On Men at Arms

Posted by Jack on 2019-01-14 at 18:00
Tagged: books
TitleMen at Arms (Discworld #15)
AuthorTerry Pratchett

Once again Pratchett delights. It's funny, I always start Discworld books and in some sort of reflexive memory from the first few books that were much more straight parody, I think "Oh, I know exactly where this is going" and without fail I'm wrong.

This book is no different. Of course, Ankh-Morpork and the Watch are returning characters, and the setup for the story is very much like Guards! Guards! (someone wants to install a king, new watchmen) but at its core this book is a solid mystery plot that twists on you more than a few times.

Pratchett's charm, to me, is that reading him makes me feel like everyone has a place in this universe. Everyone has something to bring to the table. The Patrician believes all men are evil, and rules the city accordingly, but effectively. Carrot believes all men are good, and inspires those around him to be good. The dwarves and trolls of Ankh-Morpork are opposing, but only because each is unwilling to listen to the other. Vimes, Nobby, Colon, Angua, Cuddy are all flawed, in their own ways, but all manage to be assets to the Watch and thus the city. Even Gaspode the dog, a flea bitten stray has found his niche in life.

I also thought it was especially brilliant that Pratchett relates Trolls to computer processors because it sneakily fits with lore (trolls being rocks coming from high, cold mountains and evolved best there) but also means inherently Trolls aren't actually dumb... they're just different and running slow at "normal" temperatures for Men and Dwarves. Counting in powers of 2 was a nice touch, and yet another subtle nod Pratchett makes to real world advanced technology.

I also found it interesting the comparison Pratchett draws between traditional Discworld weapons (your typical fantasy fare) which draw on the person's own strength to work, versus the Gonne (the pivotal artifact of the book) which harnesses outside energy in the form of gunpowder (errr Powder #1) and requires you to trigger. You own a sword and put it to use, but the Gonne owns you, and uses you. The Gonne speaks to the user, but it is not actually magical... it speaks to you because of the ease with which it kills. The tempting voice is not some evil spirit, it's your own nature when given an easy way to eliminate your enemies.

I think that's a fascinating distinction to make and it made me think hard about how the shift from sword and arrow to gunpowder also coincided with the shift in how we humans view warfare, and how our leaders use warfare so quickly in the modern day.

Anyway, all of this is wrapped up in the usual comic wit Pratchett brings to his work. I appreciated touching base with a lot of the old favorite characters, and I was thoroughly pleased with the ending. I'm looking forward to the next in the Watch series of Discworld, or another glimpse at Ankh-Morpork with the new Watch.