Feet of Clay
March 20, 2023 10:14 AM - Subscribe

Ankh-Morpork in the Balance! Lord Vetinari Poisoned! Forensic Science comes to the City Watch! A Priest and a Baker Murdered! The Tireless Laborers known as Golems have Run Amok! Oh, and Commander Samuel Vimes has an appointment to have a Coat of Arms made, which brings with it some very interesting news for Corporal Nobby Nobbs... (Discworld #19, City Watch #3.) By Terry Pratchett.

Welcome (or welcome back) to the revived Terry Pratchett / Discworld Book Club! We're currently covering the City Watch subseries (Previously: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms. If you wish to catch up, Guards! Guards! is the recommended place to start, here.)


"We're in Ankh-Morpork, you know. We have extra pronouns here!" - Sgt. Angua von Ɯberwald

One pronoun being tossed around a lot in Ankh-Morpork is "it," used commonly to refer to Golems, figures crafted from clay, animated by magic, and given purpose by "chems," written words placed in their heads. They don't speak (though they will write with chalk on slate), they take orders (taking them to extremes if you're not careful) and they work 24 hours a day for no payment. To work is to live, to a Golem, though there are few who would consider them "alive," and they've started to act a little strangely...

Meanwhile, the Patrician, Vetinari, has been poisoned. Alive, but not well, by all appearances the poisoning seems to be a continuous process, even though Commander Sam Vimes has him and his surroundings under constant watch. At least he's still getting his nightly writing done, however...

Meanwhile! The Watch continues to expand, notably in this case with the addition of Constable Cheery Littlebottom, a Dwarf recently of the Alchemists' Guild. Cheery has a keen mind for the Disc's version of CSI-style investigation, and some distinct differences in opinion about Dwarven cultural practices...

Angua and Carrot's relationship continues on a day-by-day basis, Vimes is attending meetings, Detritus is on a campaign against Slab, a highly destructive drug plaguing the city's Troll community, Sergeant Fred Colon is ready to buy the farm, and Corporal Nobby Nobbs lears that he is the hereditary Earl of Ankh.

So there's a lot to get on with! Let's get into it!
posted by Navelgazer (10 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed this one, personally, despite it being the third in a row to hinge on a "bring back the Monarchy" plot. They keep it fresh with the Nobby stuff, though, and the fact that the reason for the plot largely has to do with a blue-blooded slight against Angua is enough to get the blood boiling anew.

For me, it feels like a small miracle that the Cheery stuff has aged as well as it has (for cis old me, anyway. I'm relatively certain there are some problems to be had with it, which I'd be interested to learn, but none jumped out at me on first pass, anyway.) Prejudice is nothing new to the City Watch books, of course, and this one is steeped in it much like Men at Arms was, but it's still alarming to hear it coming from Carrot's mouth. The fact that Cheery's plot is specifically about gender-expression is what makes it feel so timely, I believe. That and that she's not written as an iconoclast, but rather as someone who, given the chance by Angua to actually be who she is a little bit, finds that a little bit isn't enough there, which of course then inspires others.

Obviously identity is one of the main themes running through this. Nobbs with a title still can't help but be Nobbs, after all, just as Vimes with a title will still always be Samuel from Cockbill Street. I'm not sure how deeply to read into the Jewish aspects of the Golems. Obviously that's largely there because Golems as a concept come from Jewish folklore, and thematically their story (as well as the book's title) seems to echo the Book of Samuel, in which God admonishes the Israelites for wanting a King. Having their written script resemble Hebrew and their Holy Days begin at sundown can't be a coincidence, but I'm not sure how far the prejudice against them, for instance, works as an analogy for modern anti-semitism, or if it's even supposed to. Basically, I'm not sure of where one is supposed to stop reading into that, which isn't really a problem but left me worried that I wasn't getting everything.

Oh! And since I was listening to the audiobook, I completely missed what the heraldry-joke was supposed to be in Arthur Carry's coat of arms. I got that "Lampe Poisson" was "Poison lamp," but the latinized version of Carry's motto on the coat of arms flew right past me, and I couldn't figure out how to spell it in order to get to the bottom of it. You know, if anyone can help there.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:32 AM on March 20, 2023 [3 favorites]

I was pondering recently what Terry Pratchett would have made of the wild world of modern AI... and then I remembered that he'd written an entire novel about AI ethics back in 1996!
posted by simonw at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2023 [3 favorites]

One very notable passage I forgot to mention above, which I think shows the kind of writing Pratchett could do better than anyone, is the lightly humorous bit about how Thomas Smith had his name changed to "Strong-in-the-Arm" because it's a good common Dwarvish name and that's good for business in the Armorer business, which segues smoothly into a matter-of-fact description of a Golem bashing his own head in with a hammer on the factory floor.

