Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989) 355 p.
Discworld #8 (City Watch #1)
This is the book Pratchett advised new readers to start with; this is the beginning of the City Watch arc, the strongest thread in the Discworld series; this is the introduction of Sam Vimes, who may be “the most fully realised decent man in modern literature.” This is, in short, the highlight of the first ten books in the series.
The Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork was a proud institution, once upon a time, before the Machiavellian new ruler Lord Vetinari seized power. In an ironic joke mentioned in most of the books up to this point, Vetinari effectively legalised crime: allowing the thieves and the assassins and the beggars a certain quota of permitted activity, overseen by their powerful guilds, while also making them responsible for any unlicensed crime. While this resulted in a much safer, more predictable and prosperous Ankh-Morpork, it also sidelined the City Watch. By the time of Guards! Guards! the Night Watch has dwindled to just three men: the weaselly Corporal Nobbs, the overweight Sergeant Colon, and the wretched drunk in charge of them, Captain Sam Vimes.
The novel kicks off with two separate threads. The first is a shadowy secret society intent on restoring Ankh-Morpork’s “rightful” ruler to the throne; a collection of self-entitled idiots and half-wits manipulated by a leader who is far more intelligent and dangerous. Their plan involves magically summoning a long-extinct dragon to terrorise the city and leave the populace desperate for a hero – but as is always the case with man messing around with things he was never meant to understand, events go quite differently.
The second is the journey of young Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised in the mountains by dwarves, whose father – the local dwarf king – wants to send him off to the city to learn to live amongst his own kind. His father consults the only human he knows, the local trader Varneshi:
“I have heard that dwarfs go off to work in the Big City, ” said the king uncertainly. “And they send back money to their families, which is very commendable and proper.”
“There you are then. Get him a job in, in -” Varneshi sought for inspiration – “in the Watch, or something. My great-grandfather was in the Watch, you know. Fine job for a big lad, my grandad said. ”
“What is a Watch?” said the king.
“Oh,” said Varneshi, with the vagueness of someone whose family for the last three generations hadn’t travelled more than twenty miles, “they goes about making sure people keep the laws and do what they’re told.”
“That is a very proper concern,” said the king who, since he was usually the one doing the telling, had very solid views about people doing what they were told.
Varneshi provides Carrot with an ancient copy of The Laws and Ordnances of the Cities Ankh and Morpork, which the young lad dutifully learns off by heart on his journey to the city. The opening of Guards! Guards! is something of a fish out of water comedy, as the naive young Carrot learns how to be a policeman in a very different city to the place he imagined – a difference apparent before he even arrives:
He’d expected high white towers rearing over the landscape, and flags. Ankh-Morpork didn’t rear. Rather, it sort of skulked, clinging to the soil as if afraid someone might steal it. There were no flags.
Carrot’s determination to thrust his own ideas upon the city, however, strikes a chord with Captain Vimes: “a scruffy collection of bad habits marinated in alcohol.” By all accounts Vimes should be an unlikeable character – cynical, bitter, jaded and pathetic. But he’s admirable because he has an internal dignity, because the reason that he’s cynical and bitter and jaded is because he’s right. He hasn’t made it far in life because “every time he seemed to be getting anywhere he spoke his mind, or said the wrong thing. Usually both at once.” He’s a man of principle, and – as the book goes on – we see that he’s actually very good at his job; a keen observer and smart detective. He’s a character who, though it gains him nothing, still goes to confront the master of the secret society near the climax of the novel, and can give a speech like this:
“You can’t give me my job back,” repeated Vimes. “It was never yours to take away. I was never an officer of the city, or an officer of the king, or an officer of the Patrician. I was an officer of the law. It might have been corrupted and bent, but it was law, of a sort.”
By the closing books of the Discworld series Vimes will have gone from rags to riches, obscurity to prominence; he will be second only to Vetinari as the city’s most powerful figure. Yet he remains fundamentally the same man as the drunk in the gutter at the beginning of Guards! Guards!: a watchman, a police officer, a damn good copper. A sentry in the night, protecting the city from itself.
The ensemble cast of Guards! Guards!, who will remain the crux of the City Watch for many books to come, are also wonderful. There’s the disreputable, larcenous Corporal Nobbs, whose pay Vimes docks “for being a disgrace to the species;” Fred Colon, the red-faced man who will “automatically gravitate to the post of sergeant” and, if he hadn’t joined a quasi-military organisation, would have been a sausage butcher; Lady Sybil Ramkin, Vimes’ future wife, who has the careless attitude towards her property and her appearance that only the truly rich can get away with; and of course Carrot, the Watch’s new recruit and very possibly Ankh-Morpork’s long-lost true king, who is much sharper than he appears underneath a veneer of honest simplicity.
The characters are a huge part of why Guards! Guards! works so well. But it’s also tightly plotted, has high emotional stakes around the city’s peril, and is hilarious. I’d completely forgotten this joke but it’s one of my favourites in the series so far, as typical pulp fantasy heroes descend on the city in answer to the call for someone to kill the dragon and start talking about how hard the trade is these days:
“Monsters are getting more uppity, too,” said another. “I heard where this guy, he killed this monster in this lake, no problem, stuck its arm up over the door-”
“Pour encourjay lays ortras,” said one of the listeners.
“Right, and you know what? Its mum come and complained. Its actual mum come right down to the hall next day and complained. Actually complained. That’s the respect you get.”
Guards! Guards! simply works. It works really well: the characters, the plot, the pacing, the jokes. It’s the first really great Discworld book, surpassing both Mort and Wyrd Sisters. It’s actually quite surprising to me that Pratchett didn’t revisit the characters again (in their own book; I think they make cameo appearances for a while) until #16, Men at Arms.
In any case, Pratchett knew his own work. Guards! Guards! is the perfect starting point for a new Discworld reader, because aside from being the start of a major story arc, it encapsulates what the series does so well (and, down the line, does even better): a compelling plot with brilliant characters, sparkling dialogue, and wry observations about human nature seamlessly mixed into the prose. Highly recommended.