Sunday, February 19, 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother

NOTE: A commentor brought to my attention that we listened to the abridged edition, which is the stupidest idea ever. I mean, Pratchett's books are of modest length anyway, and abridging ruins all the delightful language and satire that makes his writing so good. So don't get this one! Find an unabridged version. 

Well, after two winters of historically unprecedented drought (that includes tree ring evidence too), California has now had two winters of rather crazier weather, enough to interfere with three different camping trips in the form of road closures. Two were last season, and the most recent was this weekend.

I kid you not, this storm was big enough to get a name (although I believe all significant storms get them, unlike hurricanes, nobody here uses them unless it is a giant storm.) And yes, this one got dubbed “Lucifer.” As a result of the storm, a big rig got blown over, and the major routes from Bakersfield to the ocean got closed. We had to go north an hour or so and drive a narrow road in the pouring rain. Perfect audiobook weather though. 

Anyway, Guards! Guards! is one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, the first of the City Watch series. It is a good bit shorter than the other Pratchett books we have listened to, roughly three hours long, rather than six to twelve. But it is definitely a good one.

Set in the impossibly corrupt and flawed city, Ankh-Morpork, the tale seems a bit appropriate for our own times. Pratchett is always spoofing modern problems in his medieval settings - perhaps the issues of bureaucracy and economics and corruption are timeless. The city is ruled by a “Patrician” who is king in all but name. (The system is described as “One Man, One Vote," in which the Patrician alone is the Man, and he has the Vote.”) The current Patrician isn’t much of a despot, however, modeled more on Machiavelli's ideal, but with a pragmatic tendency to leave things as they are as much as possible. Basically, his belief is that people hate change more than they hate annoyance. So unless it is really bad, just leave it alone.

However, not everyone is content with the usual incompetence and kludge. A secret society of (mostly) incompetent and not terribly intelligent men is plotting the overthrow of the government. In what sounds rather familiar, these are men who feel they have come down in society as of late, and that the old days were better, when the “right sort” of people were in charge. When men like them dominated and the “unworthy” were below them.

And so, like the neo-reactionaries of our time, they want to reinstate the monarchy. How to do that? Well, in the old days, there was a long lost heir to the throne who came and defeated a dragon and then revealed his identity. Which is impossible to disprove anyway, right? So, they find a dumb youth to be the puppet king, and set about summoning a dragon. Like I said, not the sharpest tools.

The problem with dragons, of course, is that once you summon them, they are hard to banish, and even harder to keep banished. And they have a tendency to go a little power-mad when they see or smell gold, and that never ends well.

Into all of this are thrust the City Guard, a once proud legion of policemen (in the best British tradition, apparently), who have been reduced to a mere three members, all of whom are drunk, corrupt, or incompetent. Or all three. Until Carrot joins them. Carrot is a foundling who was raised by dwarves, but was found to be all too human when he shot up to over six feet tall. However, he retained his upbringing which taught him to be loyal, upright, and amusingly literal and naive. Once he starts actually enforcing the laws of the city, things go right and wrong even before the dragon shows up. Ultimately, it is up to the Watch to straighten things out. At least they have the help of Sybil Ramkin, a Wagnerian woman who raises little swamp dragons as a hobby, and the head librarian, tragically changed into an Orangutan by an accident of magic, but still doing his duty at the library.   

All of this is handled with Pratchett’s characteristic humor and optimism. Indeed, perhaps that is Pratchett’s ongoing gift. Inasmuch as he had a keen eye for the evil in the hearts of men, and the risks of catastrophe, he believed in the power of ordinary good people to make a difference, and stand against those who seek power over others. And also a believer in the power of puns - this book has an excellent use of “throw the book at him” as a law enforcement technique.


Audiobook note: This book was narrated by Tony Robinson, who mostly did a fine job. My quibble is one I have mentioned before for a few other books: he has a little bit too much dynamic range, and the soft parts are a bit hard to hear while driving. A bit more compression might have helped a bit.


Other Terry Pratchett books we have listened to or read:



  1. Oh, dear. That's an abridged version, the highlights reel, and the abridgements are more rewritten than edited. For future reference, the unabridged versions are narrated by Stephen Briggs, Nigel Planer, or Celia Imrie, and run 8-12 hours. (I prefer Briggs to Planer, but their dynamic levels are contained to a reasonable range.)

    1. Yeah, that would make sense. I have generally gone with Briggs - who is great.