Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

"Lady Ramkin's bosom rose and fell like an empire."
"The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned no later than the date last shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality."

The city of Ankh-Morpork is under attack and it's up to the courageous men of the Night Watch to save the day! A secret brotherhood of the downtrodden have come up with a plan to call forth a mighty dragon to terrify the city, waiting in the wings with a carefully prepared knight to slay the dragon and take charge of a grateful citizenry. The only problem is that the Samuel Vimes and the men of the Night Watch are on the case.
Unfortunately, the watch isn't what it once was. Captain Vimes, their leader, has found his way to the bottom of the bottle with no way out. Sergeant Colon is a career watchman, more comfortable behind the desk than in the field. And of course Corporal Nobby Nobbs, one of the dirtiest, smelliest, if somewhat criminal, characters on the Disc, who carries a certificate from the Patrician to prove he's human. But they also have a new recruit who's ready to raise the bar for everyone.

Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised among dwarves, has been sent to Ankh-Morpork by his adopted family to learn to become a man, and they decide the best job to accomplish this is the City Watch. At six feet, six inches, packed with pure muscle and a tendency to take every instruction literally, he may already be as much man as the city can handle (his first living arrangement is in a bordello). His first act on arrival is to arrest the head of the Thieves Guild, who promptly complains to the Lord Patrician of the city. But his enthusiasm for the law sparks a dying flame in the men of the watch.

But how do you find a dragon in the middle of a city? You find an expert, of course. Enter Lady Sybil Ramkin, an expert on swamp dragons. The Lady Sybil is the last of the line of Ramkins, the highest bred family in the city. Captain Vimes finds himself somewhat out of his depth as he gets to know Sybil, and finds himself swept up in a wholly unexpected adventure that has little to do with law or dragons. And when the dragon finally takes charge of the city, and requires a high-born virgin sacrifice, the lady Sybil finds herself chained to a rock and its up to Vimes to save a life.

Some Thoughts

The first of the Night Watch novels, and the first Discworld novel I read, today it remains my favorite. The men of the Watch have their faults but are still some of the best the city has to offer. The core of steel that is revealed in even Nobby's heart is amazing. Mr. Pratchett does a great job of developing his characters while writing one of his funniest stories. Those new to the Discworld will find they fall into the story easily. Those who have read earlier stories will love the development and expansion of Ankh-Morpork, and get a better idea of its place in the world.

The story is a classic hero adventure, with a twist. Mr. Pratchett has said that when he wrote it he was thinking about how the hero tends to ride into town and woe be to the poor watchman who got in his way! He wondered what the story might look like from the perspective of the men on the other end of the pike, the ones who wake up everyday and put on the armor and, for a few piddling coins, try hard to protect and serve. It turns out that even in Ankh, the guards can have pride and rise to meet a challenge.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Eric by Terry Pratchett

"No enemies had ever taken Ankh-Morpork. Well technically they had, quite often; the city welcomed free-spending barbarian invaders, but somehow the puzzled raiders found, after a few days, that they didn't own their horses any more, and within a couple of months they were just another minority group with its own graffiti and food shops."

Once more Terry Pratchett has taken a literary classic, run it through the Disc and made it his own. This time the story is Faust, you know the tale, the man who sells his soul to the devil. Only here Faust takes the form of a fourteen year-old boy who tries to get his three basic wishes filled. Nothing too fancy, thank you, just immortality, rulership of the world and a beautiful woman at his side. But what he actually gets with his spell casting is a rather ragged, spell-shocked wizzard who's totally incapable of magic!

Yes, Rincewind is back . As you'll surely recall, we last saw Rincewind he was defending against the demons of the Dungeon Dimension so Coin, the Sourcerer, could get back to Unseen University to close the rift. And so again we have a story that, while it may not require you to read the last book, certainly benefits from the telling.

