Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's latest book, Snuff came out this week and I had to promptly abandon everything on my reading list to go follow Vimes into the country side and chase around after smugglers and slavers and murderers.

To my delight, there was actually a brief appearance from a lesbian couple, meaning I get to gush about Pratchett again.

The lesbians were one of the members of the local self-styled magistrates and her partner (who may or may not also have been part of the group - we never see much of the magistrates, so it's unclear). They are not the good guys and we don't see much of them at all, they're just 'there' - they turn up to a dinner party and Vimes notices one of them wears a tie and man's shirt, and later another character notes in passing that they happen to live together and that's their own business.

Pratchett is LGBTQ-friendly and covers a lot of gender issues in his books - although often subtly, sneaking them in matter of factly, rather than making a big deal out of relationships or crossdressing or gender identity (except in the case of the dwarves, when it's a fairly big deal - for his other most lesbian-friendly, cross-dressing and gender focused book, read my review of Monstrous Regiment, which is basically a parody of Don't Ask, Don't Tell).

As for Snuff itself?

The main parodic themes for Snuff are Pride & Prejudice-style gentry, traditional English feudal estates, Miss Marple 'murder mysteries in the countryside!' and the goblins. Which aren't exactly parody, as they're played straight, but are a very good case of accepting other races as actual people. True, Pratchett's done that a lot lately - but the goblins are just the sideshow, and the underlying issue, rather than being followed around and talked about constantly. Vimes has also been introduced to snooker at some point, it seems.

Vimes is packed off to visit the Ramkin country house with his wife and son, at the subtle prompting of Vetinari. There, he discovers an enormous traditional English-style local manor, complete with a vast complement of staff and local rustics, all divided very firmly into the upper class and the workers. Oh, and there's also tobacco smuggling, Troll drugs, and a local goblin colony, as well as a cameo from some girls straight out of Pride and Prejudice. The local law consists of a corrupt group of nobs, and the hereditary village policeman who worships the ground the Great Commander Vimes treads on. And the author of his son's favourite books about poo, snot and other things fascinating to a small child, happens to live nearby.  There's also a lot of attention paid to the law and due procedure - because Vimes is all about the Law, and what happens when he is out of his jurisdiction? Why, he makes it up, worries, and takes local constabulary under his wing and starts getting them to do it all for him.

It was good. The first third was a bit shaky - or rather, jarring and unsettling (more on that in a moment), and the rest is mostly Vimes Being Awesome and solving things and rushing all over the place to save the day. In other words, lots of fun, and Vimes is obviously a lot more comfortable with his various roles and promotions now.

Young Sam is now six, which is a 4-5 year jump ahead from Thud which is quite a big jump, character development-wise and a cause of much of the 'jarring' in the first part of the book. Last time we saw Vimes and his family was in Thud, and for the most part, Sybil and Young Sam were background characters. Now they are much more settled with each other, and we also see a lot more of the family life parts of it - which isn't something we see a lot of, normally.

The other major character change was Willikins, who can play either the posh butler in the background, or the ferocious street tough. We never saw much of the street tough side before, and it first appeared in Jingo, when he 'bit a man's nose off', but having spent four or five years in Vimes' company, he now drops the servile, supercilious butler act when it's just him and Vimes and plays the menacing sidekick very well. This is a bit of a shock, as it was easy to forget what lies behind his respectability in previous books.

Vimes is floundering under the weight of the Ramkin estate and the strangeness of the countryside, up until the Crime Starts Happening, and then he is allowed to go back to being a policeman. Again, this is a bit strange to read, as Vimes usually avoids anything with greenery and birds, so while we knew he hates non-Cities, he's never been forced to stay for any length of time before.

Oh, and then there's the aristocracy thing. Traditionally, he doesn't like the aristocracy - unfortunately, as far as the locals are concerned, he IS the aristocracy and he better damn well behave like it.

There were a few speeches and reactions from Vimes that didn't really feel like him... more like Pratchett talking through him - including some swearing - though again, that was mostly in the 'help, I am in a strange place and off-balance' period, and a few lines from other people that again, felt more like an aside from Pratchett, and might have worked better as just that, rather than getting the characters to say them. There was one little author injoke that definitely worked - Vimes vaguely assumed that writers lounged around in their dressing gowns drinking champagne, and Pratchett fotnotes that this is of course, completely true.

Wee Mad Arthur gets a larger part to play, which is quite fun, as he celebrates his Feegleness (see I Shall Wear Midnight) though his sudden ability to travel everywhere - and Fred Colon just happening to get the one cigar with a plot element in (actually, I am assuming that it was the only one, that never came up), both felt a bit forced. But these are pretty minor, and the joy of the Discworld is that these sorts of things tend to change entirely on re-reads. Vimes also tends to be a bit too consistently right, once the crime starts, but it's a lot more fun that way. Also, we get Vetinari losing his temper at the crosswords a couple of times - and to see things from his perspective, which is... unsettlingly humanising.

There was no great showdown with the villains, but there didn't really need to be - the final legwork was what minions where for, and once the evidence was out it was all down to politics and lawyers. Slightly disappointing, but also, probably better writing and we got plenty of drama from Vimes as it was.

I felt this book was mainly about Vimes and his family, coming to a new balance. He interacts with his wife a lot more than usual, throughout than book - and they seem a lot more physically affectionate. And more at ease with making dirty jokes. Sybil played a much larger role in the plot as well, as she was usually around - and because all the social events were her area, while she steps out of the way for the crime. And she got to wield her mighty political influence to help get rights for the goblins, in a rather clever piece of grandstanding. He also wraps up or progresses several larger scale parts of Vetinari's plans - from local corruption and smuggling to the integration of a new species into the wider world.

Like all my favourite Pratchett books, there are a lot of things going on - that's on reason they're so re-readable, there are dozens of minor threads, interesting characters and intriguing events that could be books in their own right. So overall? Loved it, much better than the Going Postal and Making Money books (in my opinion!).

I read it on my Kindle (or I wouldn't have it yet!) and I'm guessing that it's not the version the only bad reviews on this book are about, as it arrived a day after the reviews were posted (probably because I'm not in the US, which had an earlier release date), and because it was apparently pulled at some point - but mostly because I didn't see any of the problems the reviewers mentioned.

I do recommend reading previous books from the City Watch series - specifically, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, then Thud  - first. Unseen Academicals is referenced and helps establish the interspecies context, but not as necessary, and technically isn't a City Watch book.

The order of the City Watch books is:

You can order Snuff from Amazon (Kindle version is $9.99)

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