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Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (2001) 378 p.

The “arcs” of the Discworld got a bit blurry towards the end. This is technically a Death/Susan book, but a solid half of the narrative is given over to the Monks of Time, who’ve been briefly hinted at but never given their own novel (and will play a minor but important role in the next book, Night Watch, which sort of takes place contemporaneously to this one.) Thief of Time more comfortably feels like a Death book, though, since although the big fella himself gets very little screen time, his enemies the Auditors are front and centre in their clearest role yet as antagonists.

Thief of Time begins with two different people whose lives revolve around time: Jeremy, a brilliant but disturbed clockmaker in Ankh-Morpork, and Lobsang, a thief plucked from the Thieves’ Guild in Ankh-Morpork and whisked away to the Discworld’s equivalent of the Himalayas to be trained as an apprentice history monk. The history monks, in their obscure monastery, are manipulators of space-time: dividing it up and spreading it around, taking it from where it isn’t needed (the bottom of the ocean) to places where there’s never enough time (like bustling cities) and generally keeping an eye on the nefarious elements of the cosmos who would seek to tinker with the fourth dimension in more malevolent ways. Which is where Jeremy the clockmaker comes in: hired by a human avatar of the Auditors to create a truly perfect clock which will stop time itself. Under the guidance of Lu-Tze, the humble sweeper and personification of kung fu tropes about unassuming but deadly lethal old sages, Lobsang travels to Ankh-Morpork to prevent this from happening.

This is the kind of book that sort of works in practice but sounds a bit weird when you describe it like that. One of its biggest problems, I think, is that the concept of the history monks never quite takes off. Pratchett has managed to turn joke ideas into serious stuff before, but the long setpieces in which the history monks use their machinery to handle time is not much divorced from, say, reading about people weaving the Source in a Wheel of Time book, or using magic in any other fantasy: basically not real and therefore uninteresting. I found the book on much stronger ground in Ankh-Morpork, where Susan has found her calling as a schoolteacher (but is bothered by how her bizarre heritage and eerie powers have turned her into a social hermit); the Auditors’ human avatar is increasingly enchanted by the temptations of physical experience; and Jeremy is a great illustration of an obsessive, one-note mind who is utterly happy as long as he’s just left alone to tinker with his clocks and is probably best left to do just that, carefully watched over by the Clockmakers’ Guild after hints of unpleasantness in the past. (When told the legend of the last perfect clock which was wiped out of reality by the history monks after being built, so that it never happened at all, Jeremy says “Things either exist or they don’t. I am very clear about that. I have medicine.”) The moment when Lobsang and Lu-Tze arrive in Ankh-Morpork just as the clock tolls and subsequently have to traverse a world frozen in time is neat; there are some great cameos from Nanny Ogg, called to serve as a midwife across several decades by a stranger knocking at her door for whom no time seems to have passed at all; and a very nice conclusion to a semi-romantic subplot for Susan and Lobsang.

Ultimately, though, I never much liked Thief of Time the first time around and didn’t this time either. It’s fine, and at this point in the series I never outright dislike any of Pratchett’s work, but it’s oddly out of step with the books around it – as we are dragged kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat in what some term the “industrial revolution” phase of the Discworld, Thief of Time is a throwback to the weird-and-wonderful fantasy tropes of the series past; a metaphysical story with universe-breaking stakes in which an excessive chunk is spent in the halls of a distant faux-Buddhist monastery.

It’s worth noting that apparently my view is very much a minority one – it was one of thirteen Discworld books which placed in The Big Read, a 2003 survey run by the BBC of 700,000 Brits to determine the country’s 200 favourite books; and it ranked first (!) in Pratchett Job’s Discworld re-read when he came to numerically ranking the series. No accounting for taste!

Next up is my own pick for the best book in the series: Night Watch, which is very specifically a Sam Vimes story rather than a City Watch story, but which I remember serving in many ways as the true denouement of his character arc.

Re-reading Discworld index

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