So we have Eric with Rincewind trapped in a spell, commanding his three wishes. Now history tells us that Rincewind could find good luck before he could cast a spell, so imagine everyone's surprise when, with a snap of his fingers, he and Eric find themselves before the Discworld version of the Aztecs, who are prepared to crown Eric as Ruler of the World. Of course there's some serious downsides, like a short life expectancy in order to make the worlds wrongs right again. When Rincewind snaps his fingers again, they find themselves transported to meet the most beautiful woman, Elenor, the Disc version of Helen of Troy. Of course, with their luck, naturally they end up in the middle of the war.

With one last snap of the fingers, Eric learns that to live forever means having to live, well, forever, that is start to finish, and they find they've been transported to the beginning of time, right to the creators doorstep. (A hint: Rincewind may be single-handedly responsible for humanity, scary isn't it?) I guess there's only one way to escape from that, so its once more to Hell, only to find the source of power that has been granting the wishes. A rebellion is brewing in Hell and Eric and Rincewind are right in the middle of it.

This is certainly one of my favorites. I love the way Mr. Pratchett takes each story, holds the form of them and then meshes them so wonderfully into his own world. Truly, he is a writer on par with all the classicists. I also see (*warning*) why eventually he puts Rincewind away. The eternal coward and incompetent wizard can only run away from so many fights, you can only have him stumble through so many adventures and still have it seem fresh and funny. But Eric really shows the best of Rincewind. There's still a few stories to be told, and this will certainly hold a top place among them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

"It's not generally realized that camels have a natural aptitude for advanced mathematics, particularly where they involve ballistics."
– Terry Pratchett, Pyramids

One of the things I enjoy in Terry Pratchett's books is the consistency of the characters. Death, Rincewind, Granny, Samuel Vimes, they are very much part of the Discworld and show up frequently. But every once in a while Mr. Pratchett throws a new character out there, rather a one time thing. The novel, Pyramids, is the first of them.

Djelibeybi, yes, pronounced jelly-baby, is the Discworld's version of ancient Egypt. Ruled by pharaohs and tradition, the kingdom has maintained its sense of identity for years. Unfortunately when Pteppic, the kings son, is sent to Ankh-Morpork to be educated as an assassin, his eyes are opened to new ideas and new ways to do things. While taking his final exam, he learns that his father has died and its time to return him and take the throne.

Upon returning home, the head priest, Dios, is ready to help Pteppic take on the challenges of kingship. Of course much of the challenge involves following the variety of traditions that govern every moment of his life, "The king likes chicken on Wednesday." And when Pteppic tries to change things, the fight with Dios begins. The battle comes to a head when Dios begins work on the largest pyramid ever for the dead king, despite the protests of both  Pteppic and the dead king, who is forced to stick around to watch the proceedings.
The building of the great pyramid causes serious problems, a build-up of magic in the kingdom that brings the variety of gods to wander the streets, and actually twists reality to the point that when Pteppic leaves the boundaries of the kingdom, he can't get back in! After consulting with the philosophers in Ephebe, Pteppic finds his way back into the kingdom, confronts Dios and destroys the pyramids.

One of the funniest books in the series, in places, it does contain some dreadful puns, but still contains enough true laughs to balance it out. The camel, for instance, I love the camel. The story starts strong, and finishes strong, but somewhere in the middle it seems to hit a snag. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it loses something for a while, then regains it near the end. Of course I still highly recommend it, there's not a Discworld I wouldn't recommend. I hope you enjoy.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

"On nights such as these the gods, as has already been pointed out, play games other than chess with the fates of mortals and the thrones of kings. It is important to remember that they always cheat, right up to the end..."

What happens when you mix Shakespeare and Pratchett? A whole lot of fun, that's what. In Wyrd Sister, Mr. Pratchett takes on one of the most venerated storytellers in history, taking Macbeth out of Scotland and dropping it right where it belongs, the kingdom of Lancre on the Discworld.
When the king of Lancre, Verence I, is murdered by his cousin, Duke Fermat, well, that's just succession by a different means. But a loyal servant escapes with the kings infant son, and the last thing the Duke wants is a rightful heir wandering the world, waiting for his chance to return, and the chase is on, right into the arms of the coven of Lancre.

