Saturday, December 17, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Words are tricky, complicated things -- even the seemingly simple ones. Take the tile of Terry Pratchett's newest Discworld novel: Snuff. Snuff could be a noun (a form of tobacco), a verb (to eliminate a flame, or a person), an adjective (a kind of unsavory entertainment incorporating such eliminations), or even more. Given Pratchett's surface British gentility, one might presume that this Snuff is probably not adjectival, but presuming any more than that could be dangerous.

This particular Snuff is the eighth "Night Watch" novel, which more and more are concentrating on the aging, crotchety Samuel Vimes (now Commander of a force greatly expanded from the one he captained back in 1989's Guards! Guards!), much as the Lancre books focused down on the even more aged and crotchety Granny Weatherwax and even the Unseen University books came to feature the aged Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully and the crotchety Librarian. This time out, Vimes is officially on vacation, having been almost forcibly removed by his wife, Lady Sybil, to her family's ancient rural demesne, the Hall [1] to spend time away from work with her, their son Young Sam, and the great outdoors.

Of course it doesn't happen that way -- even Pratchett would be hard-pressed to spin a four-hundred page book out of a quiet, relaxing vacation -- as the countryside turns out to be as full of mischief and malice as Vimes's beloved Ankh-Morpork. (Pratchett's narration bangs a bit too hard on this theme, particularly for someone who has already written a dozen novels in this very series about nasty things happening in quiet rural places like Lancre, but it is his theme this time out, so he's entitled to bang on it as hard as he wants.) Continuing one of the larger themes of the later Discworld series -- that all sapient creatures are brothers, and should be treated with respect and dignity -- Snuff also adds another superficially unsavory race, the goblins, to the ranks of the blessed, following dwarves, trolls, zombies, Igors, Nac Mac Feegle, gnomes, vampires,  golems, and whatever Nobby Nobbs is.

The goblins have been badly mistreated by the usual forces of repression in Pratchett -- petty bullies, the hereditary aristocracy, and the general unthinking prejudice of people who have not been yet exposed to Discworld protagonists -- and do not seem to have any legal rights whatsoever as the novel begins. They're also servile, cringing, little creatures that live in dirty holes in the ground and obsessively collect their own bodily secretions, so it's fairly easy to see how they came to be so repressed -- but, as Snuff goes along, we meet the necessary heroic gnome, Stinky, and also learn of the hidden depths (mostly artistic, this time out, though there's also the usual Pratchett "this race slots in amazingly well to a particular job in the growing detailed division of labor" moment) which gnomes, surprisingly to everyone, possess.

There's only a little business with the rest of the Watch along the way -- Carrot and Angua are almost completely absent, and Nobby and Fred Colon appear primarily as a bad example and a plot element, respectively. The crazed maniacal wild-man this time out is Wee Mad Arthur, the guardsman who recently learned that he's a Feegle, and the cold, collected purveyor of violence is Vimes's gentleman's gentleman, Willikins. Oh, and Young Sam is obsessed with what he calls "poo," and may grow up to be a world-renowned expert in the stuff, if Pratchett follows up.

Snuff does not entirely run to formula -- the Discworld books don't have a formula, exactly, but they do have a medium-sized Chinese menu of flavors and themes that nearly always appear -- but it rattles down well-worn ruts that are very familiar from the prior Discworld books, and goes to the places that Pratchett's regular readers will expect. It does so well, and is thoroughly professional end entertaining along the way, but there's nothing particularly surprising here: Pratchett is telling the same kind of story he's been telling for about twenty-five years, with the same kind of jokes (somewhat fewer this time out, and much less poke-you-in-the-ribs, check-out-this-joke nudging), the same lessons, the same kind of characters (even the ones who aren't series regulars), and the same joys. Considering the vast audience for the Discworld stories -- and I'm definitely among them; Pratchett is as dependably wonderful in his sphere as P.G. Wodehouse and Donald Westlake were in theirs -- that's probably a positive thing, all in all.

[1] It may have a more official name -- as may the requisite small hamlet that it's picturesquely near -- but that name is so rarely used in Snuff that I could neither remember nor find it.


Unknown said...

Crundells is the name of the Rankin family country estate, I do believe.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Unknown: I saw that in the Wikipedia entry of the novel, but couldn't find the name in the book itself -- it may be there once or twice, but I didn't want to rely on secondary sources.

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