Review: The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett
eagle at eyrie.org
Sat Dec 10 21:36:34 PST 2022
The Fifth Elephant
by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #24
Printing: May 2014
Format: Mass market
The Fifth Elephant is the 24th Discworld and fifth Watch novel, and
largely assumes you know who the main characters are. This is not a
good place to start.
The dwarves are electing a new king. The resulting political conflict
is spilling over into the streets of Ankh-Morpork, but that's not the
primary problem. First, the replica Scone of Stone, a dwarven artifact
used to crown the Low King of the Dwarves, is stolen from the Dwarf
Bread Museum. Then, Vimes is dispatched to Überwald, ostensibly to
negotiate increased fat exports with the new dwarven king. And then
Angua disappears, apparently headed towards her childhood home in
Überwald, which immediately prompts Carrot to resign and head after
her. The City Watch is left in the hands of now-promoted Captain Colon.
We see lots of Lady Sybil for the first time since Guards! Guards!, and
there's a substantial secondary plot with Angua and Carrot and a
tertiary plot with Colon making a complete mess of things back home,
but this is mostly a Vimes novel. As usual, Vetinari is pushing him
outside of his comfort zone, but he's not seriously expecting Vimes to
act like an ambassador. He's expecting Vimes to act like a policeman,
even though he's way outside his jurisdiction. This time, that means
untangling a messy three-sided political situation involving the
dwarves, the werewolves, and the vampires.
There is some Igor dialogue in this book, but thankfully Pratchett
toned it down a lot and it never started to bother me.
I do enjoy Pratchett throwing Vimes and his suspicious morality at
political problems and watching him go at them sideways. Vimes's
definition of crimes is just broad enough to get him fully invested in
a problem, but too narrow to give him much patience with the diplomatic
maneuvering. It makes him an unpredictable diplomat in a clash of
cultures way that's fun to read about. Cheery and Detritus are great
traveling companions for this, since both of them also unsettle the
dwarves in wildly different ways.
I also have to admit that Pratchett is doing more interesting things
with the Angua and Carrot relationship than I had feared. In previous
books, I was getting tired of their lack of communication and wasn't
buying the justifications for it, but I think I finally understand why
the communication barriers are there. It's not that Angua refuses to
talk to Carrot (although there's still a bit of that going on). It's
that Carrot's attitude towards the world is very strange, and gets
stranger the closer you are to him.
Carrot has always been the character who is too earnest and
straightforward and good for Ankh-Morpork and yet somehow makes it
work, but Pratchett is doing something even more interesting with the
concept of nobility. A sufficiently overwhelming level of heroic ethics
becomes almost alien, so contrary to how people normally think that it
can make conversations baffling. It's not that Carrot is perfect
(sometimes he does very dumb things), it's that his natural behavior
follows a set of ethics that humans like to pretend they follow but
actually don't and never would entirely. His character should be a
boring cliche or an over-the-top parody, and yet he isn't at all.
But Carrot's part is mostly a side plot. Even more than Jingo, The
Fifth Elephant is establishing Vimes as a force to be reckoned with,
even if you take him outside his familiar city. He is in so many ways
the opposite of Vetinari, and yet he's a tool that Vetinari is
extremely good at using. Colon of course is a total disaster as the
head of the Watch, and that's mostly because Colon should never be more
than a sergeant, but it's also because even when he's taking the same
action as Vimes, he's not doing it for the same reasons or with the
same stubborn core of basic morality and loyalty that's under Vimes's
The characterization in the Watch novels doesn't seem that subtle or
deep at first, but it accumulates over the course of the series in a
way that I think is more effective than any of the other story strands.
Vetinari, Vimes, and Carrot all represent "right," or at least order,
in overlapping stories of right versus wrong, but they do so in
radically different ways and with radically different goals. Each time
one of them seems ascendant, each time one of their approaches seems
more clearly correct, Pratchett throws them at a problem where a
different approach is required. It's a great reading experience.
This was one of the better Discworld novels even though I found the
villains to be a bit tedious and stupid. Recommended.
Followed by The Truth in publication order. The next Watch novel is
Rating: 8 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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