WALKING THE BEAT IN MEN AT ARMS
Book title: Men at Arms
Author: Sir Terry Pratchett, OBE
Men at Arms is the 16th novel in the Discworld series and the second to feature Ankh-Morpork City Watch crew. After the events in Guards! Guards! life in Ankh-Morpork, biggest and most famous city in Discworld, went on. “Thieves thieved, assassins assassinated, hussies hustled,” until a loud bang shattered the peace and bodies started turning up in the river Ankh. Someone’s up to no good and coppers don’t like anything that keeps them away from the donut shops!
It’s time once again for the City’s not-yet-finest to show their worth but this time, there’s no dragon to exterminate, no secret society to derobe, just plain old nasty pride and prejudice to solve. And a lethal weapon to decommission – the mysterious gonne.
Here’s what you need to understand about the Discworld novels. There is a rhythm in every Discworld novel. And it takes a man who can feel and write this rhythm in his characters to make a novel so simple and yet so full of energy as Sir Terry Pratchett in Men at Arms.
Men at Arms in keeping with the spirit has a simple premise. Someone is not happy with the way things are in Ankh-Morpork. Dwarfs, Trolls and the undead are turning up all over the city displacing those who are not keeping up with the times. The nobility lost prestige when talks about loyalty, honor, heroic sacrifice went out of vogue in exchange for talks of profit and market equality.
In the meantime, the Night Watch must deal with ethnic representation thus the new recruits- a dwarf, a troll and a werewolf (also the first woman in the Watch) in addition to the old timers, Sergeant Colon, Corporal Nobbs and Corporal Carrot (who displays a considerable amount of charisma). Meanwhile, Captain Sam Vimes, the fellow who has it in his genes a natural hatred for aristocracy, is due to get married to the richest and noblest of women in Ankh-Morpork, the dragon breeder Lady Sybil Ramkin.
With this ensemble, the stage is set for all the racial prejudice that is all too familiar. Even the best of us has prejudice, even nice Corporal Carrot who lets a few unkind words against the undead (in which he unwittingly said in front of secret werewolf recruit Angua). Of course lead protagonist Captain Vimes is prejudiced against everybody but specially against the elitist buggers who lives in high places (a club he is soon to join, reluctantly). There is of course the old trouble with Trolls and Dwarfs on account of big and grand history. Lance Constable Detritus (troll) and Lance Constable Cuddy (dwarf) just had to put up with each other.
And putting up with each other is what they must do in order to solve the crime that’s killing innocent civilians.
But the best thing about all the City Watch novels is the energy and great pacing. Unlike other novelists, Sir Terry Pratchett doesn’t bother with chapters (except for some of the Moist von Lipwig novels).
The scenes change like actions sequences on films. Chase scenes after chase scenes, witty rhetoric after witty rhetoric!
When characters run all over the place, you can feel it in their dialogues as well. Even scenes where the crew’s drinking in the pub after a hard day’s work, you can hear the thuds of their mugs on the table.
“They stare at the drink. They drank the drink.”
And it’s a catchy rhythm. Sam Vimes get the most adrenaline packed breakfast scene as befits his character’s energy- that is the energy of a jaded noir detective.
“OK? Not as dougnuty as something in anyway metaphorical. Just a doughnut. One doughnut.”
Scenes where Cuddy teaches Detritus to count beyond three proves another action opportunity when they we’re chasing thugs in alleys. And almost like a beat, dwarf Cuddy and Detritus the troll became buddies.
“Any troll move,” said Detritus “and I start counting.”
Despite a lot of threads happening all over the place, Men at Arms was a solid run. And this is because of Sir Terry Pratchett’s perfect timing. He can sense energy and build up on it. He knows his character’s unique beat and plays on that creating climax after climax. And fittingly, it is the terrifying sound of the gonne that’s ruining the beat.
DUH! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Though I wouldn’t recommend this as starting point for Discworld, this is one of the really really best. One of those novels I’d read again and again just so I could feel the thumping beat of Ankh Morpork’s cobbled streets. And of course, it has a lot of things to say about human’s natural inclination for prejudice but you’d never find a more simple and clever way to put it than in Men at Arms.