantastic scenes. I do mean fantastic. If you ask me to name my favourite scene you’d better be prepared for one of two things:
a) to hear the whole book
b) to have a gun against my head to get me to shut up
The scenes are fantastic. The characterisation is stronger than a superhero just after their greatest moment of weakness. The plot, the tone – everything is just how I’d want it. The idea – wish I’d had it first.
The only weakness to Night Watch for me is that it is so good, so neat at wrapping up everything the series has been before, that it makes the next two books fee like a post-script. Which as weaknesses go, is more of a non-answer than going “I work too hard” as a job interview.
I mean, when you can’t think of anything you think is done poorly or that you’d do differently, that’s a pretty clear sign you think it’s the best, right?
In a lot of ways, Night Watch is a very weird book thematically. There’s two things most of the fantasy genre are usually about, frequently together, namely:
- The use of violence to solve the world’s problems, either through revolution or defence or one’s own
- The triumph of the individual in a situation where the world’s structures are insufficient.
Night Watch very much has a loud message that violence does a very poor job of solving problems and that the machine is important and will work. It’s almost the antithesis of what the fantasy genre has come to stand for. Let’s talk about why I think that.
There’s a number of vital relationships that define the book. One of the major ones is between Sam Vimes and Carcer. Carcer’s a very straight forwards villain, a man who enjoys being bad and the outraged reaction he gets. We don’t know why he’s that way and it doesn’t matter, at least not to Vimes (“I have nothing to ask him”). This is book isn’t about how people become Carcers – the similarity to the word cancer seems deliberate – it’s about how people deal with them. Carcer will kill and steal and cheat the system in every way; the temptation to agree with him that the rules aren’t worth following is very strong.
Another major relationship is between Sam and, well, Sam. How do you explain the ideals you’ve ended up through life to your headstrong younger self? Why you’ll do some things and not others despite there not being a world of difference to them? There’s a lot of good stories about an individual examining how they think, why they are. That’s just what’s happening here, only they’re two characters, questioning each other. And the questioning of the ideals is such a huge part of this. So many of the characters Vimes meets are acting from a sincere desire to make the world better and trying to take the straightest path there. Vimes is just as sincere but what makes him different is a belief that the easy way in is always mined and that there’s other ways – harder but faster.
These two relationships basically do the same thing in very different ways; they are relationships between Vimes and those who threaten society, the machine; the city. And I think that the city of Ankh-Morpork is the entity with which Sam Vimes has the most important relationship with in this book. It’s a relationship that has been built through the series (think of Colon confiding in Guards!Guards! that Vimes had been brought low by a woman, the woman being the city). We know that Vimes has often raged at his own city and people; it is part of who he is. At the beginning of the book, with Vimes awaiting the birth of his child, Colon warns Nobby that Vimes might get a little weird as coppers often do when they become parents and stop accepting the world is a bit “manky”. Well, Vimes has never really accepted the world is a bit manky. It’s arguably his defining character trait.
And arguably the defining arc of Night Watch is that Vimes gets to re-examine his view of Ankh-Morpork, and the world, and all the things about his ‘present day” life that he hates, and compare them to where it all *really* came from and make a judgment about just how manky the machine of Vetinari’s Ankh-Morpork is. In doing so he reaffirms his values.
Consider his arc with Carcer. A telling point is when Vimes is meeting with Vetinari and departs the meeting at high speed to apprehend Carcer (the second scene in which he is mentioned). When Vetinari questions why it has to be Vimes, Vimes basically states that Carcer can’t be dealt with by standard policing techniques and needs killing, not arresting. At this point of the story, Carcer has Vimes agreeing with him that the rules aren’t worth following, and also buying into the traditional fantasy narrative of the lone hero solving the world’s problems with violence.
Their first meeting in the past comes when both are imprisoned by the old Night Watch. Vimes’ attempts to find some semblance of the life he knows in the past have got him on the wrong side of the Watch; Carcer, by contrast, is doing fine. He’s been polite, handed over his bribe, he knows he’ll be released – and gloats about this. Right now, the manky machine that is old Ankh-Morpork is on Carcer’s side. For me, this does a few things. One, it establishes exactly why Vimes has sour feelings about Ankh-Morpork, if this was the Ankh-Morpork he was formed in. The other, it shows the value of the machine vs the individual. The machine has worked for Carcer. Being an individual hasn’t worked for Vimes. What Vimes visibly takes from this meeting is how it’s easier when people know you’re a copper and don’t know you’re a crook, but maybe he’s learned more lessons than that.
