Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Carpe Jugulum
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1998
Length: 378 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

This felt appropriate to review on Halloween.

King Verence II, in a fit of naive goodwill, issues an invitation to some neighboring vampires from Uberwald to attend the christening of his newborn daughter. Trouble is, since he’s king, that means he’s basically invited the vampires into take over the whole kingdom — which they intend to do. These are modern vampires, and the Count de Magpyr has trained his wife and children not to be susceptible to the usual pitfalls. They can eat garlic, aren’t fussed by holy water, have had religious symbols as mobiles, and barely flinch when caught in the sunlight. They subdue populations, not by sheer reigns of Gothic terror, but with a bureaucratic efficiency that’s much more frightening. Agnes Nitt discovers that she has a near-unique ability to resist their hypnotic power, thanks to her increasingly-assertive alter ego, Perdita. When Granny Weatherwax, initially absent due to sulking over having not been invited to the christening (she was, and in fact the baby was named for her, but the message went mythically astray), appears to lose her first confrontation with the vampires, it’s up to Agnes/Perdita, Nanny, and Magrat (recommissioned as a mother) to rid Lancre of its latest trouble.

This is a book that I always feel like I should like better than I do. It has the right ingredients — the Lancre Witches, mythical creatures, general snarkiness — and yet something about it always falls flat for me. I suspect in some ways it’s because this book bears too many resemblances to Lords and Ladies — which I love, but I’d rather read something with new themes than a re-hashing. There are a lot of similarities: invasive paranormal force, humanity has to remember why it fought these things to begin with and not just roll over for them, Granny ends up out of commission for a while but is preserved and triumphs via her Borrowing skill, the youngest of the three (here Agnes instead of Magrat) has to pluck up the nerve to defend the kingdom, etc. Nothing’s wrong with any of it, but you do get a bit of a feeling of having been there before.

The book picks up once Granny comes out of her sulk, and then out of her coma, and spends some time wandering about with Omnian preacher Mightily Oats. The entire dynamic between Mightily Oats and the witches is pretty great, actually, largely because of how Esme’s and Gytha’s respective prejudices bounce off of milquetoasty Mightily. The Omnian church, we can believe, once enthusiastically burned whoever it disagreed with, but has lots a lot of its fire in recent decades, not least because it schisms about three times a week, and none of the sects can even agree on who they should be burning anymore. Usually-tolerant Nanny has strong feelings about the Omnians:

“But you’ve never objected to the Gloomy Brethren, Nanny. Or to the Wonderers. And the Balancing Monks come through here all the time.”

“But none of them object to me,” said Nanny.

Esme’s a bit cannier in how she deals with Mightily, who ends up helping her back to the fight (only because he needed her guidance, of course, you understand. Under any other circumstances, she wouldn’t be having with his association). Esme senses what the readers get to see through Mightily’s eyes as well: that, like Agnes, he suffers from always being in two minds about things. “Good Oats” wants desperately to be a devout believer… but “Bad Oats” is the name he gives to the voice that questions, that’s skeptical, that isn’t quite sure about all of the dogma and trappings.

“You strong in your faith, then?” she asked, as if she couldn’t leave things alone.

Oats sighed. “I try to be.”

“But you read a lot of books, I’m thinking. Hard to have faith, ain’t it, when you read too many books.”

The story picks up even further when the citizens of Uberwald finally steel themselves to revolt against their vampire masters (with a little inspiration from Agnes/Perdita). The re-emergence of the old Count, a classic vampire who’ll have none of this modern nonsense, is one of the best scenes in the book. Ultimately, Carpe Jugulum is enjoyable, if not particularly exhilarating. I could have done with better exploration of new paths — the only new introduction, the Nac mac Feegle, just feels out of place against the backdrop of the vampires. They serve to get Verence out of the way and… not much else. It’s a strange diversion, to say the least.

So, overall, I don’t find Carpe Jugulum to be as strong as it might’ve been. It’s still a good read, though, and Pratchett’s humour is, as ever, quite engaging. There’s a lot of lovely satire in there about the vampires, and it’s somehow even more relevant now than it was back in 1998 when Pratchett first wrote it, considering the recent surfeit of vampire fiction. If you’re looking for non-standard vampire fare, where the arrogant toffs get what’s coming to them, then I can highly recommend Carpe Jugulum.

Post Script: I apologize for the two-week dearth of reviews. I have been first at an educational residency in Shaker Heights, OH, and second helping to run the 6th Blackfriars Conference here in Staunton. Information about those events is up on the ASC’s Education Blog, if anyone is interested.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

  1. I’m not sure if I’ve commented here before, but I read all you reviews and greatly enjoy them — not least of all because I’ve read many of the books you review, especially the whole Pratchett backlist. :)

    I found this review particularly interesting, because Carpe Jugulum is one of my absolute favourite Discworld novels. (Whenever I want a nice, easy, fun read, I either reach for this one or The Fith Elephant — depending on whether I’m in a witchy or Vimes mood).

    This is only the second time I’ve read your rating at the start of your post and dramatically disagreed. But then I read on…

    I would guess that you read Lords and Ladies before Carpe Jugulum, thus your feeling that this book rehashed old themes. I, on the other hand, read this book first, of the two.

    When I read Lords and Ladies, I was incredibly disappointed in it, and felt like I’d seen it all before. I didn’t think it was nearly as good as Carpe Jugulum, didn’t have the same strength of supporting characters, and didn’t explore the world in as much detail.

    The other review that I disagreed with was, of course, Lords and Ladies. And so I suppose that, in the end, it all evens out. It’s just interesting to me to realise how much our perception of a book’s “quality” is dependent upon what was previously read.

    • That’s really interesting — and yes, I did read Lords and Ladies first, both back when I first read them and during this recent re-read. I think I’d still come down more favourably for L&L, if only because I will always choose the Fae as a more interesting topic than vampires. It’s not at all that I think Carpe Jugulum is bad — it just doesn’t have, for me, the same glow that some of his others do.

  2. =Tamar

    There is a significant difference between the two. In CJ, Granny could have failed without the help of Mightily Oats. She really did need him.

    • I never said there weren’t some differences, just that the broad strokes feel a little too similar. IMO, Granny always needs more help than she can admit to — in Lords and Ladies, she needed Gytha and Magrat’s help to get back to herself. I don’t think Oats makes a critical enough difference to make it a totally new story — it still has a similar basic shape, and that is the basis of my criticism.

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