Review: Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
eagle at eyrie.org
Tue May 30 19:53:20 PDT 2023
by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #29
Copyright: November 2002
Printing: August 2014
Format: Mass market
Night Watch is the 29th Discworld novel and the sixth Watch novel. I
would really like to tell people they could start here if they wanted
to, for reasons that I will get into in a moment, but I think I would
be doing you a disservice. The emotional heft added by having read the
previous Watch novels and followed Vimes's character evolution is
It's the 25th of May. Vimes is about to become a father. He and several
of the other members of the Watch are wearing sprigs of lilac for
reasons that Sergeant Colon is quite vehemently uninterested in
explaining. A serial killer named Carcer the Watch has been after for
weeks has just murdered an off-duty sergeant. It's a tense and awkward
sort of day and Vimes is feeling weird and wistful, remembering the
days when he was a copper and not a manager who has to dress up in
ceremonial armor and meet with committees.
That may be part of why, when the message comes over the clacks that
the Watch have Carcer cornered on the roof of the New Hall of the
Unseen University, Vimes responds in person. He's grappling with Carcer
on the roof of the University Library in the middle of a magical storm
when lightning strikes. When he wakes up, he's in the past, shortly
after he joined the Watch and shortly before the events of the 25th of
May that the older Watch members so vividly remember and don't talk
I have been saying recently in Discworld reviews that it felt like
Pratchett was on the verge of a breakout book that's head and shoulders
above Discworld prior to that point. This is it. This is that book.
The setup here is masterful: the sprigs of lilac that slowly tell the
reader something is going on, the refusal of any of the older Watch
members to talk about it, the scene in the graveyard to establish the
stakes, the disconcerting fact that Vetinari is wearing a sprig of
lilac as well, and the feeling of building tension that matches the
growing electrical storm. And Pratchett never gives into the temptation
to explain everything and tip his hand prematurely. We know the 25th is
coming and something is going to happen, and the reader can put
together hints from Vimes's thoughts, but Pratchett lets us guess and
sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong. Vimes is trying to change
history, which adds another layer of uncertainty and enjoyment as the
reader tries to piece together both the true history and the changes.
This is a masterful job at a "what if?" story.
And, beneath that, the commentary on policing and government and ethics
is astonishingly good. In a review of an earlier Watch novel, I
compared Pratchett to Dickens in the way that he focuses on a sort of
common-sense morality rather than political theory. That is true here
too, but oh that moral analysis is sharp enough to slide into you like
a knife. This is not the Vimes that we first met in Guards! Guards!. He
has has turned his cynical stubbornness into a working theory of
policing, and it's subtle and complicated and full of nuance that he
only barely knows how to explain. But he knows how to show it to
Keep the peace. That was the thing. People often failed to
understand what that meant. You'd go to some life-threatening
disturbance like a couple of neighbors scrapping in the street over
who owned the hedge between their properties, and they'd both be
bursting with aggrieved self-righteousness, both yelling, their
wives would either be having a private scrap on the side or would
have adjourned to a kitchen for a shared pot of tea and a chat, and
they all expected you to sort it out.
And they could never understand that it wasn't your job. Sorting it
out was a job for a good surveyor and a couple of lawyers, maybe.
Your job was to quell the impulse to bang their stupid fat heads
together, to ignore the affronted speeches of dodgy
self-justification, to get them to stop shouting and to get them off
the street. Once that had been achieved, your job was over. You
weren't some walking god, dispensing finely tuned natural justice.
Your job was simply to bring back peace.
When Vimes is thrown back in time, he has to pick up the role of his
own mentor, the person who taught him what policing should be like. His
younger self is right there, watching everything he does, and he's
desperately afraid he'll screw it up and set a worse example. Make
history worse when he's trying to make it better. It's a beautifully
well-done bit of tension that uses time travel as the hook to show both
how difficult mentorship is and also how irritating one's earlier naive
self would be.
He wondered if it was at all possible to give this idiot some
lessons in basic politics. That was always the dream, wasn't it? "I
wish I'd known then what I know now"? But when you got older you
found out that you now wasn't you then. You then was a twerp. You
then was what you had to be to start out on the rocky road of
becoming you now, and one of the rocky patches on that road was
being a twerp.
The backdrop of this story, as advertised by the map at the front of
the book, is a revolution of sorts. And the revolution does matter, but
not in the obvious way. It creates space and circumstance for some
other things to happen that are all about the abuse of policing as a
tool of politics rather than Vimes's principle of keeping the peace. I
mentioned when reviewing Men at Arms that it was an awkward book to
read in the United States in 2020. This book tackles the ethics of
policing head-on, in exactly the way that book didn't.
It's also a marvelous bit of competence porn. Somehow over the years,
Vimes has become extremely good at what he does, and not just in the
obvious cop-walking-a-beat sort of ways. He's become a leader. It's not
something he thinks about, even when thrown back in time, but it's
something Pratchett can show the reader directly, and have the other
characters in the book comment on.
