What I love most about Pratchett's books is that under a thin layer of funny footnotes-peppered pun-heavy parody lies the core of deep seriousness rooted in the quite sobering understanding of the shallow pettiness of human mundanity fueled by jealousy, bile, spite, and closemindedness.
"There was a thoughtful pause in the conversation as the assembled Brethren mentally divided the universe into the deserving and the undeserving, and put themselves on the appropriate side."
In the end, the only thing that makes it possible to wake up in the morning is just a slight deviation from this depressing state of affairs that leads to the understanding and a bit of dignity and doing what's right - even when that's not quite expected. Because someone has to uphold what's right. Because someone needs to swim against the current.
He shrugged. "They're just people," he said. "They're just doing what people do. Sir."
This is one of my favorite Discworld books and one of the best starting points for the Discworld newbies. It is the first book in the subcycle focusing on the City Watch of Ankh Morpork (the Pearl of Cities¹ on the Disc); the book that really takes a look into the inner workings of this crowded, dirty and despicable and yet lovably tenacious urban metropolis:¹
"Ankh-Morpork! Pearl of cities! This is not a completely accurate description, of course — it was not round and shiny — but even its worst enemies would agree that if you had to liken Ankh-Morpork to anything, then it might as well be a piece of rubbish covered with the diseased secretions of a dying mollusc."
In Pratchett's tradition of deconstructing the tropes this one has its kings and tyrants and secret societies and dragons and maidens and heroes and heirs with birthmarks and magical swords, as well as million-to-one chances - except that things tend to not work out as planned. And all of it is woven into a neat tight plot that carries us through the dry humor and slapstick and sad seriousness to the unexpected depth as you allow the cogs and wheels of your brain turn contemplating Pratchett's intentions.
"If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn't as cynical as real life."
I am a Sam Vimes girl through and through. And this book is our introduction to our cynical (anti)hero, uncompromising, grumpy and terrifyingly sober/knurd ('knurd' as in complete and utter opposite to drunk, beyond simple sobriety) Ankh-Morpork copper with the unsettling tendency to ask uncomfortable questions when others would much rather he didn't.
This is the beginning of the Vimes we all know and love, the evolution from the down-in-the-gutter pessimistic drunk "brung low by a woman"¹ (the city itself, that is) to the equally pessimistic servant not of the King or the Patrician but the law, a thorn in the side of so many not-so-uncorrupt but quite respectably upstanding Ankh citizens.
¹ "The city wasa, wasa, wasa wossname. Thing. Woman. That's what it was. Woman. Roaring, ancient, centuries old. Strung you along, let you fall in thingy, love, then kicked you inna, inna, thingy. Thingy, in your mouth. Tongue. Tonsils. Teeth. That's what it, she, did. She wasa ... thing, you know, lady dog. Puppy. Hen. Bitch. And then you hated her and, and just when you thought you'd got her, it, out of your whatever, then she opened her great booming rotten heart to you, caught you off bal, bal, bal, thing. Ance. Yeah. Thassit. Never knew where where you stood. Lay. Only one thing you were sure of, you couldn't let her go. Because, because she was yours, all you had, even in her gutters..."
Reduced to almost-nothingness by the corruption in the city, spending his time in the gutter (literally), laughed at by everyone except his two colleagues - the thick but amiable Fred Colon and a disgrace to human race a.k.a. Nobby Nobbs - Vimes gets a bit of a wake-up call when the Watch gets its newest recruit: Lance Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson, a not-too-bright but earnest 6 foot 6 inches dwarf¹ (he's adopted, okay?) armed with a Book of Laws and Ordinances of Ankh-Morpork and a decidedly non-magical sword.
¹ "People who are rather more than six feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders often have uneventful journeys. People jump out at them from behind rocks then say things like, "Oh. Sorry. I thought you were someone else."
And when the city is facing danger, Vimes bit by bit begins to think about it as HIS city. After all, 'Things like that weren't supposed to happen', he thought. 'Not in *my* city.'
And once Vimes sets his single-minded nature to accomplish something (occasionally aided by the Librarian¹, who is a peanut-loving orangutan, and the imposing figure of Lady Sybil Ramkin, who breeds swamp dragons in her spare time) there is little that can stop him.
¹ "The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned no later than the date last shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality."
The threat to Ankh-Morpork is real and quite substantial ("It's a metaphor of human bloody existence, a dragon. And if that wasn't bad enough, it's also a bloody great hot flying thing."), but ultimately it's brought along and fueled by the simple human greed, shallow-mindedness and jealousy, little pathetic mundanity of human existence that Pratchett so nonchalantly and non-preachily lets showcase itself. He, it seems, has an excellent ability of seeing the less-than-pleasant things that make people tick - and still manages to make these sad realizations both side-splittingly and laugh-through-tears funny. And I adore that.
"Down there - he said - are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no."
Another prominent figure in this book, in addition to Vimes and Carrot, is, of course, Lord Havelock Vetinari, the enigmatic Patrician, the tyrant who is not quite, well, tyrannical; the man with his finger on the pulse of the city, the man who would not build a dungeon out of which he could not escape; the man resembling a predatory flamingo, who makes Ankh Morpork work and in cynicism can greatly rival Vimes himself. This is the beginning of the fascinating and not always so voluntary cooperation between Vimes and the one in power, and it's lovely to read about.
“You had to hand it to the Patrician, he admitted grudgingly. If you didn't, he sent men to come and take it away.”
And, of course, some place of prominence is given to the Librarian (the aforementioned orangutan) who (no pun intended) will go bananas if you dare to call him the m-word (Monkey!). The Librarian who knows how to navigate the L-space, that parallel dimension that exists between every library in the world created because of terrifying power of books.
"Books bend space and time. One reason the owners of those aforesaid little rambling, poky secondhand bookshops always seem slightly unearthly is that many of them really are, having strayed into this world after taking a wrong turning in their own bookshops in worlds where it is considered commendable business practice to wear carpet slippers all the time and open your shop only when you feel like it."
"There are many horrible sights in the multiverse. Somehow, though, to a soul attuned to the subtle rhythms of a library, there are few worse sights than a hole where a book ought to be."
I highly recommend this book to anyone as a perfect starting point on their Discworld journey. It is a perfect introduction to the world of intelligent humor peppered with allusions to almost everything you can think of and smart conclusions that make you think and even ask the uncomfortable questions of yourself and the society. It is a lovely way to spend several hours curled up in a chair on a rainy day, mesmerized by Pratchett's wit and wisdom. The audiobook version of it is wonderful, immersing you in the atmosphere of the story incredibly well. For all of it, I give it 5 stars - and, without much further ado embark on the rest on my Ankh Morpork City Watch reread.
"They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.
This book is dedicated to those fine men."