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Night Watch

Terry Pratchett

Harper Collins

US hardcover First

ISBN 0-060-01311-7

Publication Date: 11-05-2002

352 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 10-02-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Fantasy, Mystery, General Fiction, Science Fiction

10-22-03, 11-08-03, 06-14-04

Readers typically don't look to fantasy for a great tale of a cop on the beat. Terry Pratchett's 'Night Watch' could certainly change that. Set in Pratchett's so-dense-it's-real Discworld, 'Night Watch' matches marvelous details with perfectly-pitched emotions. It's a killer combination that allows Pratchett to easily own territory that's usually ceded to American mystery authors. Pratchett's love for all of his characters, from the most despicable criminal to the most honorable cop sweeps the even the utterly-uninformed-as-to-the-doings-of-Discworld reader away and into a clever plot where the plod meets the Patrician with a show of brute normality. Stunningly relevant, gritty even as it treads the mean streets of a silly invented world, 'Night Watch' demonstrates that Pratchett is one of those authors who really understands the advantages of writing fantasy. He uses his total freedom to invent a world within which characters have concerns that readers can relate to, a world where those concerns can get the kind of straightforward answers that seem to evade us in reality. In Discworld, the silent speak, the violent die and the merely ordinary manage to make it all work. Pratchett himself has become a multi-layered mirror that reflects the absurdities of our world into sensible, thoroughly enjoyable reading.

Sam Vimes is a Duke in the city of Ankh Morpork, commander of the City Watch. On a rainy night, he finds himself in pursuit of the cunning criminal Carcer, who has murdered many an innocent and not yet been caught. Struggling with Carcer on the roof of the High Energy Magic Building, the two tumble through a skylight and find themselves not back on the ground, but back in time. Stranded in the past, Vimes is forced to take a job as a beat cop on the Night Watch, at that time a disheartened, disorganized joke. Vimes takes on a new name and races to prevent a tragedy he knows is in the making. While doing this, he's going to have to whip the Night Watch, including his own younger self, into shape and prevent Carcer from wreaking havoc in the past and changing what Vimes knows as the present.

For those of us who haven't read the first 28 or so Discworld books, the beginning of the novel is something of a whirlwind. Clearly, we're supposed to be a bit familiar with these characters, and if you're not, well, then you're on your own sport. Or so it seems until we meet them again, in the past. Pratchett then starts the process of putting a seasoned cop with years of experience back into a pair of thin-soled boots and on the beat. Here we meet all the unfamiliar faces and get familiar with them as they once were. Pratchett has set up a very simple but clever plot wherein the veteran gets to relive his rookie years and possibly put to right old wrongs.

But once Vimes gets those boots on, Pratchett finds a groove and goes on to write arguably the best police procedural to be found in fantasy literature. The invented world melts away and the reader is plunged into the pleasurable company of the Night Watch. Inept, untrained but not unwilling to learn, they follow Vimes' natural lead. His commons sense solutions to the problems of potential mob violence, corrupt politicians, military forces on the loose in a civic setting and secret police who are a bit too fond of violence are blissfully fun to read. Pratchett balances the salivating revenge gland with the twitchy comeuppance muscle. With the advantage of hindsight, nearly every hit is a home run, yet there's never a second when victory seems certain. The only thing greater than the tension is the pleasure of reading about these wonderful, enjoyable characters.

Pratchett is no longer just funny. There's much more than a sense of humor at work here. The balancing act between hindsight and nostalgia swings with ease from one pole to the other. He'll bring a tear to your eye as easily as a smile to your face. He manages the reader's identification with his characters with grace and generosity. Yes, those who have not read every single novel will not get as much out of all this as someone who has. But even if you've never thought you would possibly be interested in reading a fantasy, 'Night Watch' is immediately enjoyable. Pratchett knows how to target the pleasure center of the reader's lizard brain with infallible accuracy, while simultaneously engaging the intellect. Writing is Pratchett's beat, and he's a seasoned veteran. He's been here enough times that he's able to make it all seem new, every time.