Guards! Guards!
March 17, 2023 12:56 PM - Subscribe

The Ankh-Morpork City Watch is a relic of times before Lord Vetinari's guild-system self-regulated trade, thievery, and assassinations. It consists of a drunk, a petty thief, and a workaday sergeant avoiding his wife. But something big is coming. Two big things, actually, and both will change the Watch forever after. (Discworld #8, City Watch #1.) By Terry Pratchett.

Many years ago, in Roundworld, there was a Terry Pratchett Book Club hosted in this very spot. It fizzled out before it could do more than scratch the surface of the bounty that Discworld has to offer. While I'm not sure if I will fare much better in this attempt, I'm going to start with the City Watch books, which of course means starting with Guards! Guards!

If you are unfamiliar with the series: Lucky you! You get to discover it for the first time now! Also, while this book is technically #8 in the Discworld series, Discworld is a funny thing, and there's no specifically right order in which to read them (though there are certainly less-than-recommended orders.) The City Watch is a great entry-point, however - very likely the most accessible one, in fact - and most of the earlier books in the series have already been covered on Fanfare (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) which just leaves out Pyramids which is definitely its own kind of one-off and probably not a great starting point here.

So hopefully all that said, we'll be able to start moving through these books again, and I'll go on ahead to the plot summary:


Ankh-Morpork, greatest city on the Disc, is a city that works in spite of itself. It is led by Havelock Vetinari, a ruthlessly shrewd Patrician (the city has been kingless for generations of not centuries) who has created a clever system by which Guilds regulate the running and flowing of almost all civic activity and regulate themselves under threat of the other guilds or, failing that, Vetinari himself. This includes guilds of Thieves,"Seamstresses," and Assassins among your more conventional tradespeople. The Night Watch, such as it is, has dwindled down to three people: cynical alcoholic Captain Sam Vimes, cowardly and complacent Sergeant Fred Colon, and unlicensed-thief and card-carrying human Corporal Nobby Nobbs. Meanwhile, their duties have dwindled down to walking the streets and ringing their bells, calling out that "all is well." (If all is not well, they are to find a different street to ring their bells on.) And, as far as Ankh-Morpork is concerned, this all works out more or less according to plan.

Of course, there are those who don't cotton to the Patrician, and who long for the days of the hereditary monarchy. And they have a plan. And that plan involves summoning unto the city a Dragon.

But, as Raymond Chandler said, in everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. And so, "down these mean streets a man must go who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it." Six-foot-six adopted dwarf Carrot Ironfoundersson is leaving the mines to seek his destiny in the Watch, and he's done a lot of reading on his trip to the city...
posted by Navelgazer (22 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
For my own opinion, this is not only one of the most "essential" of the Discworld novels, but also one of the most cinematic in feel. The is in part due to the pulpy influences of the book, of course (film noir and detective novels stirred up with parts of The Hobbit) but also because, unlike a lot of the more magic-focused books, the action can be clearly visualized in the mind's eye (many of Discworld's finales are rather conceptual. Not a complaint, but if anyone were to ever make a good filmed adaptation of this series, they'd do well to start here.)

On revisiting, it's tempting to miss the members who would join the Watch in subsequent books, but it's good that that particular joy is spread out (one of the major missteps of BBC's "The Watch" series was including too many members from the start, in my opinion.) In addition to the titular Guards, Lord Vetinari, and the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night, we are introduced to Lady Sybill Ramkin, a lovely character in her own right and a way for Pratchett to sneak in a likable aristocrat while still satirizing the concept of aristocracy.

The social commentary which rings the truest to me is all around the Elucidated Brethren, certain that bringing in a King will solve their own petty problems because obviously a King would be a magically perfect ruler attuned specifically to their own wants and needs, but Ankh-Morpork's cheery conversion to Monarchism, and how quickly and readily they accept basically any state of affairs, is deliciously pointed as well.

One of my favorites, but honestly most of these books feel like my favorites when I've just finished reading them.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:09 PM on March 17, 2023 [9 favorites]

this may not be the best of the Discworld novels but if there is a better one, name it

I haven't devoured the entirety of Pratchett's output, but if I had to choose a single Discworld book it'd be "Guards! Guards!" A lot of City Watch stuff afterwards was fun but it really just fed an appetite borne in this book.
posted by elkevelvet at 2:38 PM on March 17, 2023 [4 favorites]

elkevelvet: I haven't read all of Discworld yet myself either, though I'm working my way through it and that means going over some things that I read back in the day. My wife, meanwhile, is much more knowledgable about the series as a whole than I am. She'd probably recommend Wyrd Sisters to someone first getting into the series, or perhaps Mort or Reaper Man (which she feels, and I agree, is stronger than Mort), but for me, less-knowledgable as I am, it's easy for me to say "Start with Guards! Guards!" It's just so lovely, and gritty, and humane, and funny, and biting, and cynical and idealistic and everything I love about Pratchett generally, plus it really makes a character out of the City of Ankh-Morpork itself. I just love it.