The second meeting comes after Vimes has established himself as John Keel, the watchman who’d been his mentor. Keel/Vimes and young Sam Vimes have broken up a meeting that led to a riot, and have got on the wrong side of the secret police known as the Unmentionables as a result. The Unmentionables’ sergeant? Carcer. He’s “prime copper material” in this Ankh-Morpork. Now both men are part of the machine, trying to steer it for their own ends. The prize? Young Sam Vimes’ future (Carcer overhears the name and draws the dots quickly). The more compelling thing is the reason. Vimes is there to protect people. Carcer, who attacks one of his people for disrespect, is there to make life better for himself. It’s why he doesn’t press the point when Vimes arrests, and threatens to torture, an undercover Unmentionable – one of Carcer’s men. Carcer could do something about it, but his position would be less at the end of the day; Vimes could hand himself over and keep his younger self safe, but that would be setting a bad example.
The final meeting is a two parter of sorts, two fights in the past and in the now to bring Carcer to justice. For a moment, Vimes is tempted to simply kill Carcer and be done with it, but he feels young Sam watching him and know he can’t. He knows that, if there is to be a city, if there is to be a machine that keeps it working and functioning so people can live their lives, somebody’s got to keep the rules. They can’t break them. And if you don’t break them, the machine works.
It’s possibly the least glamourous message in all of fantasy, maybe all of fiction. Don’t rage against the machine, work for it. Make it work for you because you can’t do without it. There’s a point where Vimes is thinking about how much food, cloth, timber, fat, and so on the city consumes every day – and everything it gives back. It is not to say don’t stand up for what you believe. Vimes spent his entire life doing that, even when it cast him into huge despair. It just advances another, sometimes possibly mutually incompatible message, along with it.
I chose the words “stand up” there very deliberately. I initially put fight. Many would. But Sam Vimes and Pratchett have a point about that too, a point made at its most succinct when the Watch Houses come under assault from rioters. The orders are to barricade and get ready to protect themselves, but instead Vimes has his men act like nothing is normal. When a mob comes along, he simply stands there in the light – we know how Pratchett loves his light metaphors – drinking his hot cocoa and refusing to fight. In that moment, Vimes stands up for what he believes in but doesn’t fight for it, because fighting would be counter-productive and damaging to all. That’s the whole basis for the whole Republic of Treacle Mine Road really.
Yes, there’s times Vimes fights. There are times he kills, or hands people over to be killed. But mainly he protects. He’s a defender. This is a point that feels at its loudest given how the end of The Fifth Elephant is his most deliberate killing to date in the series, but more than that, it’s a point on how to change the world. Don’t look for people to attack. Look for people to defend. Look for ways to simply out-offer what your enemies can.
The original title for this book was going to be The Nature of the Beast until another book used it. It would have been a fitting one given both the examination of the city and its machine – a beast in its way – and of Vimes, and his anger. This book is, to rehash a point, about finding a way to live with his anger at the world. To live with the beast, as Vimes refers to his primal instincts and rage. I like Night Watch, and prefer it, but The Nature of the Beast would have been a good title and there’s a good scene that illustrates everything there is to be said about beasts and the machine. It’s when the regiments are attacking the barricades at Treacle Road, and call up a machine named Big Mary. It’s a simple thing, an armoured cart that drags things down when dragged by oxen; an example of how people working together can achieve great things.
Vimes destroys it by sneaking through the ranks, putting wedges under the wheels so it can’t move, then shoving lumps of ginger where it’s warm and dark. The oxen stampede away, destroying the machine; an example of how when the people are riled up and angry, they’ll destroy the machine.
Because when we break down, it all breaks down.
But for me, the title Night Watch works best, not just because it’s iconic of the series or sounds better, but because it refers to what Vimes is doing. When all in the world goes dark, he is staying on watch, no matter how stupid or dull or dangerous it may seem. Because that’s what protect people.
And that, in black and white, is what the book is about (along with time travel, ideals vs reality, revolutions, working together, and a hundred other things). It’s about protecting people.