There is so much more that I'd like to say, but so much would be
spoilers, and I think Night Watch is more effective when you have the
suspense of slowly puzzling out what's going to happen. Pratchett's
pacing is exquisite. It's also one of the rare Discworld novels where
Pratchett fully commits to a point of view and lets Vimes tell the
story. There are a few interludes with other people, but the only other
significant protagonist is, quite fittingly, Vetinari. I won't say
anything more about that except to note that the relationship between
Vimes and Vetinari is one of the best bits of fascinating subtlety in
all of Discworld.
I think it's also telling that nothing about Night Watch reads as
parody. Sure, there is a nod to Back to the Future in the lightning
storm, and it's impossible to write a book about police and street
revolutions without making the reader think about Les Miserables, but
nothing about this plot matches either of those stories. This is
Pratchett telling his own story in his own world, unapologetically, and
without trying to wedge it into parody shape, and it is so much the
better book for it.
The one quibble I have with the book is that the bits with the Time
Monks don't really work. Lu-Tze is annoying and flippant given the
emotional stakes of this story, the interludes with him are frustrating
and out of step with the rest of the book, and the time travel
hand-waving doesn't add much. I see structurally why Pratchett put this
in: it gives Vimes (and the reader) a time frame and a deadline, it
establishes some of the ground rules and stakes, and it provides a
couple of important opportunities for exposition so that the reader
doesn't get lost. But it's not good story. The rest of the book is so
amazingly good, though, that it doesn't matter (and the framing stories
for "what if?" explorations almost never make much sense).
The other thing I have a bit of a quibble with is outside the book.
Night Watch, as you may have guessed by now, is the origin of the May
25th Pratchett memes that you will be familiar with if you've spent
much time around SFF fandom. But this book is dramatically different
from what I was expecting based on the memes. You will, for example see
a lot of people posting "Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced
Love, And a Hard-Boiled Egg!", and before reading the book it sounds
like a Pratchett-style humorous revolutionary slogan. And I guess it
is, sort of, but, well... I have to quote the scene:
"You'd like Freedom, Truth, and Justice, wouldn't you, Comrade
Sergeant?" said Reg encouragingly.
"I'd like a hard-boiled egg," said Vimes, shaking the match out.
There was some nervous laughter, but Reg looked offended.
"In the circumstances, Sergeant, I think we should set our sights a
"Well, yes, we could," said Vimes, coming down the steps. He glanced
at the sheets of papers in front of Reg. The man cared. He really
did. And he was serious. He really was. "But...well, Reg, tomorrow
the sun will come up again, and I'm pretty sure that whatever
happens we won't have found Freedom, and there won't be a whole lot
of Justice, and I'm damn sure we won't have found Truth. But it's
just possible that I might get a hard-boiled egg."
I think I'm feeling defensive of the heart of this book because it's
such an emotional gut punch and says such complicated and nuanced
things about politics and ethics (and such deeply cynical things about
revolution). But I think if I were to try to represent this story in a
meme, it would be the "angels rise up" song, with all the layers of
meaning that it gains in this story. I'm still at the point where the
lilac sprigs remind me of Sergeant Colon becoming quietly furious at
the overstep of someone who wasn't there.
There's one other thing I want to say about that scene: I'm not
naturally on Vimes's side of this argument. I think it's important to
note that Vimes's attitude throughout this book is profoundly, deeply
conservative. The hard-boiled egg captures that perfectly: it's a bit
of physical comfort, something you can buy or make, something that's
part of the day-to-day wheels of the city that Vimes talks about
elsewhere in Night Watch. It's a rejection of revolution, something
that Vimes does elsewhere far more explicitly.
Vimes is a cop. He is in some profound sense a defender of the status
quo. He doesn't believe things are going to fundamentally change, and
it's not clear he would want them to if they did.
And yet. And yet, this is where Pratchett's Dickensian morality comes
out. Vimes is a conservative at heart. He's grumpy and cynical and
jaded and he doesn't like change. But if you put him in a situation
where people are being hurt, he will break every rule and twist every
principle to stop it.
He wanted to go home. He wanted it so much that he trembled at the
thought. But if the price of that was selling good men to the night,
if the price was filling those graves, if the price was not fighting
with every trick he knew... then it was too high.
It wasn't a decision that he was making, he knew. It was happening
far below the areas of the brain that made decisions. It was
something built in. There was no universe, anywhere, where a Sam
Vimes would give in on this, because if he did then he wouldn't be
Sam Vimes any more.
This is truly exceptional stuff. It is the best Discworld novel I have
read, by far. I feel like this was the Watch novel that Pratchett was
always trying to write, and he had to write five other novels first to
figure out how to write it. And maybe to prepare Discworld readers to
There are a lot of Discworld novels that are great on their own merits,
but also it is 100% worth reading all the Watch novels just so that you
can read this book.
Followed in publication order by The Wee Free Men and later,
thematically, by Thud!.
Rating: 10 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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