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Book review: “Night Watch” by Terry Pratchett

Havelock Vetinari, not yet Patrician — in fact, still a student in the Assassin’s Guild — is a lot better at the work of “inhuming” targets than his teachers realize.  This is back thirty-plus years ago.

His rich and conniving aunt, Lady Roberta Meserole, known as Madam, tells Havelock that she’s heard he scored a zero in his examination for stealthy movement.  Indeed, the examiner complained that Vetinari never showed up at his stealthy movement classes.

“Oh, I did. Religiously.”

“He says he never saw you at any of them.”

Havelock smiled.  “And your point, Madam, is…”

“Just a sergeant”

The main topic in their conversation is a certain Sgt. John Keel, new to the bumbling, inept Night Watch of Anhk-Morpork and making a strong impression.  Havelock says:

“I can’t believe what I saw.  I thought he was a thug.  And he is a thug.  You can see his muscles thinking for him.  But he overrules them moment by moment!  I think I saw a genius at work, but…”

“What?”

“He’s just a sergeant, Madam.”

Keel isn’t the sergeant’s real name.  His real name is Sam Vimes or, more correctly, His Grace, The Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, mainstay of the Anhk-Morpork Watch and a more than occasional irritant in the side of the Patrician of his era, Havelock Vetinari.

A very callow Lance Corporal named Sam Vimes

The thing is, Terry Pratchett’s 2002 Discworld novel Night Watch opens with Vimes, the Duke, being shooed out of the family mansion because his wife Sybil is about to give birth and he’s just underfoot.

And, while he is away, he ends up chasing a really, really, really bad sociopath named Carcer and finally nabbing him — only to be struck by a confluence of occurrences, including a lightning strike and the general goofiness of magic around the Unseen University, that sends the two of them, cop and criminal, back three decades into the past.

So, Carcer finds himself in an Anhk-Morpork where no one knows him or his reputation, and Vimes finds himself still trying to capture the man he describes as “a stone-cold killer. With brains.”

He also finds himself arrested by several members of the Night Watch, including one very callow and impressionable Lance Corporal named Sam Vimes.

Sergeant-at-arms

Well, for various complex and, this being a Terry Pratchett novel, humorous reasons, Vimes ends up masquerading as a new member of the watch by the name of John Keel.  His air of authority convinces his colleagues, and it so impresses the doddering watchhouse Captain Tilden that he bestows on Kell (Vimes) the rank of Sergeant-at-arms.

There was a real Sergeant Keel back thirty-plus years ago when Vimes was the neophyte Sam, but, after the arrival of Carcer and Vimes into this moment in history, the real one suffered the fate of running into the Carcer and his knife.  Now, Keel’s absence from the scene threatens to throw a total monkey wrench into history.

The thing is, in the past as it was, Keel was one of seven Night Watch members who played a significant and very heroic role in a rebellion that will happen within a day or two in the future.

So Vimes has to take Keel’s place and play his role.

And try to make sure history happens the way it’s supposed to.

And capture Carcer.

And find a way back to his “real” life.

And protect young Sam so Vimes will have a “real life.”

“Ceased to complicate”

The young Havelock Vetinari is a highly skilled assassin, but he still has much to learn as his aunt explains to him, warning against underestimating Keel because of his rank.

“It is a very useful rank for the right man.  The optimum balance of power and responsibility.  Incidentally, they say he can read the street through the soles of his boots and keeps them very thin for that purpose.”

As Havelock listens respectfully, she goes on to detail many of Keel’s virtues.  Then, her nephew mentions:

“I inhumed a man who attempted to nip him in the bud.”

Protecting Keel, however, will only go so far, the young man suggests, adding:

“Soon you may want me to deal with Keel…He’s a side all by himself.  He is a complication.  You may think it best if he…ceased to complicate.”

And a happy beginning

This conversation between Madam and Havelock goes to the heart of the delight that Night Watch holds for the dedicated reader of Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

I wasn’t that sort of dedicated reader when I first read the book, back when it was published.  I had just started gobbling up Discworld books and was reading them without any sense of order.  And they are fine to read that way, each a self-contained story filled with humor and social commentary.

I enjoyed Night Watch a great deal.

But not as much as I did this time — because this reading came after I’d read the 28 earlier Discworld novels in order, a progression I started after Pratchett’s death in 2015.  This time, I knew all the history that Vimes and Vetinari had, all the ways they’d banged heads and all the ways they’d worked with each other in the earlier books.

Night Watch, for me as a dedicated Discworld reader, provided an origin story for Vetinari and for Lance Corporal Sam Vimes — and for a wonderfully odd dance of the two of them.  Well, actually the three of them: Havelock, Vimes and Sam.

And it provided a happy ending.  Well, not for Carcer.

And a happy beginning, too.

Sybil does give birth, and they name the boy Sam.

Patrick T. Reardon

1.26.22

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