Oct 11 2011 7:00pm

No Country for Old Vimes: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

If you’ve read Terry Pratchett’s books before, then all you need to know about Snuff, the thirty-ninth Discworld book, is that it’s the next Sam Vimes novel, it is about as good as the last Vimes book, Thud (2005), and if you liked Thud, you’ll like Snuff.

If you haven’t read any books in the long running fantasy/satire series before, then you should know that Snuff is an entertaining parody of Agatha Christie-esque mysteries, set in a world where the oppressed underclass are in fact goblins. Series mainstay Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, has been forced to take a vacation in the country and stumbles on a conspiracy of smugglers, slavers, and murderers.

The humor is sharp and the characters are charming, and the plight of the goblins creates moments of genuine pathos that are the highlight of the book. However, the central mystery lacks tension, and the book relies too much on audience’s previous familiarity with Vimes, which means that while I enjoyed the book, I wouldn’t recommend it as anyone’s first trip to Discworld.

That’s actually unusual for a Discworld book. Despite the long publication history and large cast of characters, almost every other Discworld book can be read as a standalone. In fact, 2009’s Unseen Academicals, a retelling of the invention of collegiate sports, and also there is an orc, featured an almost entirely new cast and could easily be read on its own, and Unseen Academicals is one of my favorite books in the whole series.

Snuff, on the other hand, is entirely about Vimes, who has risen over the course of previous books from lowly guard to Duke of the City, and must now adjust to being a noble. To understand Vimes discomfort with nobility and the countryside, one would have to have read the books that show how much Vimes identifies with the streets of Ankh-Morpork. Furthermore, Vimes picked up a demonic presence in the climactic chapters of Thud which returns, unexplained, so if nothing else you’d have to read Thud to understand what’s happening here.

That said, if you’ve read the previous Vimes books, you will enjoy Snuff. Discworld is an absurd world full of dwarfs, trolls, and wizards that act like merchants, punks, and academics, and where six inch tall men are the most feared fighters in the world. Vimes’s bafflement with country living, full of animals, and animal poop, is hilarious, as are his encounters with the local population of nobles (Jane, the budding author, who would be the family scandal if her sister Hermione wasn’t a lumberjack), peasants (Chief Constable Feeney, the only law in the shire, as long as his old mum lets him out of the house) and, um, other, (Stinky, the rebellious goblin who may be the smartest person around, or may just be crazy). Vimes’s discomfort with being suddenly respected is a source of constant humor, and may also reflect Pratchett’s own feelings of being knighted in 2009, though Pratchett celebrated that by forging a sword out of meteorites, because Terry Pratchett is a BAMF.

Beyond the trademark absurdity of the Discworld books, Snuff also contains some heartwrenching moments as it explores the world of an oppressed minority through the goblins. Treated as vermin by most of Discworld, the goblins have internalized their oppressed state through their culture and religion. Therefore, the scene where the goblins ask, not demand or beg, but simply ask, for justice for the murder of a girl becomes an act of incredible courage, and the final scene of a goblin playing a harp and changing the world is genuinely moving.

As someone who has read the previous Vimes novels, my complaint is that, while plot has never been the draw of a Discworld novel, the mystery here is particularly lacking. It’s obvious from the beginning to both Vimes and reader who (the nobles) did what (enslaved the local goblins) and why (as part of a drug smuggling ring). Even when a relentless murderer comes after Vimes and his family, it never feels like anyone’s in real danger. The most tension comes from whether Vimes will give in to the demon in his brain that allows him to see crimes in the dark but demands bloody vengeance, but in the end Vimes does what he always does, follow the law and allow other people to deliver the necessary retribution, leaving the issue of the demon unresolved.

Other than that, Snuff is a fun addition to the Discworld series that introduces interesting new characters and concepts to the already rich world. While not a stand out work, Discworld fans will be happy to have another adventure with Sam Vimes. Non-Discworld fans will have, well, something to look forward to when they start with a different book in the series. I’d suggest Guards, Guards.

Steven Padnick is a comic book editor. By day.

Stefan Jones
1. Stefan Jones
Guards, Guards! is a great place to start.

I've found Discworld books to be hit and miss. Maybe I should write HIT! and miss. The misses are never really bad (perhaps just a little routine and forumulaic), and the good ones are great. The "meh" ones tend to be the ones that seem like gimmicks from the get-go. The Hollywood / filmmaking one, and the one with the sapient supermarket, for example.

In contrast, Small Gods and other hits are just wonderful.

