Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Guards! Guards! Part II

Okay, we’re back and there are some dragons, so let’s get on with Guards! Guards!

Summary

The Watch members are drunk and have accidentally staggered into The Shades without realizing it. Once they do, they are about to be horribly murdered when a sudden scourge of fire from above incinerates their would be assailants. They call on the Patrician and Vimes tries to suggest a dragon did this, but he’s not interested in entertaining that suggestion and tells them to forget about it. Carrot almost tries to arrest the Patrician for a coach violation, but Colon calls him to attention and they narrowly avoid that scenario. The Librarian notices that a book is missing from his library. The Patrician asks Wonse to see to the dragon issue, worrying over what its appearance might do to the balance of power in the city—there is no obvious way of manipulating a dragon, after all.

Vimes has Nobby and Colon get into plain clothes to start asking about, leaving Carrot at the station and forbidding him from arresting anyone. He heads to meet Sybil Ramkin, an old money aristocrat of the city who breeds small dragons as pets. Carrot is buffing his chest plate when the Librarian comes in to report the crime of the stolen book; Carrot isn’t quite sure what he’s on about, but feels he must go with him, leaving a note to explain his absence. Nobby and Colon get rather drunk on their plain clothes op, and head outside to pee, which brings them face to face with another dragon. Vimes has tea with Lady Ramkin, and she gives him a rundown on dragon-breeding, and answers his questions. He shows her a plaster cast of the dragon footprint they found in the Shades, and she assumes that someone is having him on—the footprint, if it were real, would belong to a dragon from long ago, a huge one. As they’re speaking, all the dragons in her home go quiet.

The Librarian leads Carrot to the place where the missing book should be, and they play a game of charades to help Carrot guess the title. Lady Ramkin and Vimes observe the large dragon flying above the city in varying states of awe and horror, and Vimes sets out after it. He can’t find the thing, so he heads back to Watch HQ, ends up with a bottle in his hand, and wakes to Nobby telling him about the dragon. Carrot and the Librarian show up moments later to inform him about the stolen book. Meanwhile, the Elucidated Brethren are talking about creating their king figure, someone who can kill the dragon and then take orders as a sort of figurehead. The Supreme Grand Master is convinced that this plan will work and the magic won’t get out of his control.

The Patrician has announced a reward of fifty thousand dollars to anyone who can bring him the dragon’s head. Vimes discusses that plan with Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler, who is selling anti-dragon wares to as many marks as possible. Vimes goes to stand amongst the hunters, who don’t seem to think that the reward is high enough for all the overhead and issues in the aftermath. The Patrician is having to deal with the various guild leaders haranguing him over the dragon business, so he deflects onto the Archchancellor of Unseen University, as the appearance of a dragon would appear to be a magic issue. The Archchancellor deflects magnificently, and the Patrician goes to Wonse for suggestions on how he might handle the problem. It occurs that perhaps he might be able to negotiate with a dragon, since they can speak. He asks Vimes for a report on his investigation, but Vimes doesn’t give him much. Vimes heads to the Library, where he asks the Librarian if the book was stolen by someone who works at the University, making sense of the fact that none of the other books noticed an intruding presence. The Librarian responds in the affirmative—this is why he sought the help of the Watch instead of the University itself.

The Watch members all gather on the Watch House roof, looking out over the city. Most of the city is skywatching, hoping to see the dragon, but nothing happens. Vimes is staring at the Tower of Art, and realizes that it looks different somehow. He asks Colon about it and they realize that the dragon is sitting on it. The dragon takes to the sky, flies over the city, and shoots down flames upon the Watch House. Vimes comes to in Lady Ramkin’s bed. Nobby explains that he was brought there on her say-so, after Carrot saved his life. The wizards came out to fight the dragon, and that seems to make it more powerful. Vimes looks about Sibyl’s room, learning a great deal about her. She comes in with a full breakfast and goes on about what a character Nobby is, and how they learned while chatting that her grandfather had his whipped for “malicious lingering.” She insists that he let her tend his wounds. They talk about the dragon, and how this large one shouldn’t be physically capable of flying. She also informs Vimes that she’s handed over the Pseudopolis Yards—a very nice, unused piece of her family’s various city properties—to serve as the new Watch House. Then she tells him to get some rest. Vimes falls asleep and wakes later to sounds of a gathering mob.

Commentary

I forgot how much this book deals in themes of addiction, and from more than a single perspective. The description of Vimes’s alcoholism is maybe one of the most affecting, upsetting segments in the entire Discworld series. Getting back to the Watch House, pulling that bottle out of his desk without even noticing he’s done it, waking up drunk after hours have passed him by. It’s given to us with such clear narration, such simplicity, that it makes the moment of his waking that much more unsettling.

Then on the flip side of that, there’s the Supreme Grand Master thinking that once they’ve installed the king, he can give up the magic they’re doing “any time I like.” Which is addiction speak 101. So even though these two haven’t met, we’re being shown that this is ultimately one addiction unknowingly battling another. The question becomes who is going to succumb to theirs first.

