Terry Pratchett,
Guards! Guards!
(Victor Gollancz, 1989;
Harper Torch, 2001)

Take one discontented secret society (the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night), one napping Librarian (who happens to be an orangutan), one half-charred book about summoning dragons, one extremely tall dwarf off to the big city to make his fortune (Carrot Ironfoundersson, who has just learned that he was adopted) and one commander of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch lying drunk in the gutter (Captain Vimes, possessor of the ultimate dead-end job). Take them, in the first few pages of a Discworld novel, and be sure that in short order they will be careening off each other and creating more plot conniptions with each carom.

The head of the Elucidated Brethren has concluded that what Ankh-Morpork really needs is a king. Sure, Lord Vetinari rules the essentially ungovernable city in his own unique way, but he isn't a king. A true heir to Ankh-Morpork's currently vacant throne should appear if the city is threatened by some dire fate -- at least, that's how legends would have it. And what fate could be more dire than a dragon? In short order, as is typical in a Discworld book, events have accelerated out of control, dragging characters and reader merrily along in their wake.

Pratchett's satirical genius is honed to a sharp edge in this book as he simultaneously takes on the police procedural and the heroic epic. He balances the comedy of his tale with the terror of an enormous fire-breathing reptile and acerbic asides on human nature. That he can make it all work with so little apparent effort is a marvel. His reworkings of old themes such as "young man comes to the city to make good" and "the day is saved by a million-to-one chance" poke fun at cliche while avoiding its snares.

Guards! Guards! is a pivotal entry in the Discworld series because it brings the Watch into prominence. The much put-upon Vimes is the center around which the plot spins, as he doggedly tries to get to the bottom of the mayhem that has enveloped his city. The trio of Colon, Nobbs and Carrot does its best to support the captain, with mixed results. Guards! Guards! also features one of the Librarian's finest roles; any bibliophile will enjoy the descriptions of the Unseen University's dangerous library and the even more dangerous L-space, where it becomes clear that vast agglomerations of books distort space and time (not that this will surprise any haunter of used bookstores). Then there are the usual cameos by characters such as Death and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler.

Like the others in the series, Guards! Guards! stands on its own, and it is not only a good introduction to the delightful chaos that is Discworld, it is one of the series's best installments. In short, go read it now if you haven't yet done so and if you have, go reread it now. Comic fantasy doesn't get any better than this.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 20 September 2003

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