Snuff sounds like it could be one of the hits. It's a story about a character, rather than a "funny anachronism story."
2. jerec84
As good as Thud! works for me. I enjoyed that one, but I don't actually remember the demonic aspect at all. It has been 5 or 6 years since I read it. Might wait for the paperback on this one, and do a re-read of the Guards series.
Alice Arneson
3. Wetlandernw
You might have put a "spoiler alert" at the beginning of the post... since you pretty much gave away whatever plot there is. Not that it will stop me from buying the book, but it would have been nice to stop reading your post before you spelled out everything that might conceivably have been the least bit unexpected.
Stefan Jones
4. Andrew Lawler
The most recent books have been a shade uneven, but still have moments of real joy. It is all the more poignant because each book may be our last. I listen to all the books as read by Stephen Briggs, and I weep a little (inside) fearing that this trip to Discworld is coming to an end.
Chris Palmer
5. cmpalmer
Yeah, I divide the Discworld books into the good and the great. To some extent, I think the series may be hard for some people to get into (at least judging from some of my friends). In order to fully appreciate the later ones, it helps to know the early ones. The early ones are, to me, many of the good ones, but they were mostly parodies of fantasy tropes which isn't everyone's cup of tea. The great ones, in my opinion, are the ones that satirize and mirror the "real world", but some of the humor in them falls flat if you don't know the history, geography, and cast of characters. I started in the middle, working my way out to both ends. I own them all now and I've read them each at least twice (except Snuff, which I'm only halfway through, and Unseen Academicals, which I haven't got back to yet), but several of them more than twice.

I wish I'd re-read Thud right before Snuff, because I'm a little fuzzy on some of the details of Vimes', uh, companion.

Strangely enough, even before Sir Terry's diagnosis, I've always found the best of the Discworld books very poignant. They're rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but I always have a smile on my face while reading them. Occasionally I'll laugh, or have an "ain't-it-the-truth" head shake, or get verklempt at least once per book. Death's speech in Hogfather about what makes us human gives me chills.

One thing I find strange is that the BBC movie adaptations totally leave me cold. The acting is OK, the production values are OK, and, more importantly, most all of the words are there, but they don't work for me.

I think several of the books ought to be required reading for certain professions. Making Money is one of the best books on economics I've ever read and contains the best explanation of the global financial crisis. All journalism majors should read The Truth and theology majors, Small Gods.
Kate O'Hanlon
6. KateOH
I think Pratchett's really started to over-do the 'down-trod/maligned race show that they are as human as you or I' schtick.

It was tired and predictable in Unseen Academicals and it's tired and predictable now

I would have preferred more focus on the sumoning dark, and given Vimes' previous opition of the occult I was quite surprised that he wasn't much more inquisitive about what the hell this thing in his head was.
Stefan Jones
7. a-j
Your point is taken but if you take away the 'down-trod/maligned race show that they are as human as you I schtick' you take away most of Pratchett because that is the over-arching theme of just about all his work. I once read a crit (sadly cannot remember who by) which pointed out that anger runs behind a great deal of Pratchett's work and it's the anger at the powerful maintaining their power by the vilification and exploitation of the powerless.
Absolutely agree that this seems to be the first Pratchett that cannot be read out of context and that is a flaw, but then Vimes is the character that Sir Terry has given the most baggage to.
Also agreed that his books fall either into the 'good' or 'brilliant' categories and even Soul Music, for me the weakest in the series, has its moments. Fwiw, I'd put Lords & Ladies, Hogfather, Small Gods, The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents, The Wee Free Men, Truckers, Nation into the great category. I'll doubtless be mentally adding to that list for the rest of the day.
Stefan Jones
8. Great A'Tuin
Actually, when I read Snuff I hadn't read any of Vimes's books, having only come across him in books like Making Money, where he is portrayed in a bad light. And the whole Summoning Dark thing was very well explained, in my opinion.
Stefan Jones
9. Alison2014
Snuff is dreadful, and we all know why. Unfortunately that great, wonderful brain is failing and it was clearly failing when this book was written.

Instead of catchy, pithy dialogue we are given a kind of whining rant of the sort favoured by old men full of the grog and aimed towards the youth of today. Instead of clever hints we have turgid passages where things are over explained to us in triplicate. Even his relationship with Lady Sybil is over explained. Instead of light and air we are given lumps of clay. It reads like someone without much humour trying to remember a Pratchett story and reciting the lines as best he can remember them.

It's painful, genuinely painful to read when you have loved the man's work for more than two decades. I don't want to read anything that so clearly marks Pratchett's downhill spiral again. I'm not sure anybody could stop him from publishing anything else if he insists, but I do hope so. I hope it's his last, unless by some miracle they can find a cure for Alzheimers. I haven't gone looking for anything published since Snuff, there might be more out there, but if so I don't need to read anything that depressing.

I loved you well Terry Pratchett, and I loved your Discworld. I hope it's turtles all the way down.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment