Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Review: Night Watch

Night Watch (2003), Terry Pratchett. Paperback, 432 pages.

Awards: Prometheus Award.

Summary: An aging police officer gets transported thirty years back into his own past, and must decide what actions to take to save himself, his family, and his city from chaotic and sadistic forces. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentence:
Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it.
Excerpt:
     Vimes had been expecting this. It was a terrible thing for a mind to do, but his had already presented him with the idea of Igor and Sybil in the same sentence. Not that he disliked Igor. Quite the reverse. There were watchmen walking around the streets right now who wouldn't have legs if it wasn't for Igor's genius with a needle. But --
     "Fine. She's fine," he said abruptly.
     "Only I heard that Mrs. Content was a bit worr--"
     "Igor, there are some areas where . . . look, do you know anything about . . . women and babies?"
     "Not in so many wordth, sir, but I find that once I've got someone on the slab and had a good, you know, rummage around, I can thort out most thingth--"
     Vimes imagination actually shut down at this point.
     "Thank you, Igor," he managed without his voice trembling, "but Mrs. Content is a very experienced midwife."
STATS

Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 7/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 6/10

Page Turner: 8/10

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10
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Overall Recommendation:7/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 6/10. I waffled a little on this score. If you watch the Academy Awards, you may have noticed that comedies almost always get snubbed. Put simply, critics like to see drama, heartbreak, and poignancy. Funny literature gets snubbed too, especially when the funny isn't just funny, but silly, too. Pratchett has no problem with getting silly for a laugh. He loves puns, and silly names, and the book is full of them. Ultimately, I worry that I am snubbing Pratchett with this score . . . maybe I should have given it a 7. But I didn't because there was rarely a phrase that really stood out to me as exceptionally subtle or beautiful, not like I found in The Once and Future King, or even Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.  Certainly not like Moby-Dick or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Just lots of descriptions that made me smile while reading, and made me think, too. But making me think is a different category.

Depth of Concept: 7/10. If I may have scored the writing quality a little low, then maybe I scored this a little bit high (I also scored The Once and Future King a 7 in this category). But I decided on a 7 because Pratchett incorporates satire about citizenship, government, and revolution that is at least insightful and clever, even if it is not brilliant. There is no question that Pratchett is a thinker, and that he wants his readers to think as well. Here's a passage that gives a good sense of Pratchett's more sober musings about society, and while it's a little biased (you'll not be surprised to know that Pratchett won a libertarian award for this novel), it's still intelligent, which is a bit of a breath of fresh air for a fantasy best-seller:
     There were plotters, there was no doubt about it. Some had been ordinary people who'd had enough. Some were young people with no money who objected to the fact that the world was run by old people who were rich. Some were in it to get girls. And some had been idiots as mad as Swing, with a view of the world just as rigid and unreal, who were on the side of what they called "The People." Vimes had spent his life on the streets and had met decent men, and fools, and people who'd steal a penny from a blind beggar, and people who performed silent miracles or desperate crimes every day behind the grubby windows of little houses, but he'd never met The People.
     People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-thinking and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so, the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
     As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up.

Rounded Characters: 5/10. I don't exactly fault Pratchett for his characters . . . frankly, they don't need to be incredibly ambiguous and realistically intelligent in order for this novel to work as a funny book, and as a thinking book. The protagonist is the strongest character, and he thinks a lot of thoughts about society and revolution that seem a rather thin stand-in for Pratchett's own thoughts. Other characters are mostly described for the sake of funniness, or to move the plot along. The emotional trajectory of the main character sometimes seems a little contrived for similar reasons. For instance, we learn at the beginning of the novel that Vimes is just hours away from becoming a father, but none of his introspective musings touch on this fact, not even when it appears he may never make it home to see his wife or baby. Why? Because this novel isn't about fatherhood. It's about revolution, and leadership, and duty, and preserving order.

Well-Developed World: 6/10. If I were thinking about every Discworld novel (there's what, 39 of them?) as a whole, probably I'd need to score this a little higher. But I like to think a book should be able to stand on its own. As a stand-alone book, it does a respectable job of presenting a distinct world and inhabiting it with distinctive characters of different classes and political persuasions. There are some good reasons to recommend this book, but "world-building" probably isn't at the top of the list.

Page Turner: 8/10. Perhaps I could have scored this one point higher. It is probably the best-paced Pratchett book I have read, with a sympathetic protagonist and a real emergency situation that appears early and culminates near the end of the novel, in a mostly gripping series of tense, but still frequently humorous, scenes. The only reason I don't score it quite as high is that I didn't quite feel as connected to or as worried about the protagonist as I could have been. I pretty much assumed that in the end, everything would turn out all right, and that the process of completing the novel would be one of unraveling a mostly pleasant time-traveling puzzle. Still, at 8/10, this definitely qualifies as a page-turner.

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10. Pratchett intersperses his humorous and action-oriented scenes with thoughtful musings on the part of the protagonist, just enough to keep me thinking about the political and social ramifications of the revolutions occurring in the book. I'd hardly say that it prompted any epiphanies, but I'd say that any thinker could be engaged by this book and have a good discussion with a friend or book group about it.
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Overall Recommendation: 7/10. There are two reasons to suggest this novel, and the reasons apply to every Terry Pratchett book that I've read. First is that he's dang funny, and he creates some characters that are just a blast to read (although this book, probably more than the rest of his novels, delves into some of the darker recesses of how people can go bad). Second is that he also writes intelligently, and there's respectable satire and clever thinking scattered amongst all the silliness. The story zips along, and by the end of it, you've both had a lot of fun, and thought quite a lot more than you might have expected. This, as with most Terry Pratchett books, would make a great page-turner to read on the plane that you shouldn't feel at all guilty about. Not all Terry Pratchett is equal, and this is probably one of his best, but even the worse ones I'd still give a 6/10 recommendation for. What sometimes surprises me is how few Americans are really aware of Pratchett. He was the best-selling British author before J. K. Rowling came along.