Pratchett is, I think, primarily known as a "droll" writer, and understandably so, but he really knows his way around a disturbing scene as well (see also the "rough music" chapter in I Shall Wear Midnight, or the elves in Lords and Ladies) and here, he utilizes both skills to truly impactful effect.

Also, because I'd already gone through the TIffany Aching books recently before getting into the City Watch, I was surprised to see Wee Mad Arthur show up here, even more so because he's a Gnome here (though I guess I remember that being addressed in ISWM, but I didn't have the context for it then.)
posted by Navelgazer at 10:56 AM on March 20, 2023 [3 favorites]

TERF assholes have periodically tried claiming Pratchett as their own and people who've actually read his work, up to and including Rhianna herself, have slapped it down every time with Cheery as one of the prime examples of what Terry believed and did.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:04 PM on March 20, 2023 [6 favorites]

"but the latinized version of Carry's motto on the coat of arms flew right past me, and I couldn't figure out how to spell it in order to get to the bottom of it. You know, if anyone can help there." - Navelgazer

Ars Enixa Est Candelam - "Art Brought Forth The Candle" (according to a fan wiki)

I would think ars enixa would be a pun on 'arsenic'. (It's been a few years since I read the book.) Although 'arsenic's actual etymology goes back Old Iranian, '*zarna' (golden).
posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 2:40 PM on March 20, 2023 [3 favorites]

Ars Enixa Est Candelam

THANK YOU! I could figure out "est Candelam" from context but not "Ars Exina." Nigel Planer's recording is very good, but I listened to that three or four times over and couldn't make any sense of it, and my Latin definitely isn't good enough to bridge the gap, plus I didn't want to go digging back through to find where the English (er... Ankhian) wording was provided.

Thank you again!
posted by Navelgazer at 3:05 PM on March 20, 2023

It isn't this book where Pratchett screws up dwarf gender -- it's both earlier and later ones. Earlier because he clearly hadn't worked out dwarf gender fully yet, so we get Minty Rocksmacker. Later, because he decides not to cling to his convictions, such that there are "little [gender] tells" that Vimes (and apparently only Vimes) can recognize (oh Pterry no), and only female dwarves rush to interact with baby Sam (OH PTERRY NO, as a woman who doesn't care about or for baby humans, COULD YOU KINDLY NOT).

Agreed on the frequent mood whiplash in this one. Colon escaping the kinged golem with Wee Mad Arthur's dubious assistance is purest slapstick. The golems themselves are heartbreaking. And he plays fair with the mystery, as he does in pretty much all the Discworld books where there is one. It's quite possible to pick out the culprit in advance.

This book also makes me think about how long it'll be before we need footnoted Discworld editions (the L-Space wiki will help, of course). The six-million-dollar-man joke around resurrecting Dorfl feels pretty niche to me already.
posted by humbug at 3:37 PM on March 20, 2023 [3 favorites]

I was pondering recently what Terry Pratchett would have made of the wild world of modern AI... and then I remembered that he'd written an entire novel about AI ethics back in 1996!

Foul Ole Ron's catchphrase mutterings, particularly, "millennium hand and shrimp", were reportedly the result of a Markov chain experiment.

I alluded to this in a comment on an earlier book, but Cheery is, at heart, a sendup of Tolkein and his very male world, which becomes something of a good-natured gay rights parody that accidentally became a trans rights parody. As I understand it, Pratchett wasn't aware of transgender people at the time, but was thrilled that it resonated on a broader level than he originally had intended. He'd certainly been comfortable with challenging gender norms when it suited him - Equal Rites is, as the title implies, setting up and then immediately challenging the idea of male wizards and female witches, and an earlier short story of his imagines a female King Arthur, Queen Ursula.

I do think it's less about Pratchett being enlightened and more that he has broad principles which meant he had less to unlearn. Pratchett's also sort of committed to Vimes being "one of the good ones" which does get a little tiresome at points.
posted by Merus at 7:39 PM on March 20, 2023 [7 favorites]

For anyone who wasn't already aware of it, all the "Latatian" (Pratchett's version of Latin) quotes and translations are listed here. Some of them are a hoot.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:49 PM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]

A smoking Dorfl, having been struck by lightning while arguing theology and simultaneously doing a Robocop impersonation is one of my favorite moments in Pratchett. What a great character that rockets this book high up in my list.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:23 PM on March 29, 2023 [4 favorites]

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