The section on the reward for killing the dragon, and what’s the going rate and whether it’s a worthy sum, is one of those few situations where I’ll do math for fun. It’s just a really great way to get a read on how everyone’s doing in terms of wages and economy and all that. The fifty thousand dollar reward here is fairly substantial, if you’re looking at it from the point of view of a general citizen like Vimes. Members of the Watch get thirty dollars a month, which adds up to 360 dollars a year. Which means that if you did the job for forty years, you’d barely hit fifteen grand. So the reward is over triple that amount, meaning that it’s over triple what they’ll likely make in their lifetimes. Not enough for hero work, apparently, but no small thing to working city folk.

The introduction of Sybil Ramkin and her whole operation is a pitch-perfect sendup of the sort of people who breed dogs and horses, and all the minutiae that entails, and how it can utterly absorb someone’s life. Of course, the key difference here is that Sybil really adores her dragons, which certainly isn’t true of every dog or horse breeder. Some people really just are in it for getting prizes at racing and show dog competitions, a sphere dominated by the superrich. With Lady Ramkin, we see someone who isn’t really in it for glory or money or status. This is her area of focus and study in addition to being her passion. She just really loves dragons, okay?

It strikes me that we’re dealing with another sort of fantasy here in Sybil—the idea of the “good aristocrat”, a person of unspeakable power and wealth who is generous, kind, and not at all overbearing about their station. There aren’t an overabundance of them in Ankh-Morpork (indeed, most of the people in the city with wealth are shown to be in some way horrible), which leads me to some thoughts about her function in the Watch stories. Ultimately, Sybil’s wealth is a boon to Vimes and the people around him—as we see when she takes him in after the Watch House is destroyed by the dragon—and you can’t help but get stuck on this issue from a practicality standpoint in narrative. Authors will often create people of means in groups who collectively have less because doing things without money is considerably harder. As we’re all aware of that, living in capitalist societies, it makes things flow faster to have someone around who can write the checks and pay for your medical care and hand you a new Watch House when your old one burns down. In the first books, it was Twoflower. Here, it’s Sybil Ramkin.

In essence, Sibyl is the Bruce Wayne of this outfit. Which is good because they desperately need one.

And I say this with a great deal of affection, because I love Sybil and I also love her relationship with Vimes as it grows through these stories. For all their differences, they’re an extremely well-matched pair, and I do think they’re better rendered than any of the relationships Pratchett shows us up until this point in the Discworld books. I think this is because their vulnerabilities as people are better rendered than any of his previous pairs. They’re both lonely, and they’re both people who might come off tough or prickly at first glance, when they’re genuinely anything but. So it’ll be fun to watch this unfold all over again, but I still find it funny from a satire perspective—this “okay, you can have a good aristocrat, as a treat” vibe.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Of all the places I expected to come across the possible reference to Dumbo’s “When I See an Elephant Fly,” this “I’ve seen a horse/house/green fly, but I’ve never seen a dragon fly” is one that I’d forgotten completely. The song has understandably fallen out of favor, but I’ll always remember it because it taught me how puns worked as a child.
  • Continuing the film noir aura around Vimes, we’ve got a Casablanca reference in the “of all the cities in all the world it could have flown into” bit, which is one of those things that was probably cuter thirty years ago, but I’m a bit burnt out on Casablanca references. Also the Sherlock Holmes reference, honestly. Everyone uses the “when you eliminate the impossible” line, it’s weirdly twee at this point. Might just be me, though.
  • Vimes does the thing that all heroes of his ilk do, which is refer to Ankh-Morpork as “my city.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard “my city” drop from a crime-fighter’s mouth. Feel like you could do a real potent analysis on that.
  • The Archchancellor of the University doing his best David Attenborough impression with the foxes and the dustbins ramble he offers to the Patrician is so good.
  • The whole segment where Vimes wakes up and the litany of how this works (waking up after being knocked suddenly unconscious), and what people ask, and what it means to hear different things, is one of my very favorite passages maybe ever?

Pratchettisms:

There was a crowded moment in which realization did the icy work of a good night’s sleep and several pints of black coffee.

It spun along cheerfully like a gyroscope on the lip of a catastrophe curve.

It was amazing that she was capable of doing something so unwarlike as having a cup of tea.

The Librarian gave him the kind of look other people would reserve for people who said things like “What’s so bad about genocide?”

Vimes had surreptitiously taken to carrying a notebook these days, and he had noted the damage as if the mere act of writing it down somehow made the world a more understandable place.

His eyes swiveled back and forth in their sockets, like two rodents trying to find a way out.

There was a ceiling. This ruled out one particular range of unpleasant options and was very welcome. His blurred vision also revealed Corporal Nobbs, which was less so. Corporal Nobbs proved nothing; you could be dead and see something like Corporal Nobbs.

We’ll get all the way to “And then ran back to his Library and the treacherous pathways of L-space” for next week!

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