We met Granny Weatherwax in the story Equal Rites, so we know that she's a hard woman who won't tolerate foolishness, let alone disrespect. When the leader of the Duke's men starts showing the least bit of disrespect, Granny takes it upon herself to show him the error of his ways. The survivors are quick learners, who are forced to report failure to the Duke. This leaves Granny and her partners, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick in a bit of a bind, holding the heir to a throne. What to do, what to do? Send him off with a passing troupe of actors, that's what, and let him grow a bit before coming back to reclaim his throne. The only problem is that the land of Lancre is tied closely to the king, so when the Duke proves to be a poor steward of the kingdom, the land itself gets angry and it's  on Granny, Nanny and Magrat to set things right.
Wait, did I say that was the only problem? Silly me. There is one last problem to overcome. The heir doesn't want to be the king. Turns out he has a knack for the acting biz and doesn't want to leave it. It may just be that the clown becomes king.

I've mentioned before, I like Granny Weatherwax. One thing that differentiates the wizards from the witches is that the witches on the Discworld seem to have an intuitive understanding of the need for balance. Here you have one of the most powerful witches on the Disc,and yet she is very reluctant to meddle in the affairs of the kingdom, knowing that she could and knowing that crossing the line once would forever tempt her to do so again.

The other side of the coin is Nanny Ogg. The matriarch of the Ogg family, her family roots stretch far and wide. Ruling over her daughter-in-laws with a iron fist and doting over her grandchildren with all the love one little old lady can muster, she plays the human foil to Granny. Her understanding of people frequently allows her to smooth feathers, but she can also use it as the lever to open people up. Perhaps less powerful than her friend, her power with people is often more effective.Nanny is also the companion, I can't say owner - I just can't - of the most evil cat in the world, the smelly, one-eyed Greebo. Single-pawingly responsible for most of the feline population in Lancre, even wolves give him a wide berth. Not even elves are up for dealing with him.
The third witch in the group, Magrat Garlick, would fit right in at a local New Age shop. With her ceremonial knives and silver jewelry, she tries so hard to be what she thinks a witch should be, always looking to learn something new, much to the consternation of the others. Still when the chips are down, the core of steel, tempered in the fires of Granny, comes out hard.

The story itself is a story about words. About propaganda and the way truth can be used and twisted to the speakers ends. Granny, for instance, hates the theater, hated the the lies it tells and the way they use the truth to tell a whole new lie. The Duke finds a use for his Fool, who shows him how to "spin" words to make reality a little more palatable.And of course, its words, a play, that finally pushes the Duke over the edge.
As the first novel to really focus on the witches, though thankfully not the last, it's great fun. I was never a big fan of Macbeth until I read this version. Mr. Pratchett's characters are everything I've come to expect, vibrant and real. The way he continues to expand the Disc, to blend details and explore new territory, that's what keeps me coming back for more.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Top Ten Books, Part Two

Welcome back. Its a pleasure to see you again as we continue my countdown for favorite books. From here its a fictional world and those who've read my other posts, I'm sure you'll be able to guess who the top dog will be, but it might surprise you. So lets carry on with:

No. 5 Enders Game
Written by Orson Scott Card, 1985.

In the future, humanity has come together in a fragile alliance to hold off the threat of alien invaders. The threat of the Formics, more commonly called the Buggers, has done what no end of earthly wars has managed, it has brought peace. There has been a price: religious freedom is a memory and families are limited to two children. And every child tests to see if they can become leaders in the International Fleet, the mighty armada that stands between our fragile planet and the dealy Buggers.
Originally a novella that Card expanded, this story is of a young Third named Andrew "Ender" Wiggen who turns out to have a unique leadership skill that the International Fleet wants to develop. So Ender is taken from home and family to the Battle School, an orbiting dormitory for the training of potential officers, where he learns leadership, strategy, strength and sorrow. But he knows that when the Buggers come, he'll be ready.
The starting point of a great series, Ender's Game is a must read.

No. 4 Neverwhere 

Written by Neil Gaiman, 1996.

