Feet of Clay: Book Review

How many times can you revisit the same idea, improving it, expanding it, and proposing a new product based on it that is sufficiently detached from the previous ones that used it? According to AC / DC at least one hundred and fifty times, since they’ve played the same song for 45 years. According to Terry Pratchett, at least three times.

Feet of Clay is the third book of Ankh Morpork’s City Watch and, once again (as in Guards! Guards! and in Men at Arms), someone is trying to take power in the city by ousting Vetinari (this time replacing him with Nobby Nobbs!), and again it’s up to the Watch to avoid it. And if in Men at Arms the climate (an extremely hot summer) was part of the story, so too is the foggy winter that goes perfectly with the special guests, let’s call them that, of this book: the golems. After all, we traditionally imagine them in the foggy streets of Prague, perhaps on the Charles Bridge. Not surprisingly, one of the most amazing scenes in Feet of Clay takes place right besides a bridge over the Ankh.

Unlike the previous book, however, Sam Vimes is the undisputed protagonist of the story. Not only he solves the case (Vetinari gets poisoned!1) in a way which would make Sherlock Holmes envious2, but here come his usual considerations on boots (the old and worn ones allow him to know where he is despite the thick fog), and his hilarious fights against the imp that according to Lady Sybil should replace his agenda (Vimes disagrees3). Finally, for his hatred of kings and nobles4, Pratchett also compares Vimes to Oliver Cromwell (at least with a family bond – I imagine that the Irish won’t be so happy about that, given that Cromwell, an English national hero, did terrible things against the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle).

This is actually one of the great themes of the book, along with freedom. In fact, golems by their nature can do nothing but follow the orders that are given to them. Pratchett then uses the character of Dorfl, who eventually joins the Watch, to reflect on it. I found the following passage splendid, for example, in which Dorfl asks very clever questions to Vimes: “I Smashed The Treadmill But The Golems Repaired It. Why? And I Let The Animals Go But They Just Milled Around Stupidly. Some of Them Even Went Back To The Slaughter Pens. Why? ” Welcome to the world, Constable Dorfl. ” Is It Frightening To Be Free? ” You said it. ” You Say To People “Throw Off Your Chains” And They Make New Chains For Themselves? ” Seems to be a major human activity, yes.’5

If you still haven’t figured it out, Feet of Clay is, incredibly, superior to both Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms, limiting my comparison to previous books of the Watch. It’s a true masterpiece in which Pratchett comments on very high themes and at the same time manages to make the reader laugh with brilliant jokes6, while at the same time offering an intriguing story is developed in a convincing way from start to finish.

And I didn’t even mention Cheery Littlebottom, the Watch’s new dwarf! Ciao!

1. (Vimes) ‘He’s been poisoned, Fred, and that’s the truth of it.’ Colon looked horrified. ‘Ye gods! Do you want me to get a doctor?’ ‘Are you mad? We want him to live!’

2. Sherlock Holmes is one of my favourite literary characters, so I adored Vimes’s irony on his scientific method: “he distrusted the kind of person who’d take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, ‘Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times,’ and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience! It wasn’t by eliminating the impossible that you got at the truth, however improbable; it was by the much harder process of eliminating the possibilities.

3. Vimes sighed inwardly. He had a notebook. He took notes in it. It was always useful. And then Sybil, gods bless her, had brought him this fifteen-function imp which did so many other things, although as far as he could see at least ten of its functions consisted of apologizing for its inefficiency in the other five.

4. ‘Kings. What a good idea.’ Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.

5. ‘What Better Work For One Who Loves Freedom Than The Job of Watchman. Law Is The Servant of Freedom. Freedom Without Limits Is Just A Word,’ said Dorfl ponderously. ‘Y’know,’ said Colon, ‘if it doesn’t work out, you could always get a job making fortune cookies.’

6. What changed history were smaller things. Often a few strokes of the pen would do the trick. And I love a good movies’ reference, so I laughed a lot when Dorfl arrested an undead and told him ‘Undead or Alive, You Are Coming With Me‘, a (un)direct reference to Robocop (1987). 

Index of the Discworld Reviews


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