Men and women: Two Discworld books. Briefly.
Men at Arms (Terry Pratchett)
Even better than Guards! Guards!, on par with Reaper Man — there aren’t many higher compliments I can pay a novel. The middle section, in which Cuddy and Detritus pursue a killer through Ankh-Morpork’s sewers, is hilarious and thrilling and eerie and unexpectedly heartbreaking. The scene in the pork futures locker, in which Detritus saves Cuddy’s life and experiences his first unimpeded higher thought since coming to the city, is rapturous. And Pratchett is equally deft at rendering Carrot’s increasingly worldly wisdom, Angua’s lived-in ambivalence and simmering anger, Vimes’s complex relationship to his city and his work, Vetinari’s too-brilliant scheming… Even the broad fantasy-species-as-human-races allegory takes on a surprising sharpness when Vimes goes to tell the dwarf tinkerer’s family that he’s passed away.
And Vetinari gets one of the most powerful lines in the series so far: Carrot spends the novel trying to live up to a piece of knowledge he’s acquired, that ‘police’ comes from polis — a policeman is a ‘man for the city.’ That moves and inspires him, and the other Watchmen he talks to, and sets them apart from the machinations of the book’s various schemers. But when he meets Vetinari at the end — the true king talking to the Machiavellian Patrician — Vetinari says something that earns his (and my) sympathy: ‘Do you know where the word “politician” comes from?’ The angry moralist writer gives the haunting climactic line of a heroic policier to the joyless technocrat, and means it.
Wise, funny, humane, and (this time out) perfectly paced. And just like that, Pratchett is one of my favourite authors again. I’ll be rereading these books twenty years from now, I know it.
Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett)
Less shapely than Men at Arms, and less moving — though just as funny — and the climax doesn’t have the same mad kinetic energy as the endings of the first two Guards novels. The villains are, in the end, like something out of play. But (forgive me) the thematic development in Wyrd Sisters runs deep, and the final staging of not-Macbeth opens into something extraordinary. The three Witches’ struggle to wrap their minds around the theatre, the power of mere words to make a universe, is both clever John Crowley-ish metafiction (that’s a huge compliment, by the way; Aegypt is the best metafiction I’ve ever read) and a moving, sympathetic rendering of razor-sharp but parochial country folk encountering a power that seems, terrifyingly, to overflow and invalidate their idea of the world.
And there is Nanny Ogg, and Magrat, and the Fool; there’s Tomjohn (cousin to Carrot, vis-a-vis the thematics) and the extraordinary Hwel, and the equally extraordinary Vitoller, merely a man, a man of parts.
And there’s Granny Weatherwax, a world unto herself.
Pratchett was a genius of sorts, obviously. Those are surprisingly common. But these books aren’t ‘works of genius,’ they’re living worlds full of human life. Because, in addition to being a genius, he was a sage. An enlightened spirit.