If picking a single Edith Nesbit title was tough, choosing which Terry Pratchett book I’d want for this particular list was nigh on impossible. But there had to be at least one. As I’ve observed before, the Discworld series is my main ‘refuge reading’ these days, which is to say, the books I reach for when I need some respite from reality, a breathing space before I return to the everyday fray.
So why ‘Men at Arms’? For me, this is where Pratchett really hits his stride with the City Watch strand of books, especially with regard to the social and political commentary underpinning his exploration of Ankh Morpork. Dwarfish culture and society are expanded upon, as are the racial tensions between the dwarfs and the trolls. There’s the uses and abuses of technology discussed and so more besides. All this really deepens and enriches the Discworld hinterland.
In particular, we see the challenges and contradictions of democracy, set against the ‘enlightened’ autocracy of Lord Vetinari. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to let someone as intelligent and cunning as he is take care of running everyday life for us all? But that relies on having someone like Vetinari willing and able to take on the job. How do we feel about having our lives run according to a very different set of rules operating under the fig leaf of monarchy? What about the destructive nostalgia of Edward d’Eath putting grubby commoners in their place? Or the self-serving machinations of Dr Cruces ensuring the elite stay rich and powerful? Or come to that, the ruthless expediency which Sam Vimes would like to apply to maintaining law and order?
The Watchmen and women themselves are very much still a work-in-progress at this point in Pratchett’s writing, making this book all the more interesting to re-read. Vimes can still believably relapse into his old drunkard ways and the differences between him and Lady Sybil remain pronounced. Is their marriage really going to happen? If it does, can it possibly work out? Carrot’s naivety is still self-evident in his creatively spelled letters home but now we see new and intriguing facets to his straight-forward approach to life. Minor characters are fleshed out, developing the ensemble. Detritus has far more than a walk-on role, particularly in his partnership with Lance Constable Cuddy.
At this point in the series though, Detritus’ character development could take any one of several paths. The same is true of Angua, and of her relationship with Carrot. Most of all, there’s uncertainty, even danger, stalking these characters in a way that’s absent in later books. At this point, no one has plot immunity and that gives this particular story a definite edge.
There are also genuine ‘whodunnit’ puzzles to solve, with regard to the murders and what really happened to poor Brother Beano. Plus, of course, the book is deftly, wickedly funny, not least thanks to the reappearance of Gaspode the talking dog, who’s evidently made his way back to the city after his experiences in ‘Talking Pictures’. And as with all the Discworld books, the bright flashes of Pratchett’s lightning wit illuminate the threats lurking in the shadows all the more clearly.
I put this particular list of books together back in September and October 2016, when the world was a very different place. We’d had the self-destructive folly of the UK Brexit vote but the US election still lay ahead. Looking at this book in early 2017? With the self-deluding Hard Brexiteers persisting in their arrogant belief that they can dictate the best of all possible deals to the rest of the EU? When every passing day gives European states less reason to do the UK any favours, let alone respect Theresa May or Boris Johnson? With President Trump in the White House and heading an administration convinced they can peddle whatever lies they like while enforcing a racist, extremist agenda and dismantling or ignoring as many checks and balances as they can?
Reading Men At Arms in these circumstances, it’s tempting to think we really could use a Lord Vetinari or a Captain Carrot about now. We seem to have slipped into a world like the Discworld era ruled by Lord Snapcase, as seen in the later novel Nightwatch. But that sort of thinking is as much of a fantasy as anything Terry Pratchett wrote. The lesson we really should take from his writing right now is that it’s no good waiting for someone else to deal with such problems. Everyone has a responsibility to act.