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Book review: “Thud!” by Terry Pratchett

Modern folklore says that the Inuits (Eskimos) have more than fifty words for snow and ice, but, apparently, the fact is there are only about half that many.

In his 2005 Discworld novel Thud!, Terry Pratchett has a great number of meanings to the one word of the title. They are:

  • The sound a heavy club makes when it connects with a human head.
  • A constant regular pounding underground.
  • The sound, repeated, that a troll’s club often makes when its owner finds himself surrounded by a great many dwarfs.
  • A game, sort of like chess, that pits tiny stone trolls on one side against even tinier stone dwarfs on the other.
  • A board on which that game is played.
  • A set of those tiny trolls and dwarfs.
  • The sound of the gahanka, the troll war beat.
  • The sound a troll club makes when its owner drops it after being arrested by the Ankh-Morpork Watch.
  • The sound that comes up from the basement of Watch Commander Sam Vimes home right after the sound of glass being broken.
  • The sound made by the helmet of Sybil, the dragon-caretaker wife of Vimes, when it drops to the sand after a blast from a dwarf flamethrower that tried —unsuccessfully — to fry her in her dragon-resistant clothing.
  • An obscure hangout that a mysterious troll called Mr. Shine operates.
  • The sound made when an exploding cabbage lands back on earth.
  • The sound of the side of a hand hitting a human neck.
  • The conclusion of a special kind of meeting between ancient trolls and dwarfs, awaiting mutual disaster.

That will give you an idea of many of the plot elements in Pratchett’s fantasy novel.

“Once arrested me for treason”

Here’s another insight into the book:

It has to do with Vimes investigating the murder of a Very Important Dwarf amidst international tensions that could lead to yet another war between the Discworld dwarfs and trolls and could even make the chair of Anhk-Morpork’s ruler, Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician, wobble maybe more than a little.

Vimes — who, against his wishes, is a duke and at times a rather awkward diplomat — is famous across the Disc for his honesty and doggedness, as the Patrician reminds him:

“We need to know the truth, Vimes.  Commander Sam Vimes’s truth.  That may count for more than you think.  In the Plains, certainly, and much further.  People know about you, Commander.  Descendent of a watchman who believed that if a corrupted court will not behead an evil king, then the watchman should do it himself—

“It was only one king,” Vimes protested.  “It wasn’t a habit.”

“Sam Vimes once arrested me for treason,” said Vetinari calmly. “And Sam Vimes once arrested a dragon.  Sam Vimes stopped a war between nations by arresting two high commands. He’s an arresting fellow, Sam Vimes.  Sam Vimes killed a werewolf with his bare hands, and carries law with him, like a lamp…”

Those few sentences, in all of the 41 Discworld novels, are the best description of Vimes, one of the shining lights of Pratchett’s series of social commentaries masquerading as fantasies. They are a testament to the man, a reformed drunk, whom Pratchett created and let blossom into the ultimate copper that he was meant to be.

They also set the stage for an investigation and a chase that take Vimes far afield and end with him attacking like a berserker — while shouting at the top of his lungs a nursery rhyme — to arrest those responsible for the death of the Very Important Dwarf.

“Both wearing nothing”

And yet another glimpse into the story of Thud!:

It involves two scenes featuring a couple of naked women, and neither of them is Twaneee, the pole-dancing stripper who’s the girlfriend of Corporal Nobby Nobbs of the Watch.

Actually, both of those naked woman are also members of the Watch — Sgt. Delphine Angua von Überwald, a werewolf who has to negotiate some dicey times whenever the month closes its circle on a new moon, and Lance-Constable Salacia “Sally” von Humpeding, a vampire who is the newest recruit to the Watch.

The nakedness has to do with their special abilities.  In the course of an investigation, Angua is able to switch into her wolf body, the better to track smells and get into tight places.  But there’s no easy way to bring her clothes with her, and, when she needs to become a human again — voila! — she’s a naked woman.

The same is true for Sally.  She can turn herself into 150 bats, but, when it’s time to bring the bats together, she also ends up clothing-less.

Anyway, working separately, they discover at the same time some murdered dwarfs, and, in order to talk to each other, they become humans again — and again get on each other’s nerves because Sally has clearly found Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson to be exceedingly attractive, even though said Captain is Angua’s boyfriend.

Standing in a dark deep basement, the two seem on the verge of a fight when Sally says:

“We’re both wearing nothing, we’re standing in what, you may have noticed, is increasingly turning to mud, and we’re squaring up to fight.  Okay.  But there’s something missing, yes?”

“And that is…”

“A paying audience? We could make a fortune,” Sally winked.  “Or we could do the job we came here to do.”

The other scene is, later, when they are taking a shower at the Watch house and still getting on each other’s nerves.

“What kind of creature?”

Pratchett has a lot of fun in Thud!  But he’s also really angry.

This novel was published on September 13, 2005, four years nearly to the day after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan.   It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to suggest that he was angry about the way religion had been transformed into a vehicle for violence.

Thud! features some fundamentalist dwarf spiritual leaders who cause a great deal of trouble.  And I suspect that Pratchett’s anger against those characters is also against the fundamentalists of Islam and Christianity that have preached war and terror in the name of religion.

At the end of the book, a more sensible dwarf spiritual leader stands face to face with an axe-wielding fundamentalist.  “Why do you carry no axe?” the fundamentalist asks.

“I need no axe to be a dwarf.  Nor do I need to hate trolls.  What kind of creature defines itself by hatred?”

That’s the line that sums up Pratchett’s book, and, in many ways, it’s woven through all of the Discworld novels.

“What kind of creature defines itself by hatred?”

Yes, what kind, indeed?

Patrick T. Reardon


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