Book Review: ‘Night Watch’ By Terry Pratchett
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By ScarletScribe

Night Watch
Discworld series
Mass Market Paperback
By Terry Pratchett
Published: September 30, 2003

Time travel, as a story premise, can be a slippery slope. While some creators go to great lengths to describe how the Grandfather Paradox can be overcome, others find themselves backed into a corner, waving a magic wand at logical thinking and asking the audience to take it on good faith that the hazards of time travel can be easily overcome.

Meanwhile, Terry Pratchett‘s comic fantasy Night Watch — the 29th novel within his Discworld series — takes it at face value and has everyone run with it. When Sam Vimes, commander of Ankh-Morpork’s police force, is thrown back through time while chasing a psychopathic killer, there’s hardly a moment to spare for either Vimes or the reader to ruminate upon the logistics of it all. Instead, Pratchett’s time-travel is a set-up for much larger questions — and we’re talking more than just, “What would happen if he killed his grandpa?”

That’s where the subtle strengths of Pratchett’s writing come in. Though written in the third-person, Night Watch‘s story unfolds more like a stream of consciousness. Rather than being bogged down in thoughtful monologues, the story actually takes off as Vimes spends his time observing other people and contemplating how he can play to their emotions and instincts. The novel is less about asking what one would do with time travel, and more about how you would have to do it. For his part, Vimes is forced to go through the motions of the past while still hunting down a notorious killer that no one in the past has even heard of — without upsetting the reality they’re used to or the future he came from.

Pratchett regularly makes the narrative jump from light comedy to zen-like meditation, all within the context of a good ol’ cop-and-robber story set in a fantasy world where a wife raises dragons, zombies rise from the ground, and magicians mess up everything for everyone. From puns and black humor to just plain tongue-in-cheek commentary on our very real world, Pratchett appeals to nearly every taste in comedy. But when Vimes does stop to demand explanations, it’s the History Monks — a satirical take on the legendary Men in Black and James Bond — who step in to deliver more questions in the shape of meditation-inducing riddles. These sections, still dotted with the occasional one-liner, offer a more insightful take on what could have been a run-of-the-mill detective story.

Perhaps in another exercise of zen, Vimes’ terse cop-like observations actually allow for a greater depth of setting. Rather than trudge through descriptions of every building Vimes comes across in his police route, we’re treated to vivid portraits of the people he meets. While the many names and faces may get confusing for first-time readers of the series, there’s no one mentioned that doesn’t have a point to their existence or their story.

If there’s any complaint to be made, it’s that the novel sticks too closely with Vimes. Though we are briefly given glimpses into the lives of other characters, these sections are few and far in-between, and could have been fleshed out to give a better sense of both the past and the future that Vimes juggles throughout.

If you’re looking to begin the Discworld series, Night Watch is not the place to start. Many of the laughs come at nods to other moments and characters in the series, and the emotional arch connected to Vimes and his fellow officers is lost without knowing the future that he’s struggling to get back to. For these same reasons, fans of the series shouldn’t hesitate to pick up Night Watch.

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