But then, I just finished Men at Arms (which I'll probably post about tomorrow) and that one may exceed this one for me in terms of what it accomplishes.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:56 PM on March 17, 2023 [4 favorites]

> "this may not be the best of the Discworld novels but if there is a better one, name it"

Guards! Guards! is the beginning of the absolute best subseries among the Discworld books, but I personally thought the run achieved its apotheosis in Night Watch.

But that's just, like, my opinion, man.
posted by kyrademon at 3:02 PM on March 17, 2023 [14 favorites]

The other thing about this book is that the title makes me laugh, all by itself. It's just the sort of thing the evil king in a melodramatic film yells when the hero has confronted him.
posted by Lookinguppy at 3:02 PM on March 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

If you asked me where to start with Discworld I'd say here, Reaper Man, or Small Gods. Just a great novel on its own and a wonderful gateway to the series.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:07 PM on March 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

This was the very first Pratchett book I ever read. I picked it up at a PX across from my barracks during my brief ignominious career in the Army (before I got injured, disabled, and medically discharged). I was hooked immediately, and not just because that book was a high point in an otherwise grim and grueling year.

(Zero stars for the guy the next bunk over who saw the cover and asked "What's your reading level, man?". I wasn't yet 21 and hadn't yet developed the reflexive bite that would have made me say "Higher than yours, you prick".)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:22 PM on March 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

While I too adore this book, it definitely has some Early Installment Weirdness (as TVTropes would put it), particularly around dwarf gender. I can't make Carrot's dwarf quasi-girlfriend (Misty, I think is her name?) work at all with what gets said about dwarf gender in later books.

Hurray, hurray for the spinster's sister's daughter. Wonse and the Elucidated Brethren he manipulates and (ab)uses... well, the resemblance of certain societal elements today to them is, shall I say, pronounced. Pratchett is just too kindhearted to make them as awful as today's.

I appreciate Sybil (and have a Sybil-in-ballgown cosplay, shoulder dragon and all) because Pratchett is not at home to standard-issue fatphobia. Sybil is an actual damn person, with a lot more to her than her physical size. Pratchett is always aware of the crap Sybil gets for her size -- some characters dish it out, even -- but he's always clear that Sybil is awesome and her detractors are garbage (and Nobby, but Nobby at least walks it back).
posted by humbug at 3:30 PM on March 17, 2023 [9 favorites]

Argh, it's Minty. Minty Rocksmacker, that's her name.

Vetinari is also not quite Vetinari yet in this one. It's not glaring or grating -- he just doesn't quite have the infinite self-control that later Vetinari does.
posted by humbug at 4:22 PM on March 17, 2023

I've long wondered at what point Pratchett knew the effect this book would have on the entire rest of the series. Without it, you don't have the whole Watch subseries, the Moist von Lipwig subseries, or really the whole evolution of Discworld.
posted by Etrigan at 4:52 PM on March 17, 2023 [9 favorites]

This series is the only copaganda I will defend against charges of being copaganda. I mean, it definitely is, but it envisions a better, more moral professional justice force and I just feel like... okay, abolish police unless we can have the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. ACAB does NOT include Sam Vimes.

I wish Stephen Briggs had narrated the audiobook of this—his Vimes is perfect although not as perfect as his Colon (yes I heard myself). He does do Night Watch though, as well as Thud, Snuff, and Fifth Elephant (lesser as novels, imo, but very fun to listen to).
posted by babelfish at 7:47 PM on March 17, 2023 [5 favorites]

The Day Watch is the opposite of copaganda. Thankfully.

As for Vimes, he... walks the edge. So does Pratchett. For every do-it-by-the-book Sam Vimes puts out there, there's a "because it's me doing it" somewhere else. The lawbook isn't enough (as Carrot handily demonstrates in this book), but relying on individual probity isn't enough either because Vimes actually has very little, at least to start with -- he's a racist, violent drunk.

I don't actually think Pratchett completely succeeds at walking this line throughout the series -- he's a little too fond of Vimes and lets him get away with too much. But it sure is an interesting line to watch him walk.
posted by humbug at 8:20 PM on March 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I started Discworld with a box set of Colour of Magic/Light Fantastic/Equal Rites that I found in a barn near La Rochelle, France in the early 90's. By the time Men at Arms was published I was caught up and waiting. I think Fifth Elephant was the last one I devoured in the week of release and then... life got busy.

Since then I've pretty much only gone back to read and reread City Watch stories. I even read Guards! Guards! aloud to a friend painting portraits in her garden one summer (with character voices!). What I'm trying to get across is that I'm very fond of the City Watch series and Guards! Guards! was the start of that.

