Review: Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

‘If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat.’

Welcome back to the Discworld Project and the mess that is my emotions. I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s work for a while now and this project is going nearly 2 years. I’ve come to expect certain levels of gut punches but this one hit in a different way.

‘Be a MAN in the City Watch! The City Watch needs MEN!’

But what it’s got includes Corporal Carrot (technically a dwarf), Lance-constable Cuddy (really a dwarf), Lance-constable Detritus (a troll), Lance-constable Angua (a woman … most of the time) and Corporal Nobbs (disqualified from the human race for shoving).

And they need all the help they can get. Because they’ve only got 24 hours to clean up the town and this is Ankh-Morpork we’re talking about..

The second entry of the Watch books, I’m absolutely thrilled to be back with these characters. I read Guards! Guards! last year just a mere moment before the panda herself appeared. When I did read it, I was absolutely blown away by how well developed these characters were right from the get go. Vimes in particular, completely took me by surprise. Well this book has all the characters from that book, and more!

Men At Arms sees the expansion of the Night Watch at an attempt to be more inclusive. What we end up with is a troll named Detritus, a dwarf named Cuddy and Angua, a young woman (in appearance). Vimes is on his way to retirement, due to marry Lady Sybill Ramkin in a matter of days and the mood in the air is something usually totally foreign to Ankh Morpork; change. Things are changing and change usually brings people causing problems.

A constant discussion through the book is how the Watch and just in Discworld as a whole, approaches matters of racial inequality. This is usually delivered between the conflict between Trolls and Dwarves that just seems to exist because it has for years and the subtle digs towards the community of the undead and trolls over all in particular. To be fair to Pratchett, he did write this in 1993, a long way from the jaded ‘creatures as inserts for discussions of racism’ conversation today. But the message is still clear, the Disc has prejudice the same as ours. And I do think it’s dealt with in in an interesting way.

There is a moment where Vimes, a working class man, is talking to one of the richer citizens of Ankh Morpork who would be in Lady Sybil’s inner circle. As the man denounces trolls, dwarves and just generally is an asshole about their races, Vimes chooses to stay silent. To avoid an incident and not make a fuss at the party. Not speaking up being just as damning as him saying something in agreement. In a novel that is trying to discuss racism on the Disc and general prejudice against others, this moment was a bit too on the nose.

Many of the too real moments tended to center around Vimes himself. I was really taken aback at how much the mirror was turned on him this time. It’s very clear in the previous novel that he is trying to deal with a lot of his own issues by drinking through it, grunting and generally staying away from confronting anything. That same moment I mentioned where he contributes to the bigotry by not speaking up, is the same instance Vimes comes face to face with alcohol in this difficult situation. He completely tunes out the other guest, only seeing and thinking about taking a drink. And Sybil clearly sees him struggling with and is rightfully concerned. Alcohism isn’t what I would call this having members of my family who suffer with it, but it’s clearly a face to face moment with the reader, Vimes and his main coping mechanism from many a year.

I can’t review this book, talk about the real world issues Sam Vimes is dealing with and not talk about the famous boots passage. So in case you’re not a reader of Pratchett or want to be or anything like that, there is one part of this book where Vimes confronts his new potential life with Sybil where he will be a man with wealth, land and titles. His reasoning for difference between the poor and rich being;

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

If it struck you as much as it did me, then I think you will understand in that one passage why Men at Arms is considered such a powerful book. I could go on forever about the wonderful points it makes, from the sexism Angua has to handle and her own hidden identity, to the critique of weaponry and how it corrupts honest and decent people but I think I’ve made my point. This book is fantastic, I took a while to read it (mostly due to life stuff) but once I did, I was powerfully moved by it.

I’ll conclude on this note, the other night while perusing YouTube for something to watch I came across the lecture he presented via Tony Robinson titled ‘Shaking Hands with Death’. I tried for the third time to watch it. I made it to 16 minutes before I was sobbing. Terry Pratchett is still severely missed by many, myself included, and this project is one I’m still enjoying 2 years later.

★★★★★/5

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