Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989)
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett is the starter novel in the City Watch story arc and the eighth book in the Discworld series.
The cast of characters in this novel is extensive, but it works because the plot itself has a lot of different layers and intricacies. We have the characters that make up the City Night Watch—Captain Vimes, Sergeant Colon, Lieutenant Nobby and Lance-Corporal Carrot, the newbie. Carrot and Vimes are the most interesting characters thus far. Carrot is 6-foot-6 and is a foundling who was raised by dwarves. Guessing that it would be better for Carrot to be with “his own kind” his father gets him a job with the City Watch, and a friend of the family gives him a rules and regulations book for the Watch and tells him to read it because an officer of the law should know the rules and regulations of the law he is sworn to uphold. This makes for some funny shenanigans because the book is clearly out of date, and the laws in the book are no longer in force and effect; Carrot doesn’t seem to grasp this, nor does he understand the other Watch officers who look the other way and allow crime to happen. The first thing he does is arrest the head thief in the Thieves Guild, which shocks and appalls everyone. Captain Vimes on the other hand is a jaded, cynical man who has been “brung low by a woman” and he drowns himself in alcohol. Eventually, though, all of the men of the Night Watch will have to involve themselves in the latest attempt at a coup d’état. They won’t end up as “heroes” but they’ll be the closest thing to a hero you can find in the city of Ankh-Morpork.
Leading that coup is a shadowy figure called the Supreme Grand Master, whose identity we don’t learn for a long while (and I was surprised, though I wonder that I should have been). The Supreme Grand Master wants to overthrow the Patrician and install a King that will do what he tells him to do, making him a kind of Cardinal Richelieu figure. He thinks that the best way to do this is to endanger the city of Ankh-Morpork with a threat that only a young, future king can defeat, and in doing so will be crowned as monarch and ruler. His plan is to summon a dragon, and he does this by arranging for the theft of a magical book from the Library of Unseen University. Thus, the Librarian makes several appearances in this novel and embarks on a trip to L-space (where all libraries in the universe are connected). Anyway, the dragon is successfully summoned, wreaks ten kinds of havoc on the city, and as you might guess, the dragon turns the tables and becomes the master, so that the dragon is installed as King of Ankh-Morpork. While the first half of the book is about trying to figure out how the dragon has arrived in the city, the second half of the novel is about trying to figure out how to defeat the dragon.
Meanwhile, the Patrician is stripped of his power and thrown into the Palace dungeon. The Patrician (Lord Vetinari) has become one of my favorite recurring characters who doesn’t have his own storyline. I just read Sourcery and he makes an appearance in that book but his appearance in Guards! Guards! is a bit more substantial. Death also makes an appearance and is good for at least one laugh, but it’s more like a bit part than anything else. There’s also a reference to Mort and Princess Keli from Mort. This is one of the things that I love about the Discworld novels so far. They can stand alone, and yet if you’ve read any of the previous books there’s a good chance there will be a reference to someone or something that is a bit of reward for being an attentive reader.
Another notable character is Errol, one of the swamp dragons bred by Lady Sybil Ramkin (she’s pretty much the only female character in the novel). According to Lady Ramkin, Errol’s genetics are just wrong somehow, and so he’s more of a pet than a stud for her swamp dragon breeding endeavors. So she gives him as a gift to Captain Vimes, and he becomes a kind of mascot for the Night Watch. What’s interesting about him though is that he is a character very similar to the Luggage from the Rincewind story arc. He doesn’t speak, but he has his role to play. He doesn’t exactly know how to execute the part he’s supposed to play, but eventually he figures it out and helps to save the day.
The story is a playful take on the King Arthur legend which ultimately gets turned on its head, mostly because Ankh-Morpork is no place for the knights of the round table. On one level, I liked that this was more of an “ensemble” drama that told the stories of many different people. On the other hand, I think I prefer the stories that have an identifiable main character. If you haven’t read any of the Discworld books, I still recommend starting with the first novel (The Colour of Magic). If you’re like me and still relatively new to the series, I think you’ll enjoy Guards! Guards!. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite so far, but I was definitely entertained. This book has been my “fun” reading for the last couple of weeks and it didn’t disappoint.