Terry Pratchett, Snuff (Harper, 2011)
Apart from the Tiffany Aching books (which are for children, and also for adults, and brilliant), I have been out of touch with Discworld, though each Christmas I’ve given the current novel to my younger son, who has been a fan for half his life. Last year he reversed the flow and gave me Snuff. I decided to read it just now for light relief from a string of books about grim subjects – only to find that it’s pretty much about a genocidal slave trade. I don’t know if Terry Pratchett had the European-American slave trade in mind, or Queensland blackbirding, or the Nazi Holocaust, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had read Sea of Poppies – both books feature a drug trade conducted by establishment people and a vessel (the Ibis/the Wonderful Fanny) carrying a viciously oppressed human cargo (not exactly human in Snuff, but certainly sentient) that makes its way down a personified river (Mother Ganga/Old Treachery) and encounters many kinds of turbulence.
There are three overlapping strands in the Discworld series: the witches, the wizards and the City Watch. This is a City Watch story, starring Commander Sam Vines, who when I last saw him was a mere Captain, but has now been elevated like his creator to the peerage. Sam is dragged from his putrid native habitat, the streets of Ankh Morpork, for a holiday on his wife’s ancestral country estate. It takes a while, but of course the country turns out to contain just as much nastiness, danger and corruption as the city, and just as much stumbling heroism, awkward romance and unexpected beauty. A Discworld Jane Austen makes a cameo appearance, and a scatological children’s writer plays a significant role.
Sam is a wonderful character, an uncompromising servant of the law and believer in the rule of law who is all too aware of his own dark side, his own demons (and this being fantasy, both the darkness and the demons are literal). He discriminates among kinds of evildoing. For example, when the main atrocity has been exposed one of the villagers who had failed to intervene approaches Sam, who is having a snack at the village pub:
‘Well sir, yes, of course we knew about the goblins and no one liked it much. I mean they’re a bloody nuisance if you forget to lock your chicken coop and suchlike, but we didn’t like what was done, because it wasn’t … I mean, wasn’t right, not done like that, and some of us said we would suffer for it, come the finish, because if they could do that to goblins then what might they think they could do to real people, and some said real or not, it wasn’t right! We’re just ordinary people, sir, tenants and similar, not big, not strong, not important, so who would listen to the likes of us? I mean, what could we have done?’
Heads leaned a little forward, breaths were held, and Vimes chewed the very last vinegary piece of crisp. Then he said, directing his gaze to the ceiling, ‘You’ve all got weapons. Every man jack of you. Huge, dangerous, deadly weapons. You could have done something. You could have done anything. You could have done everything. But you didn’t, and I’m not sure but that in your shoes I might not have done anything, either. Yes?’
Hasty had held up a hand. ‘I’m sure we’re sorry. sir, but we don’t have weapons.’
‘Oh, dear me. Look around. One of the things that you could have done was think. It’s been a long day, gentlemen, it’s been a long week … [Addressing the barman] Jiminy, these gentlemen are drinking at my expense for the rest of the evening.’
This is the third book Sir Terry has written since he revealed to the world that he has Alzheimer’s. He can no longer type, but – with the help of voice recognition software – he can certainly still write. For those who have kept up this book may be showing signs of flagging mental ability, but it’s full of wit and passion and sheer inventiveness, and also wisdom. If you haven’t read any of his books I wouldn’t start here. Try Guards! Guards! or Witches Abroad or Mort or The Wee Free Men.