This book, the twenty-ninth Dicsworld novel and sixth in the City Watch series reminded me quite a bit of Feet of Clay. In that book, I felt that Pratchett’s politics overpowered the humour that is normally present in his satire, turning it into a rant against monarchy, rather a ridiculing of it, which would have been a more entertaining read. In Night Watch, Pratchett again seems to have dispensed with the humour component of his satire almost entirely. What radiates out of the book is his anger and frustration with the way things are, and it’s clear that he wasn’t going to be bothered trying to be funny about it.
The story seems Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch, sent back in time, where he has to somehow prevent a pointless revolution, stop a maniacal psychopath and try to mentor his younger self in how to be a good policeman. Vimes is one of the most interesting of Terry Pratchett’s creations. I’ve long thought of him as the Yin to Vetinari’s Yang. Not the opposite or anti-Vetinari, but the complement, alike and yet different, and together, the order in Ankh-Morpork. The significance of their interaction and uneasy symbiosis was made very clear in Night Watch, and this interplay was a big part of the reason I enjoyed this book much more than Feet of Clay.
The storyline gives Pratchett scope to tackle a long shopping-list of issues: The roles of the police and the military in a civilised society, the importance of due process in handling criminals, the dangers of a secret police and detentions without arrest, the hypocrisy of political leaders and those would replace them, the evil of torture and of a power structure that enables and permits it, the power of camaraderie, and quantum physics. With exception of the last item on that list, each of these issues is not really satirised at all. Through Vimes as expositor, Pratchett basically expounds his views on all of them, using the character’s anger and confusion at being temporally displaced as the means to express his own obviously strong sentiments about these issues.
The sheer number of issues addressed makes this book much less fun to read. There are really only a few passages that show the sort of humour I look for in Discworld novels. One was a simple pun:
“He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armor. It was gilt by association.”
The other was a proper Pratchett jab, an amusing swipe at silliness. In this case, the absurdity of those who try to apply the rules of maths to language:
““Tell us about this man Keel,” said the major.
“I don’t know nuffin’,” said Nobby automatically.
“Aha, that means you do know something,” said the major, who was indeed the kind of person who liked this kind of little triumph.
Nobby looked blank. The captain leaned forward to whisper to his superior officer.
“Er, only under the rules of mathematics, sir,” he said. “Under the rules of common grammar, he is merely being emphat—””
I quoted both those passages because they were almost the only flashes of the wit that makes Discworld such a fun place to read about. The book reads like it was written by someone who decided that he was way too angry to try for satirical humour. Despite that, what made this book a better read than Feet of Clay was the personal focus on Vimes and Vetinari. Vimes is a character any regular reader’s going to care about, and Vetinari is one whose back story is bound to be intriguing, and Night Watch delivers both plenty of situations that make us care about Vimes and plenty of interesting added depth to Vetinari’s story. It also brought back The Sweeper.
The Sweeper is one of the History Monks, the Time Keepers featured in Thief of Time. Clearly the most powerful and gifted of them, he is also seriously cool in a sort of David Carradine meets Ford Prefect kind of way. His explanation of the role of quantum physics in the idea of the Multiverse was great fun to read, and his character is the one consistently light note in the book.
Night Watch was definitely not my favourite Discworld story, but it was a good read, definitely cast the fascinating Vetinari in better light (which is extremely ironic). I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point, but for fans of Pratchett, it’s still an important part of the canon.