*I should be clear that I have not read the great majority of Pratchett's novels, and also that this novel, while perfectly entertaining as a stand-alone, would not be the recommended first place to start in Pratchett's Discworld cosmology. Here's a link to a suggested order for reading Pratchett's books. Many Pratchett readers will also likely suggest that whatever depth to characters, world-building, and concepts you find in one novel would be enhanced by reading more of them.*

Books To Compare: There's a rich tradition of satirical works that would make good comparisons with Terry Pratchett novels, including The Canterbury Tales, Gulliver's Travels, Don Quixote, The Screwtape Letters, and Catch-22. Night Watch may not be the best in the pack, but I think it's good enough to be discussed in the same conversation with the rest of them. And it makes for a useful playing field on which anarchists and Occupiers and Arab Springers can discuss Marx and Paine and Jefferson and Tolstoy, and who's doing it wrong. I kind of want to ask my brother what he thinks of it; at the moment he's leading riots (protests?) in Chicago giving the finger to NATO. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Night Watch on Amazon.

12 comments:

  1. I haven't read a Terry Pratchett book yet! Though I have his Discwold series on my PC somewhere. I know a lot of people who swear by Pratchett's books, and I'm keen to see what the whole deal is. But at the same time, from your review, I can see that some of those aspects may well annoy me too.

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    1. I remember really liking Reaper Man, because its scope was a little narrower, and there was more time spent on the psychology of the protagonist, Death. I DO get the sense that Pratchett emphasizes different things in various novels, and for that reason different people have different favorites. Still, his voice is always lighthearted and humorous, even when touching on some heavier issues.

      Give Pratchett a shot, I'd say, but you may want to be careful about which one you start with.

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  2. Hello Neal,
    First time on your blog, and can I just say how much I loved your style of reviewing! It's very difficult to quantify the attributes of a book, but you do it very nively, making it easy for me, as a reader, to understand how much i would like the book.

    Following you now!

    Please do visit my book blog at http://riversihaveknown.com/
    and if you like it, please follow!

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Amritorupa! I'm interested to look at your blog too!

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  3. Yeah, Pratchett has different mini-series in the Discworld series. There are some books focusing on Death, some on the Guards, some on the Witches, some on the Wizards and so on. I always love it when Death makes an appearance and I think the Death books are my favorites.
    And Neal is right - if you're new to Discworld, you have to choose carefully. I know a lot of people who dislike the first two novels in the series ... although I personally enjoy reading abut Rincewind and Luggage... Now I really want to pick up a Discworld novel and start reading!

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    1. Yeah, I think Death is my favorite, too.

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  4. I've always got time for 'Eric' http://www.lspace.org/books/pqf/eric.html

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    1. I look forward to expanding my Pratchett knowledge base. Thanks for the link

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    2. (This is the third time I've tried to write this comment. I believe Google junked the other two.)

      'Eric' is, simply, the funniest of all the Discworld series. If you've got the literary background to recognise the sources (chiefly Goethe and Dante, plus shots of Homer and some other classics), you'll love it.

      Also for the literary reader, I'd recommend 'Witches Abroad' and 'Guards! Guards!'.

      Personally I didn't rate 'Night Watch'. The social commentary, such as you quote above, is getting laboured and in-your-face - in the earlier books it's woven properly into the characters and the narrative, now it feels like I'm taking take time out to be hectored. The time travel idea isn't thought through - it's the first a time-travel story I've seen that offers no attempt to answer the eternal question 'what happens if you change history?'.

      As a series fan, I also resent what happens to the character of Vetinari. Making him seem more human and approachable is bad enough, but making him seem almost lonely, needy - as his final scene does - is major character derailment, in my opinion.

      Thanks for the reviews.

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    3. @vet,
      Sorry about google being an ass.

      But thanks for the comment. I did enjoy Night Watch, but haven't made it to a lot of other fan favorites. I think I'll take your suggestion and try "Eric" the next chance I get.

      I didn't think Pratchett's "social commentary" was particularly brilliant, but I'd much rather read a couple pages of his opining than, say, his same-name brother Terry Goodkind. But I like your point that that stuff could be much better presented if it was incorporated more organically into the narrative.

      I mostly ignored the time-travel stuff, for the reasons you suggest, and I agree about Vetinari being less engaging to me than I'd like. But I'll have to read more in the series to decide when Pratchett has done this stuff better.

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    4. Full disclosure - I will say upfront that Nightwatch is one of my favourite Pratchett books, being only rivalled by Going Postal. I have not read the whole series so maybe I will check out Eric. I know that some of his musings are a bit in your face but I just thought it was such a good view of revolutions and law enforcement. Especially in an age of the Arab Spring and eveyone talking about the "will of the people".

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    5. @Anonymous, Pratchett's novel is definitely a way to get some good entertainment at the same time as some provocative, if not always exceptionally nuanced political musings. There's plenty of fun to be had in it, and plenty to debate about after the fun has been had. I recall liking the emotional journey of characters more in some other novels, but this was still solid, and probably had a better plot than some of the others.

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