Men at Arms is the perfect sequel to Guards! Guards!, since it’s a reinterpretation of the same idea that allows Pratchett to better explore some of the concepts from the previous book, as well as introduce new ones.
Once again, someone is trying to take power in Ankh-Morpork with an unconventional weapon based on the concept of legitimate heir to the throne (there are numerous references to a sword extracted from a rock, but this time it’s even clearer that Carrot is the mysterious heir), and once again it’s up to the Watch to save the day. The material executor of the plan to take out Vetinari at a certain point is possessed by something inhuman that uses him like a puppet, and in the end Vetinari gives in to requests to improve the working conditions of the city guards, even if this time in addition to a new kettle there’s a real breakthrough…
So yes, Pratchett obviously repeated the narrative scheme of Guards! Guards!, but he added so many new elements that in no moment one has the impression of reading something unoriginal. What new elements, you may be wondering? First of all, Sam Vimes steps aside due to his impending marriage to Lady Ramkin and subsequent retirement (Vimes still has his moments: how exciting is it to discover the story of the guards’ widows?). The fact that we see little of Vimes allows Carrot to go into the spotlight and shine as the wonderful character that he is.1 And he’s accompanied by the usual Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, who too gain a lot from Vimes’s absence in terms of character growth,2 and then… there are some new guards in town!
They’re the following: a girl, Angua, a dwarf, Cuddy, and a troll, Detritus, the latter already seen in Moving Pictures.3 And, speaking of Moving Pictures, Gaspode is also back, and it develops a certain affinity with Angua… Not only does each of these characters leave their mark, but this is the way Pratchett used to introduce the theme of a multiracial society and the sometimes difficult coexistence of the various species in Ankh-Morpork (especially between dwarves and trolls, something which is also in in subsequent books of the Watch, above all Thud!).
And in addition to the new characters, here Pratchett took full advantage of the enormous potential of the city’s guild system. The Watch investigations make us discover the guild of murderers, that of beggars, that of alchemists and above all the guild of clowns. Well, it would be impossible to report all the passages that made me burst out laughing reading the pages dedicated to these last two! The idea of the tragic hidden behind the clown make-up is here exploited to the nth degree!4
But I would do Pratchett a disservice if I defined Men at Arms as a mere humorous book. The book deals with issues such as the maintenance of order, gun control (we understand the author’s thoughts about it very well!), racism,5 and power and aristocracy… And this is the book in which Vimes’s socioeconomic boot theory is introduced!6
There are many other ideas that seemed brilliant to me at a first reading eight years ago and that I still remembered while I was reading the book the second time, like the super intelligent trolls at freezing temperatures, and the genius of Leonard Da Quirm… In short, there are too many things to write about in a single post .
I also found some weaknesses in the book, if we want to call them that. For example, the skirmishes between dwarves and trolls and the creation of the militia following the dissolution of the Watch make the plot a bit clunky at times, and the second part of the book is perhaps less brilliant than the first, but probably only because the latter is simply perfect…
In short, Men at Arms is another unmissable book in my opinion, it’s full of beautiful characters and Ankh-Morpork really stands out (and it was great to read about the feats of the legendary architect Bloody Stupid Johnson). Ciao!
PS: In addition to the usual references to films (in the finale I also noticed In the Heat of the Night: “They call me mister Vimes“) and books (a glaring one is to the Narnia saga), I found an inspiration for one of the animated series that I love the most: The Gargoyles, by Greg Weisman. I may be wrong on this, but at one point there’s a gargoyle on the roof of the Opera House called Cornice-Overlooking-Broadway because the names of the gargoyles tend to be related to the places where they are located. In the Weisman series, the gargoyles that wake up in New York choose names like Broadway (coincidentally!), Lexington, Brooklyn…
1. Colon thought Carrot was simple. Carrot often struck people as simple. And he was. Where people went wrong was thinking that simple meant the same thing as stupid.
2. It’s hard not to notice the reference to The Terminator when Nobby is in the armory and asks the following question: ‘Have you got one of those Hershebian twelve-shot bows with the gravity feed?’ he snapped. ‘Eh? What you see is what we got, mister.’“
3. He even gets a Predator reference: You haven’t got time to ooze, like the “I ain’t got time to bleed” in the John McTiernan movie.
4. “No clowns were funny. That was the whole purpose of a clown. People laughed at clowns, but only out of nervousness. The point of clowns was that, after watching them, anything else that happened seemed enjoyable. It was nice to know there was someone worse off than you. Someone had to be the butt of the world.”
5. A volte insieme: “So many crimes are solved by a happy accident – by the random stopping of a car, by an overheard remark, by someone of the right nationality happening to be within five miles of the scene of the crime without an alibi.”
6. “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”