Review: Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

Russ Allbery eagle at
Fri Mar 24 21:32:46 PDT 2023

Thief of Time
by Terry Pratchett

Series:    Discworld #26
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: May 2001
Printing:  August 2014
ISBN:      0-06-230739-8
Format:    Mass market
Pages:     420

Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld novel and the last Death novel,
although he still appears in subsequent books. It's the third book
starring Susan Sto Helit, so I don't recommend starting here. Mort is
the best starting point for the Death subseries, and Reaper Man
provides a useful introduction to the villains.

Jeremy Clockson was an orphan raised by the Guild of Clockmakers. He is
very good at making clocks. He's not very good at anything else,
particularly people, but his clocks are the most accurate in
Ankh-Morpork. He is therefore the logical choice to receive a
commission by a mysterious noblewoman who wants him to make the most
accurate possible clock: a clock that can measure the tick of the
universe, one that a fairy tale says had been nearly made before. The
commission is followed by a surprise delivery of an Igor, to help with
the clock-making.

People who live in places with lots of fields become farmers. People
who live where there is lots of iron and coal become blacksmiths. And
people who live in the mountains near the Hub, near the gods and full
of magic, become monks. In the highest valley are the History Monks,
founded by Wen the Eternally Surprised. Like most monks, they take
apprentices with certain talents and train them in their discipline.
But Lobsang Ludd, an orphan discovered in the Thieves Guild in
Ankh-Morpork, is proving a challenge. The monks decide to apprentice
him to Lu-Tze the sweeper; perhaps that will solve multiple problems at

Since Hogfather, Susan has moved from being a governess to a
schoolteacher. She brings to that job the same firm patience, total
disregard for rules that apply to other people, and impressive talent
for managing children. She is by far the most popular teacher among the
kids, and not only because she transports her class all over the Disc
so that they can see things in person. It is a job that she likes and
understands, and one that she's quite irate to have interrupted by a
summons from her grandfather. But the Auditors are up to something, and
Susan may be able to act in ways that Death cannot.

This was great. Susan has quickly become one of my favorite Discworld
characters, and this time around there is no (or, well, not much)
unbelievable romance or permanently queasy god to distract. The
clock-making portions of the book quickly start to focus on Igor, who
is a delightful perspective through whom to watch events unfold. And
the History Monks! The metaphysics of what they are actually doing
(which I won't spoil, since discovering it slowly is a delight) is
perhaps my favorite bit of Discworld world building to date. I am a
sucker for stories that focus on some process that everyone thinks
happens automatically and investigate the hidden work behind it.

I do want to add a caveat here that the monks are in part a parody of
Himalayan Buddhist monasteries, Lu-Tze is rather obviously a parody of
Laozi and Daoism in general, and Pratchett's parodies of non-western
cultures are rather ham-handed. This is not quite the insulting mess
that the Chinese parody in Interesting Times was, but it's heavy on the
stereotypes. It does not, thankfully, rely on the stereotypes; the
characters are great fun on their own terms, with the perfect (for me)
balance of irreverence and thoughtfulness. Lu-Tze refusing to be
anything other than a sweeper and being irritatingly casual about all
the rules of the order is a classic bit that Pratchett does very well.
But I also have the luxury of ignoring stereotypes of a culture that
isn't mine, and I think Pratchett is on somewhat thin ice.

As one specific example, having Lu-Tze's treasured sayings be a
collection of banal aphorisms from a random Ankh-Morpork woman is both
hilarious and also arguably rather condescending, and I'm not sure
where I landed. It's a spot-on bit of parody of how a lot of people who
get very into "eastern religions" sound, but it's also equating the Dao
De Jing with advice from Discworld equivalent of a English housewife. I
think the generous reading is that Lu-Tze made the homilies profound by
looking at them in an entirely different way than the woman saying
them, and that's not completely unlike Daoism and works surprisingly
well. But that's reading somewhat against the grain; Pratchett is
clearly making fun of philosophical koans, and while anything is fair
game for some friendly poking, it still feels a bit weird.

That isn't the part of the History Monks that I loved, though. Their
actual role in the story doesn't come out of the parody. It's something
entirely native to Discworld, and it's an absolute delight. The scene
with Lobsang and the procrastinators is perhaps my favorite Discworld
set piece to date. Everything about the technology of the History
Monks, even the Bond parody, is so good.

I grew up reading the Marvel Comics universe, and Thief of Time reminds
me of a classic John Byrne or Jim Starlin story, where the heroes are
dumped into the middle of vast interdimensional conflicts involving
barely-anthropomorphized cosmic powers and the universe is revealed to
work in ever more intricate ways at vastly expanding scales. The
Auditors are villains in exactly that tradition, and just like the best
of those stories, the fulcrum of the plot is questions about what it
means to be human, what it means to be alive, and the surprising
alliances these non-human powers make with humans or semi-humans. I
devoured this kind of story as a kid, and it turns out I still love it.

The one complaint I have about the plot is that the best part of this
book is the middle, and the end didn't entirely work for me. Ronnie
Soak is at his best as a supporting character about three quarters of
the way through the book, and I found the ending of his subplot much
less interesting. The cosmic confrontation was oddly disappointing, and
there's a whole extended sequence involving chocolate that I think was
funnier in Pratchett's head than it was in mine. The ending isn't bad,
but the middle of this book is my favorite bit of Discworld writing
yet, and I wish the story had carried that momentum through to the end.

I had so much fun with this book. The Discworld novels are clearly
getting better. None of them have yet vaulted into the ranks of my
all-time favorite books — there's always some lingering quibble or
sagging bit — but it feels like they've gone from reliably good books
to more reliably great books. The acid test is coming, though: the next
book is a Rincewind book, which are usually the weak spots.

Followed by The Last Hero in publication order. There is no direct
thematic sequel.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-03-24


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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