Which is why... (takes one step back) you'll forgive me... (ties up laces) when I say... (takes up starting position) IquitelikedTheWatchTVshow
posted by Molesome at 4:53 AM on March 18, 2023 [4 favorites]

Loved this book when I read it as a teenager. Reread it a couple of years ago and was amazed at how much depth it had that I had missed the first time round. Pratchett really was a genius and capturing and illustrating the human condition.
Let the other societies take the skilled, the hopefuls, the ambitious, the self-confident. He’d take the whining resentful ones, the ones with a bellyful of spite and bile, the ones who knew they could make it big if only they’d been given the chance. Give him the ones in which the floods of venom and vindictiveness were dammed up behind thin walls of ineptitude and lowgrade paranoia. And stupidity, too. They’ve all sworn the oath, he thought, but not a man jack of ’em has even asked what a figgin is.
The way Wonse controlled and manipulated people felt like cutting edge satire on current events when I read it in 2021. The book was published in 1989!
posted by simonw at 5:03 AM on March 18, 2023 [7 favorites]

the action can be clearly visualized in the mind's eye

Indeed. Stephen Briggs adapted Guards! Guards! for the stage.
posted by mikelieman at 8:51 AM on March 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

Stephen Briggs is one of my all-time favorite narrators: he's SO GOOD in these.
posted by suelac at 12:47 PM on March 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

I listened to a bunch of Discworld novels (on tape! from the library!) while commuting and every time I'd start a new one and it wasn't Briggs it'd be a letdown. He's the best.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:45 PM on March 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

I've long wondered at what point Pratchett knew the effect this book would have on the entire rest of the series. Without it, you don't have the whole Watch subseries, the Moist von Lipwig subseries, or really the whole evolution of Discworld.

I think at this point he'd worked out that Ankh-Morpork was a rich vein to mine, and that he was good at approaching satire from the point of view of fantasy parody, where his instinct to think through the cliches lands him in places that feel more funny and true than the parody he was doing in the early books. You can see it in this book: Sybil Ramkin is a stock character, the aristocratic toff who refuses to acknowledge their incredible privilege as they devote their life to some weird outdoor pursuit, like gardening or animal breeding. But she feels like a real person because Pratchett instinctively gets behind the mask and asks what makes them tick. I think Wonse is also a good example of this, as the main villain. (The way Cheery develops in later books is another great example, a Tolkein slam that ends up being very prescient in a way that thrilled Pratchett.) I think the evolution of Ankh-Morpork would have happened regardless; he commits to having Ankh-Morpork retain the scars of previous stories, and returns to Ankh-Morpork again very soon, in Moving Pictures.

As for the importance of Vimes, I think it's more that Vimes is the first time he's confident enough to make his main character a heroic figure who doesn't have some kind of conceptual joke that happens to also make them harder to steer into the plot. Rincewind is supernaturally gifted at steering away from the plot and constantly has to be threatened into it (a thing which hurts all of the early Rincewind stories, and it's only when Pratchett gets much better that he's able to work around Rincewind's limitations as a character); Esk is a child, and Granny Weatherwax doesn't want to leave her village (a barrier that Pratchett gets around by bringing the adventure to Lancre); Mort was Death's apprentice and started the plot by breaking the rules; Pteppic is a pharoah and can't be going on adventures.

Vimes' conceptual joke is that he's a noir figure in a high fantasy city, which becomes less prevalent as the series goes on. Still works as both a plot engine and a joke engine!
posted by Merus at 7:35 PM on March 18, 2023 [8 favorites]

I went through the discworld books from the start last year, something I hadnt done in a long time. I think this is the first truly great book. The characters arrive on the page fully formed, and the plot really works. No notes, great book!
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:30 AM on March 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

I firmly believe that this is the best entry point for Discworld. I've lost track of how many copies I've bought and given away, evangelically.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:12 PM on March 21, 2023 [3 favorites]

I didn't stumble onto the Discworld series until somewhere around when (or just before?) the first Tiffany Aching book was released. I devoured the entire series, and have read them all again at least a couple times since then. It's not as full of "pithy quotes that are easy to insert into conversations" as Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series is, but both authors hold an equally beloved place in my heart. Looking forward to the rest of the posts in this series.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:30 PM on March 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

When I originally made this post, I used the Chandler quote because I just thought it was hilariously fitting for Carrot, while also Carrot doesn't fit our usual conception of a noir hero at all.

Listening through again right now, I got to the section where Carrot is stuck in the office, and the Librarian comes to get him, and he leaves the note behind. Pratchett writes "And then, he went out into the streets, untarnished, and unafraid."

All I can say is that I'm absolutely tickled that Pratchett both knew the quote (though it's not an obscure one, to be sure) and made the same cheeky comparison himself.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:49 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]

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