Originally written as a 6 part television series for the BBC, it tells about Richard Mayhew, a young London businessman who stumbles upon an injured young lady, Door, who has a unique ability, to open a door anywhere. When Richard stops to help her, much to the consternation of his fiance, he finds himself drawn into a world that runs parallel to out own beneath the streets of London. No longer able to be seen or heard by his former friends and colleagues, he learns that the only way to help himself is to help Door find out who killed her parents.
It's the people who really make the story, the lady Door, the Marquis de Carabas, the assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar and of course the esteemed Hunter. Character's out of your darkest nightmares doing battle over an angel. While at times the dialogue is a little too "television" for my taste, overall the story, the characters, the sparks of humor and wit make up for it. While the story certainly is concluded well, it would be nice to see a sequel, I'm curious to learn what happens next. And that's the mark of a great story.

No. 3 A Dirty Job

Written by Christopher Moore, 2006.

What is a "beta-male"? How do you raise a baby who can kill with the word "kitty"? How exactly do souls move to their next life? What are the karmic implications of shagging a monk? These and so many other vexing life questions are answered in "A Dirty Job", an absurdist tale about death and the netherworlds.
When Charlie Asher's wife dies, Charlie finds himself in deep despair, trying to run his second-hand goods shop, raise his infant daughter, and control his lesbian sister. When he starts seeing objects glowing red and hearing strange voices from the sewers, he figures he's losing his mind. No,no, it turns out he's just become a minion of Death, maybe more than a minion! And when the forces of darkness begin to rise and threaten the city of San Francisco, Charlie is there, sword cane in hand, and an army of reanimated, 6" creations at his back, to fight on the side of light.
One thing that stays with me is the Beta-male idea that Moore developed for the story. Every guy who is not an alpha male will recognize and feel better knowing that he's not alone, someone else understands.

No. 2 The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy

Written by Douglas Adams, 1978.

Another title originally written as a series for the BBC, this is truly a classic of science fiction and humor. It's hard to think of anyone who could spin the universe in quite the same way that Adams did, may he reset in peace. The original is certainly the best, a fun rollicking romp through the galaxy. My mother introduced me to it in the late 80's and I have read it again a thousand times. It has been adapted, or twisted, to a variety of media versions, from the radio show to the big screen, computer games to comics. And while the spirit is there, you can't beat the book.
From the moment Arthur sits in front of the large yellow bulldozer to the flight from Magrathea, his one long panicked run makes a great story. How many of us learned our most important life lesson from this book? Never hitch a ride with Vogon's. No, not that one -- Don't Panic. Great advice.

And No. 1 Hogfather

Written by Terry Pratchett, 1996.

Alright, you knew it would be a Pratchett novel, the only question was which. And I have to admit, I could have done 8 of 10 as Pratchett stories. I tried to restrain myself. But this novel has stuck with me. Is it Death taking a break and filling the role of the jolly fat man? Is it Susan questioning her role in life? Is it the oh-god of hangovers? Yes, all the above.
The quick outline: Someone has hired the Assassins Guild to eliminate the Hogfather, the Discworld version of Santa Claus. When Death finds out, he knows he has to intervene or all humanity will be lost, so he steps out of his black robes and into the red, and instead of riding out to deliver death, he goes forth to deliver gifts. HO, HO, HO! But even Death can't do it all himself, so he makes a quick stop at his granddaughters house to set her on the trail of the Hogfather. While Death is playing Santa to the kids at the Maul, Susan is off visiting the Tooth Fairy, looking for answers.
One of the more thoughtful, metaphysical stories to come out of the Disc, Hogfather examines the role that dreams and stories play in making humans more than what we might normally be, to be as Pratchett puts it the "place where the fallen angel meets the rising ape." He looks at the way we define ourselves by the folktales and legends of our culture and society. And still manages to be a hilarious read.

Thank you for coming

Well, there you have it, my top ten favorite books. I look forward to hearing from you about your favorites, and objections or additions you might suggest and of course I'm always open to new books to read, so please, leave your ideas and thanks again for reading.