A short review, I think.
I liked it. A nice juicy Vimes book, that settles down a little from previous installments’ mounting pressure. It worked, in several parts at least, as a mystery, and the change of scenery, authority, motivations and lead characters were refreshing. Vimes, on holiday in the countryside, with, a switch of emphasis onto his domestic cast and a minoring of the Watch cast, was a great change. The continuing theme of Vimes not being certain of who he is, where he came from and being afraid of who he could be become, who he knows he could have been had a few things been different, is a rich seam that bears mining again in this fresh context.
I really liked Sybil in this outing. Pratchett really gets into what character powerhouse Sybil is, being everything Vimes is in morality and everything he isn’t, generally, in social deftness. There is a real partnership there in this book that really works. And, quite frankly, an element of sexual suggestion between the two that really, em, fleshes them out. Also, I particularly like Sybil’s rants to Vimes after someone of rank assumes that Sybil, too, must be a goblin-racist. Real anger there, real rage.
Willikins too, though Pratchett laid it on a little thick. Basically, Willikins has, over the course of the last few books, been fleshed out as a butler who, when called to war, is an ear-taking, nose-biting, beserker-sergeant, and has a backstory as a street youth gang fighter, comparable to Vimes’ own. This was alluded by things like Vimes asking what Willikin’s weapon of choice was in those days – Vimes is surprised at ‘a hat with sharpened pennies sewn in the brim’ as apparently these could take out a man’s eye. Willikins replies with ‘if used with care, yes sir’ while folding laundry.
Now, on his last outing Willikins did use this past to take several dwarf assassins – yes, just yes, and it was awesome – and using a dispassionate butler’s air to humbly describe how, at one point he killed one with the ice knife he was using at the time, then took up the assassin’s flame-throwing weapon, ‘apprised myself of its functioning’ then pointed it down the hole the dwarves broke in by and fired until the ‘igniferous fluid’ was used up, incidentally setting the garden across the street on fire. The whole charm of it was the staid delivery. So, in short, it was sort of weird to see Willikins, say running around with a pocket crossbow, doing trick shots through mobs. Yes, characters can change, and be far less uptight – given that this is set six years after the events above and that Vimes works every day to make his staff relax more around him, that is believable – but did Willikins in the previous books have arm tattoos? Did Vimes constantly compliment Willikins on what a dangerous man he was? I don’t hate it, and I can ride the ride if I want to – I LOVE a battle-ready butler – but it was a little weird.
And the Summoning Dark returned! Awesome, in fact. Usually, the odder stuff Vimes encounters, like the DisOrganizer that predicted appointments and so on disappeared. This was pretty cool, and recurring theme of darkness, and it makes sense that a ‘substition’ would work for goblins too, given that it is completely without need for faith in it.
And a lot of what didn’t strike right with me was ‘weird’. And that is a matter of taste. However, I’ll put it out there:
It seemed weird that when the children’s author revealed her backstory, she was effectively backgrounded for the rest of the story. I mean, part of the story, in the end, was the popular acceptance of goblins as a people, and choosing an artistic method to do it. Why not have her publish a book about it? Even the Jane-Austen-reference character (which I loved to bits by the way) got her book shilled in the end. No reference to an enormously popular good goblin book for kids written by the lady whose mother was raised by them, who specifically went out her way to mention the beauties of the goblin language?
It seemed weird that Fred Colon had this hallucinogenic period where he saw things from a goblin’s point of view, and we never saw anything from HIS point of view, or a goblin’s for that matter, throughout the book. We’re supposed to understand this transformation he has in the end to a friendship towards goblins, but we never see what he goes through, not even an in italics paragraph between other characters’ viewpoint paragraphs. It really failed to sell that aspect to me, while simultaneously seeming to pass a perfect opportunity to do so by.
