When I finished The Truth a week or so ago, I found Pratchett at his most comfortable, which is to say, not his best. Night Watch is perhaps also not his best work — for me, it’s hard to dethrone Men at Arms — but it’s much closer*. Here, he’s flexing a bit, and I cannot begrudge him if he’s clearly enjoying himself for all the effort.
After all, I was too.
The plot setup is fairly standard — even uninspired. Sam Vimes, commander of The Watch, gets sent back in time by a freak magical accident, to a meaner, more tyrannical Ankh-Morpork. He joins the Watch to keep an eye on his younger self, a new recruit, in order to stay the course and keep the timeline straight. Or at least, straight enough. Because, Vimes knows, he arrived just in time for a bloody revolution.
Here, Pratchett is free to take on the subject of revolution, his vision influenced most directly by the French Revolution and plenty of revolutions since — the semi-fictional Les Misérables student’s revolution comes to mind. But what Pratchett brings is not, perhaps, a leftist or anarchist or monarchist take on things, but a practical one — among the turning points in the plot, after Vimes actually pitches in with the revolutionaries mainly to keep most everyone safe, is the realization that most revolutions completely ignore the practicalities of economics. Food and drink and clothes and all the necessaries of life don’t suddenly become less necessary under the fiery rhetoric of Freedom, Justice and Truth.
Vimes, the inviolable policeman, turns quite easily to the side of the revolution — and the contrast between soldiers and police is brought up numerous times in the narrative, with soldiers charged with taking lives, and police charged with protecting them. It’s this that, more than anything else, has me peg Pratchett as an idealist at heart — exalting the ideal of the policeman who protects the people he serves at all costs, rather than today’s grim reality. Of course, perhaps that’s the whole point of Night Watch, or one of them anyway. It might just be Pratchett’s way of signaling that modern day police work needs changing**.
The novel work on its simpler levels, too — the character struggle between the beleaguered everyman cop Sam Vimes, versus the psychopathic, frustrating, always-two-steps-ahead-and-to-the-right Carcer is enough to drive the narrative all on its own. Perhaps I’m just reading too many of my own political views into the narrative.
Regardless of your own, this book is excellent, highly entertaining, and regularly brilliant — even for the standards of the Discworld. Pick this one up.
*Early on I committed to read the Discworld series in publication order, except to save the Tiffany Aching series for last. So, it’s notable that across all of non-Tiffany Discworld up through Night Watch, I still find Men at Arms the best (with Reaper Man as a runner-up). But stay tuned; that opinion is ripe for revising.
**It’s a rather privileged point of view all the same, and it allows the narrative to fall prey to the typical mistake that ‘the system just needs good cops to outnumber the bad in order to function’ — and missing the point that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system itself. It’s the old “bad apples” argument, and it’s doing Pratchett no favors here with the smell.