It has been a LONG time since I reviewed a Terry Pratchett book on this blog. Almost ten years ago, in the “before times” of 2013, I read my first Discworld novel, Guards! Guards! Reading that post after all this time, it seems I had no idea what to expect from a Discworld book, and was very pleased with what I found.
Ten years later, I have read a handful more Discworld stories (though sadly none were reviewed on this blog). Mort is perhaps still my favorite, but I found A Blink of the Screen deeply enlightening, as through the contents of this anthology, we get to trace Pratchett’s career from his first published work (when he was like 13 or something) all the way through its publication in 2012. There are definitely some gems within its pages, but the stories also cemented for me just how much Pratchett is a novel writer, not a short fiction author.
Anyway, this post is about Men at Arms so let’s talk about that book.
In short, Men at Arms is another fun and fantastic detective story, a worthy ‘sequel’ to Guards! Guards! (I have not yet read Theatre of Cruelty, a short story that is cited as the true 2nd entry into The Watch series) albeit, perhaps one of the strangest mysteries I’ve read yet.
I decided to return to Discworld with Men at Arms because it was recommended to me as a funny detective story which featured an ensemble cast (something I was studying at the time for my own writing). And the ensemble did not disappoint!
At the beginning of the novel, The Watch is going through some changes. Vimes will be getting married, and must suffer the increased wealth and prestige his new place in the world grants him. Definitely one of my favorite parts of these books, and where I think a great deal of humor comes from, is how Pratchett paints the lives of Ankh Morpork’s upper class, lives of wealth and leisure, as a life to be avoided at all costs!
Also, The Watch has new recruits! In an effort to satisfy diversity quotas, The Watch has hired several new members, each with something unique about them which sets them apart from the general public. For instance, Angua is a werewolf, and many of the new recruits are dwarves, while still others are trolls, the dwarves’ sworn enemies. With these new recruits, The Watch again becomes something of band of undesirables which must work together to solve the case. Who doesn’t want to read that story?
With these new characters in play, Pratchett introduces themes around what we would now consider identity politics. I found his approach to be nuanced, thoughtful, and ultimately egalitarian. Also, in most instances, quite hilarious. It is amazing the patience and care with which Pratchett sets up his jokes, and the skill with which he is able to call back to groundwork laid earlier in the story, which is inexplicably still top of mind.
Of course, much of the humor also comes from the abuse of well trod fantasy tropes and cliches, which Pratchett somehow manages to flip on their head. One cliche of the fantasy genre, is an almost obsessive focus on bloodlines, inheritance, and kingship, which is almost certain to anchor the story around the discovery of a long lost heir, often secreted away in a peasant hovel. I will not spoil how things turn out, but I really enjoyed the satire Pratchett creates with his use of these elements in Men at Arms.
Finally, Men at Arms is also a detective story, and in my opinion, a really good and interesting one at that. Some of the precedents set in earlier Discworld books (for instance, the way ‘Death’ is personified as a character, often with some of the wittiest dialogue in the series) had me wondering how the story would hold up the tension (couldn’t they just go ask ‘Death’ whodunnit?) but in each case, Pratchett seemed to be thinking twelve steps ahead, and never once did any conclusion, discovery or leap in logic seem too ridiculous to follow . . . or rather almost all of them did, but none were too ridiculous to have happened in Ankh Morpork.
Give this One a Read?
Absolutely! In Men at Arms, Pratchett has again shown himself to be an extraordinary storyteller, one who is not afraid to approach deep topics, crafting (for 1993) progressive themes with skill, care and humor. For any familiar with The Watch from Guards! Guards! I think you will be pleased with the new members (Detritus was a fav for me in this one), and if this is your first trip to Ankh Morpork, I think you will be equally enthralled.
That’s all I have this time. Has anyone read this book before? Others in The Watch series? Other Discworld books? What were your favorite parts of each? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section. I’m excited to chat about this book!