Review: Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Aug 30 21:27:08 PDT 2020

Men at Arms
by Terry Pratchett

Series:    Discworld #15
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1993
Printing:  November 2013
ISBN:      0-06-223740-3
Format:    Mass market
Pages:     420

Men at Arms is the fifteenth Discworld novel and a direct plot sequel
to Guards! Guards!. You could start here without missing too much, but
starting with Guards! Guards! would make more sense. And of course
there are cameos (and one major appearance) by other characters who are
established in previous books.

Carrot, the adopted dwarf who joined the watch in Guards! Guards!, has
been promoted to corporal. He is now in charge of training new
recruits, a role that is more important because of the Night Watch's
new Patrician-ordered diversity initiative. The Watch must reflect the
ethnic makeup of the city. That means admitting a troll, a dwarf... and
a woman?

Trolls and dwarfs hate each other because dwarfs mine precious things
out of rock and trolls are composed of precious things embedded in
rocks, so relations between the new recruits are tense. Captain Vimes
is leaving the Watch, and no one is sure who would or could replace
him. (The reason for this is a minor spoiler for Guards! Guards!) A
magical weapon is stolen from the Assassin's Guild. And a string of
murders begins, murders that Vimes is forbidden by Lord Vetinari from
investigating and therefore clearly is going to investigate.

This is an odd moment at which to read this book.

The Night Watch are not precisely a police force, although they are
moving in that direction. Their role in Ankh-Morpork is made much
stranger by the guild system, in which the Thieves' Guild is
responsible for theft and for dealing with people who steal outside of
the quota of the guild. But Men at Arms is in part a story about
ethics, about what it means to be a police officer, and about what it
looks like when someone is very good at that job.

Since I live in the United States, that makes it hard to avoid reading
Men at Arms in the context of the current upheavals about police
racism, use of force, and lack of accountability. Men at Arms can
indeed be read that way; community relations, diversity in the police
force, the merits of making two groups who hate each other work
together, and the allure of violence are all themes Pratchett is
working with in this novel. But they're from the perspective of a UK
author writing in 1993 about a tiny city guard without any of the
machinery of modern police, so I kept seeing a point of clear
similarity and then being slightly wrong-footed by the details. It also
felt odd to read a book where the cops are the heroes, much in the
style of a detective show. This is in no way a problem with the book,
and in a way it was helpful perspective, but it was a strange reading

  Cuddy had only been a guard for a few days but already he had
  absorbed one important and basic fact: it is almost impossible for
  anyone to be in a street without breaking the law.

Vimes and Carrot are both excellent police officers, but in entirely
different ways. Vimes treats being a cop as a working-class job and is
inclined towards glumness and depression, but is doggedly persistent
and unable to leave a problem alone. His ethics are covered by a thick
layer of world-weary cynicism. Carrot is his polar opposite in
personality: bright, endlessly cheerful, effortlessly charismatic, and
determined to get along with everyone. On first appearance, this
contrast makes Vimes seem wise and Carrot seem a bit dim. That is
exactly what Pratchett is playing with and undermining in Men at Arms.

Beneath Vimes's cynicism, he's nearly as idealistic as Carrot, even
though he arrives at his ideals through grim contrariness. Carrot,
meanwhile, is nowhere near as dim as he appears to be. He's certain
about how he wants to interact with others and is willing to stick with
that approach no matter how bad of an idea it may appear to be, but
he's more self-aware than he appears. He and Vimes are identical in the
strength of their internal self-definition. Vimes shows it through the
persistent, grumpy stubbornness of a man devoted to doing an
often-unpleasant job, whereas Carrot verbally steamrolls people by
refusing to believe they won't do the right thing.

  Colon thought Carrot was simple. Carrot often struck people as
  simple. And he was. Where people went wrong was thinking that simple
  meant the same thing as stupid.

There's a lot going on in this book apart from the profiles of two very
different models of cop. Alongside the mystery (which doubles as
pointed commentary on the corrupting influence of violence and personal
weaponry), there's a lot about dwarf/troll relations, a deeper look at
the Ankh-Morpork guilds (including a horribly creepy clown guild),
another look at how good Lord Vetinari is at running the city by
anticipating how other people will react, a sarcastic dog named Gaspode
(originally seen in Moving Pictures), and Pratchett's usual collection
of memorable lines. It is also the origin of the now-rightfully-famous
Vimes boots theory:

  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

Men at Arms regularly makes lists of the best Discworld novels, and I
can see why. At this point in the series, Pratchett has hit is stride.
The plots have gotten deeper and more complex without losing the funny
moments, movie and book references, and glorious turns of phrase. There
is also a lot of life philosophy and deep characterization when one
pays close attention to the characters.

  He was one of those people who would recoil from an assault on
  strength, but attack weakness without mercy.

My one complaint is that I found it a bit overstuffed with both
characters and subplots, and as a result had a hard time following the
details of the plot. I found myself wanting a timeline of the murders
or a better recap from one of the characters. As always with Pratchett,
the digressions are wonderful, but they do occasionally come at the
cost of plot clarity.

I'm not sure I recommend the present moment in the United States as the
best time to read this book, although perhaps there is no better time
for Carrot and Vimes to remind us what good cops look like. But
regardless of when one reads it, it's an excellent book, one of the
best in the Discworld series to this point.

Followed, in publication order, by Soul Music. The next Watch book is
Feet of Clay.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-08-30


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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