And then there were the goblins in general – similar problem to Unseen Academicals with orcs, the book where the concept of goblins in the Discworld, coincidentally, was introduced. You see, orcs and goblins are pathologically hated by the populace at large – really, really despised – odd, though not full-blown weird. Where it gets weird is that when present these species for five minutes, they’re awesome. Orcs apparently can become knowledgeable about, pretty much anything – they’re do all great guys who get a bad rap because they were created by the ‘Dark Emperor’. Some of it worked, some of it did not, and some of it could be the fact that we only see one orc who has been well-raised.
The goblins in this? Make beautiful pots out of trash. Oh, not really made pots of scrap, no – glowing, beautiful pots that are intrinsically wonderful. Show them how to play a harp, and they will make Sam Vimes cry with their music. Not even kidding. They’ve a beautiful language within their grunting, apparently, which we never hear expressed. They also have an eidetic memory, something that seemed to be thrown in with orcs too. I just felt I was being told to like something.
And they have a belief about putting their immediate effluvia in pots, to be buried with them. And there is a single murder of a goblin and an outright slaughter of goblins, and the pots never come up in regards to that. One comes up as a mystery plot ploint, the other as a MacGuffin to convert the racist Colon and as another mystery plot point. Never as the object of belief. And we get a line about how the goblins believe they’re being punished for something, but we never come back to that. The beliefs are a central plot point, but never expanded on. There is literally a guy chronicling the goblins writing for half a page at the start who mentions the belief about the pots and that he’ll bcome back to them – he doesn’t back to the pots, and neither does the book.
And you know what? It is mentioned that goblins have perfect night vision. It is also a plot point that the local barge captains have to sail by memory and timekeeping because their lights can’t always illuminate the conditions they sail in. There is a climactic scene where a barge captain has lost his place in stormy conditions, while the barge is filled with goblins. Vimes uses HIS perfect night vision to warn the captain of obstacles. Now, okay that is fair enough – Vimes bonded with the goblins with this nightvision. But still – Vimes is a hero afterwards because of this, but there is never a mention of Vimes slotting goblins-eyes-Tab-A in barge-captain-Slot-B. Or anyone else doing this. It seemed like such a legitimate way for the goblins to become beloved, but it was just unused.
And really, you didn’t have to twist my arm to sympathise with these guys. They’re hunted, enslaved, transported and worked to death. They’re instantly sympathetic, they don’t have to be marvellous harp players. But here is the problem.
It could be taste, because it isn’t just that I like Pratchett. Discworld is formative to me. I think in fantasy parody easier than fantasy-straight. Before Neil Gaiman taught me about vampires as metaphor for social leeches and Joss Whedon taught me about vampires as analogy for teenage years, Pratchett taught me about vampires as alcoholics. And werewolves as bipolar. And zombies as stuck-in-their-ways. And trolls as giant computers, and elves as sociopaths, and dwarves as 50% transvestites. And those were brilliant twists on Tolkien, on existing myth and legend. And then there are these things ‘tacked on’ to the goblins, that don’t come from … anywhere, near as I can tell, and we never see from their point of view like we did Cheery or Detritus or Angua. They’re never people to us, just something to be pitied or beloved.
How do they become beloved? Well, Sam Vimes burns some wicker in a dramatic fashion, giving out free beer, while Sybil Vimes held a concert to showcase a goblin harpist talents. Yes. Then everyone involved was arrested. Also, the guy who apparently headed everything, Gravid Rust? Never appears on page. I don’t mean ‘never appears on page with the heroes’, I mean he never appears. We see his lackeys for two scenes, and we see his henchman Stratford for the most of the book. We didn’t need to see as much, frankly, because he pretty much seems to be Andy Shanker from Unseen Academicals in a different hat – brutal thugs in a passionate relationship with violence, who are savaged/killed, just before the end, by a side character, at night. In the master palette of Discworldean evil, this was a sad duplication.
It was weird that Nobby has a goblin girlfriend. Yes, I know, its Nobby, haha, but also wuh?
Anyway, that wasn’t short, but I had a lot of problems with a book I otherwise loved. So it is hard.
Completely unrelated: A Narnia fanfic on the ‘Problem of Susan’ – really good voice:
And that is 1655.