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Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett

July 1, 2012
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Hot on the heels of a review of a later Discworld book, I’m here to review Men at Arms as part of my ongoing endeavour to read my way through the entire series.

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The 15th book in the Discworld series and the second to feature Captain Vimes and the City Watch, Men at Arms looks at the Night Watch as they try to stop another threat to peace – The Discworld’s first gun. The story is set one year after the events of Guards! Guards! when a giant dragon terrorised the city. Since then, the Night Watch have become slightly less of a joke, recruiting three new officers; Cuddy, a dwarf; Detritus, a troll; and Angua, a w… a woman. In with the new and out with the old as Captain Vimes nears his imminent retirement so that he can ‘enjoy’ the blissful oblivion with his bride-to-be, Lady Sybil Ramkin. That is before people start turning up dead and an assassin with a mysterious new weapon roams free in Ankh-Morpork with his sights on the Patrician, Lord Vetinari.

In many ways, this is a sequel to Guards! Guards! and so it is only right that Pratchett ties up some of the loose ends from the first book. However, to mind, the only one that is conclusively dealt with is Carrot’s position as the heir to the throne of Ankh. Indeed part of the villain’s plan is to install Carrot in his rightful place as King. Other aspects, such as the 60ft dragon, don’t even get a mention until near the end of the book, and some, like the courtship between Vimes and Lady Ramkin, are whitewashed altogether. In the void between Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms, they go from burgeoning near-romance to full-blown engagement. Furthermore, their relationship (what is displayed in the book has none of the frisson that was present in Guards! Guards!

Another shortcoming is, amongst the otherwise brilliant characterisation, the choice of villain. Edward d’Eath is a spluttering and nostalgic young assassin, regarded as a little crazy – hardly a match to Guards! Guards!‘s Lupine Wonse. Introducing him and his motives immediately at the start of the book is handy as a means of exposition but turns the detective element of the book into an episode of Columbo. The story is still very good but, for the most part, it lacks that exciting whodunit thrill. However, as I’ve said before, complex and intriguing crimes are not what Discworld books (especially those featuring Vimes) are about.

Instead, a major theme running through the book is the racial tensions between trolls and dwarves. These are heightened when a dwarf is murdered in the progress of the story and things positively erupt when the Day Watch arrest a troll for the crime. Like most of the Discworld, this fills in as an allegory for any warring ethnic factions that  you’d care to mention. Pratchett handles this both cleverly and subtly.

Men at Arms serves as a bridge between the understaffed, inept Night Watch of Guards! Guards! and the more comprehensive, competent City Watch of later books. It also establishes Vimes as the consummate policeman. However, in the midst of all this, it trundles along at a merely average pace. For a Discworld book, this is disappointing but it is still an enjoyable read from the shelves of fantasy and satire.

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