Guards! Guards! is the first Discworld book I read. It was recommended to me by a couple of friends and I easily found in the Trinity College Dublin library where I was studying in late 2007. And this is just one of the reasons why this book has a special place in my heart.
Some of the other numerous reasons include the fact that it’s an amazing book, it introduces memorable characters like Sam Vimes, Nobby Nobbs and Carrot Ironfoundersson, and part of its plot was used in wonderful (and difficult!) videogame simply called Discworld that I remember playing on the Amiga in the mid-nineties. But beyond my memories, let’s actually start writing about Guards! Guards!, the eighth book of the Discworld and first of the successful series of the City Watch, the guards of Ankh-Morpork.1
The Watch doesn’t exactly have a great reputation: it only has few men (Captain Vimes, Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, who walks around with a certificate attesting that he’s human), they’re commanded by an alcoholic, and they go out of their way not to get into trouble. Basically, they avoid any situation that might force them to do their job. And since Pratchett has always used the Discworld to talk about the real world, I wonder about the state of law enforcement in London and the UK in 1989!
Back to the book, things in the Watch change when the tallest dwarf in the world, Carrot Ironfoundersson, enlists and proves that there are laws to enforce and criminals to arrest! Especially since a mysterious sect is trying to take control of the city, stealing it from Lord Vetinari, using nothing less than a real dragon…
Not only Guards! Guards! is a wonderful adventure in its own right, but it’s also a brilliant start to one of Discworld’s most prolific series, that of the guards. It’s wonderful because it introduces characters and situations clearly capable of evolving and therefore of remaining interesting even after more than one or two books. And perhaps it’s also the first book to establish certain Discworld standards which are a bit different from the initial ones full of magic and based on fantasy clichés (which are still present, with true heirs to the throne, heroes destined to slay dragons, and situations that succeed because there’s only a million to one chance that they will – the scene of the arrow being shot by Colon is hilarious!). Ankh-Morpork in Guards! Guards! is clearly closer to the steampunk version of Victorian London than the city that appeared in all the previous books.
The absolute protagonist of the book is Sam Vimes, and he’s also the one who evolves the most between the beginning and the end of the story. We find him destroyed by his personal and work situation, but by solving the intrigue he comes out as a real hero (or rather, anti-hero). He even finds love in Sybil Ramkin, an unlikely aristocratic woman who takes care of dragons as if they were kittens.
But the Watch evolves too, especially thanks to the arrival of Carrot, and it will continue to evolve in all subsequent books, giving life to new stories and interesting situations, think of the diatribes between dwarves and trolls… At the same time, a secondary character like Vetinari is used a lot here and we can see how Pratchett had refined his profile after the first appearances in which he was basically a sort of anonymous politician.2 Think of his way of governing the city by balancing its various forces and making sure that the guilds of assassins and thieves can coexist with the city guards, for example: crimes can be committed, as long as you respect the limits dictated by law!
In fact, the book deals a lot with power in a society, and it’s interesting that the conspirator who wants to take Vetinari’s place wants to do so from behind the scenes and using a puppet ruler, a sign that true power doesn’t show itself (and then it’s so ironic that the conspirator will become himself a puppet of the dragon… but I don’t want to reveal too much!).
In all this, Pratchett doesn’t give up his humor, sometimes simple and direct3, sometimes dark4, and sometimes with great literary references.5
How to conclude? Guards! Guards! contains an intriguing story that plays with the usual fantasy clichés but is much more than that. It takes place in a world that looks more interesting than ever, with characters who are real Discworld pillars, and Pratchett’s sense of humor is at its best… You shouldn’t miss this one! Ciao!
PS: Of course I have the Guards! Guards! graphic novel! Unfortunately, however, I don’t recommend it because it feels like a humorless version of Pratchett’s original book. The drawings are beautiful6, but I my suggestion is to stick to the book in its original format.
1. “They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to. This book is dedicated to those fine men.”
2. The following sentences describe well his personality: “Never build a dungeon you wouldn’t be happy to spend the night in yourself. The world would be a happier place if more people remembered that.”
3. “Sergeant Colon owed thirty years of happy marriage to the fact that Mrs. Colon worked all day and Sargent Colon worked all night. They communicated by means of notes. They had three grown-up children, all born, Vimes had assumed, as a result of extremely persuasive handwriting.”
4. “If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.”
5. “Once you’ve ruled out the impossible then whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. The problem lay in working out what was impossible, of course. That was the trick, all right. There was also the curious incident of the orangutan in the night-time.”
6. Here’s an example with the Librarian telling Vimes e Carrot of a stolen book: