Saturday, 15 March 2014

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 19- Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay
Terry Pratchett

"It was Carrot who'd suggested to the Patrician that hardened criminals should be given the chance to "serve the community" by redecorating the homes of the elderly, lending a new terror to old age and, given Ankh-Morpork's crime rate, leading to at least one old lady having her front room wallpapered so many times in six months that now she could only get in sideways."

Back when I started reading Discworld books for the first time, Feet of Clay was one of the newer installments, and to me that somehow made it seem more exciting. I think I hadn't fully settled with the now-inescapable notion that Terry Pratchett's long-running series wasn't the type to concern itself with long-running, over-arching plots across multiple books, and that instead the franchise was a highly-developed  framework in which Pratchett could indulge his talent and love for satire, parody and pure storytelling with the added benefit of established characters now-guaranteed to sell a copy or two. The permanent changes in circumstances that did exist for his favourite characters (such as the introduction of Agnes Nitt to the Witches group in Maskerade) occured solely to allow Pratchett to reshuffle the deck somewhat to keep things fresh and align the universe in the direction of his philosophy. 

A boring black cover.
I mention all of this because it strikes me that Feet of Clay marks a point where things shift somewhat, where the creator of the Discworld became more embroiled in the development of his fictional universe and all of its minutia than ever before, to the extent that such world-building unfortunately (for me and my tastes) diminished the sense of wonder and awe established by the hints and asides regarding mysterious kingdoms and magic and such things in earlier Discworld novels such as The Colour of Magic and Pyramids. Also I don't mean to criticise the standards and consistency of Pratchett's authorship at this point and there are a few notable examples of more fantasy-based, genre-fiction parodying Discworld books to come (The Last Hero anyone?), but I do think it'd be naive to ignore the power and awe of a successful franchise and the inevitable changes that ensue upon becoming one.

Anyway, I should probably talk about the book for a bit. Feet of Clay is the third book to star the City Watch, led by Samuel Vimes and also featuring Fred Colon (a human), Carrot (human adopted by dwarfs also undoubtedly long lost heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork), Detritus (a troll), Angua (a werewolf), and Nobby Nobbs (a... something) in an inter-species ensemble cast that only continues to grow with this novel (and future Watch books, of course). Having established themselves through the events of Guards! Guards! and Men At Arms as a legitimate force in the city, and somehow successfully protecting the city from dragons and gunpowder, here they are faced with an altogether more complicated murder mystery that delves further into the complexities of Pratchett's lead fictional city, serving to signal Pratchett's intentions of mimicking the real-life melting plot of cultures and ethnicities of metropolises such as London or New York. The chief suspect in this case is a golem.

I don't wish to give much away regarding the winding plot of this novel, but the business with the golems is only one piece of a larger puzzle involving a political conspiracy threatening to depose the long reigning Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. Watch Commander Sam Vimes has basically become unwilling nobility through marriage, something which goes against every fibre of his being as a born-in-poverty street-smart anti-establishment type, and he must deal with the criminal dregs of society, the criminal high society, and the criminal minorities of society. In this book, the latter of which are the golems, who exist in a rather curious state of satirical limbo; there are no Jews on the Discworld or much of an equivalent, so he can't satirise them in the way he did with Roman Catholicism in Small Gods- though I really don't know very much about classic Jewish culture whatsoever, so a lot of it might have gone straight over my head- but he does use the fantastical, mystical existence of the golems to great effect in relation to magic on the Discworld.

Pratchett's interest in fleshing out his satirical look at the planet Earth on a more specifically sociological basis didn't start with this book of course, but it does stand out to me as the first example of him dealing with the topic of a clash of cultures in a now-familiar environment. Reading about Ankh-Morpork was second nature by 1996, but the post-Feet of Clay Discworld series would see the core concepts of the series in general slowly move further away from its origins in fantasy satire towards this more intensely focused universe that, by now, millions of readers were invested it. As we move further through the Discworld series (almost half way now, I honestly never thought I'd reach this far) I must lament the fact that we've definitely just moved out of what I consider to be Pratchett's finest streak of novels (from Reaper Man to Interesting Times to be specific) into a more inconsistent yet varied future. I must admit I'm not a big a fan of Feet of Clay as I am the prior Watch novels, but it does provide an equal, if not larger amount of things to mull over.

Perhaps equally as important, it marks the point where the characters of the Watch become almost ubiquitous in their appearances. Next in the series is an interesting one for me, the first Discworld book I ever read; Hogfather, where Terry Pratchett ignores everything I've just said about him changing the nature of the Discworld series to write a high-fantasy book about Death fighting the auditors of reality for the sake of Christmas... sorry, Hogswatch.