by Tom Ingram
A series is a troublesome thing. They have a nasty tendency to drop off in quality as they move along, and it’s very rare that a good series is consistent through its run. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, which are really a collection of overlapping series, have their lulls, but on average he’s managed to keep things to a high standard over almost forty books and thirty years. The City Watch books have long been the flagship Discworld sub-series, and it’s easy to see why: they include some of his most memorable characters and encompass two of the greatest things he ever wrote, Night Watch and Men at Arms. 2005’s Thud looked like it would be the end of the Watch, because some long-running threads were beginning to wrap up and the city of Ankh-Morpork appeared to be settling down a bit.
Apparently that’s not the case. The latest City Watch book, Snuff, came out late last year and sold in astonishing quantities. Opening it, I was a bit apprehensive, because I thought the characters and setting had already been taken as far as they will go. The other trend for a series is to get bigger and wider in scope until it’s unsustainable and devolves into sprawling incoherence, like Buffy. So the first pages contain a certain amount of promise: Watch commander Sam Vimes is going on vacation for the first time in his long career, and something is not quite right about the way people behave on the idyllic countryside estate where he’s staying. When a series gets out of control, you have two options: either reset to zero by writing tight small-scale drama or double down and send the hero into space.
Pratchett made the right choice on that count, but it quickly becomes clear that Snuff will not be up to par with the earlier Watch books. They’ve always had somewhat elliptical characterization, particularly for the villains, but here it’s just ridiculous. The villain’s henchman, Stratford, is more of a type than a person; he hardly appears at all and feels like a composite of various other, more interesting villains from the previous books. There are a few new supporting characters who show up so infrequently, it feels like we’re supposed to puzzle out who they are by pattern-matching them to earlier Discworld characters.
The bad guy himself, unless I’ve missed something, does not show up at all and is mentioned so infrequently that it’s easy to be confused as to who he is. Some of the returning characters seem a bit stretched—for example, the previously one-off gag about Vimes’s butler being a former street thug is played up to an unprecedented degree.
There’s a whole lot of self-aggrandizing Vimesy yammering even before anything happens to trigger it. In the finest City Watch books, the high-minded moral stuff is sparingly scattered throughout the book, gradually growing in frequency until the end, when the plot climax and the philosophical climax coincide in a glorious display. In Snuff, as in the low point of the series, The Fifth Elephant, Vimes babbles interminably about law and justice and rights and it all feels disconnected from what’s actually going on, ultimately coming off as whiny.
The plot is rather straightforward but confusingly rendered. When Vimes starts poking around the country village, he discovers a goblin cave under a hill and learns that the unhygienic but otherwise sapient goblins are officially considered vermin. Although Vimes technically owned the land, without his knowledge or consent the goblins have been periodically herded onto a boat and shipped off to parts unknown for sinister purposes. When he asks around, people start disappearing.
The goblins are disappointing. They seem fascinating, but we hardly get any time to learn about them. While the previous books of the series have had a startlingly realistic depiction of marginalized immigrant groups gradually gaining an incomplete and contingent acceptance, Pratchett wants an easy out for the goblins, the species that even the previously marginalized groups spit on. It’s cheap and superfluous, and it misses a great opportunity to continue with the themes the series has always been about.
In fact, Snuff is full of missed opportunities. The possibility of using the achingly polite rural setting to embroil Vimes in a new kind of police drama was apparently not even considered. Newly introduced side characters were squandered. Old supporting characters played very minor roles in the action. I keep recounting the plot in my head and thinking that it couldn’t possibly sustain a nearly 400-page novel. Something is missing. Pratchett’s writing is as enjoyable as ever, but this is a novel with some serious flaws, and I suspect that they’re a symptom of a series that’s gone on too long. Perhaps the Watch has indeed gone as far as it can go, and it’s time to put Sam Vimes to rest.