This is the first City Watch book that I’ve really, genuinely liked. I’ve read others — Guards! Guards!, Jingo, and The Fifth Elephant (though none terribly recently) — and while they’re all good, because Pratchett is good, none of them quite ever grabbed me the way the Witches series did.
I decided to pick this one up after someone tipped me off to the fact that it was Pratchett doing Les Miserables — and, at a wide stroke, this is true. I was expecting a far stricter parody than I ended up getting, though, and I think I’m okay with that. Really what Pratchett does is invert the structure, giving us the story of a good copper with quite a lot to lose. Night Watch is not as broadly comic as many of Pratchett’s novels, particularly those involving the Watch, and there are few moments in it which are truly just gut-wrenchingly awful. Pratchett throws some punches here that he often pulls elsewhere, particularly with regards to mortality. His political satire is as good as ever, with some particularly incisive observations regarding the nature of mob mentality, of anything done for the good of “The People,” and, as Ankh-Morpork so often allows him to demonstrate, of the lifesblood of cities in general.
So: What happens in Night Watch? Well, we begin with Sam Vimes at the top of his career and not entirely sure how he feels about that. He’s restored the Watch to repute and efficiency, he’s been made a Duke, he has a wife and a child on the way… and there’s something discontent, like his life doesn’t fit him quite right. He ruminates on this as his wife is in delivery on the Twenty-Fifth of May — a local day of observation having something, we gather, to do with lilacs. Later that day, while pursuing the maniacal murderer Carcer, Vimes accidentally gets sent back in time thirty years, where he has to fill in the gap left in history when Carcer (also sent back) kills Sergeant John Keel pre-emptively. Keel was, it turns out, young Sam’s mentor when he first joined the force, so Vimes now has to mentor himself to make sure he turns out okay. Make sense? No? Well, here’s Monk of Time Lu-Tze on it:
“Nothing’s certain, ’cause of quantum.”
“But, look, I know my future happened, because I was there!”
“No. What we’ve got here, friend, is quantum interference. Mean anything? No. Well… let me put it this way. There’s one past and one future. But there are two presents. One where you and your evil friend turned up, and one where you didn’t. We can keep these two presents going side by side for a few days. It takes a lot of run time, but we can do it. And then they’ll snap back together. The future that happens depends on you. We want the future where Vimes is a good copper. Not the other one.”
“But it must’ve happened!” snapped Vimes. “I told you, I can remember it! I was there yesterday!”
“Nice try, but that doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said the monk. “Trust me. Yes, it’s happened to you, but even though it has, it might not. ‘Cos of quantum. Right now, there isn’t a Commander Vimes-shaped hole in the future to drop you into. It’s officially Uncertain. But it might not be, if you do it right. You owe it to yourself, Commander.”
It’s more of the exploration of alternate realities that Pratchett does so well, and a theme which I always adore (Trousers of Time, and all). Vimes realises that he basically has no choice, if he ever wants to get back to the appropriate future, and so he takes up with the then-dissolute Night-Watch-as-was, takes himself under his own wing, and pretty soon is running the whole operation, never mind what the higher-ups have to say about it. Of course, this is an extremely effective way to make enemies very fast — especially since Carcer has taken up with the Cable Street Particulars, a special force with an expertise in torture.
Vimes also realises that he’s had the highly-questionable fortune to land smack in the middle of the famous street uprising which led to the bright-but-brief People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road. He tries to assume the place in history left by John Keel, but his own thoughts and urges assert themselves, too, and as he tries to protect as many people as possible, he discovers that, thanks to his interference and Carcer’s, things aren’t turning out quite as he remembers them having done. Vimes has to out-think and out-react his opponents in order to keep both of himselves alive. We meet a whole contingent of Ankh-Morporkean regulars, including Rosie Palms, Nobby Nobbs, Fred Colon, Reg Shoe, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and even a young Havelock Vetinari, the Assassins’ Guild’s most talented if under-appreciated student.
The poignancy of the novel really comes into full swing when Vimes ends up in charge of the rebellion, knowing full well how it ends, knowing full well who dies — and trying like hell to change history and to save them anyway. He knows what’s going to happen, and he wants to change it enough to matter, but not so much that he can’t get back. It puts him in a terrible position, really, particularly as he tries to convey the importance of it all to his younger self. There are a few little moments that Pratchett sneaks in there that really do just seem to punch you in the stomach. Right in the feels, as it were.
Overall, I think what I can say the most about Night Watch is that it surprised me. It was not the book I was expecting to read, but I’m exceedingly glad that I read it.
Someday I really must read all of the Discworld novels in order.