Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. ★★★★★
I highly recommend Guards! Guards! a fantasy novel that follows a cast of unusual heroes: the city watch. This hilarious novel works great as a stand alone or as an introduction to the Discworld, the sprawling forty book series created by Sir Terry Pratchett.
All the previous Discworld books touched on the city of Ankh-Morpork, a bustling city that slowly transforms over the course of the series and becomes so vivid that it might as well be a character itself.
“Vimes felt a sudden surge of civic pride. There had to be something right about a citizenry which, when faced with catastrophe, thought about selling sausages to the participants.”
However, Guards! Guards! is the first book to be set totally within the city. The result is a novel with a simpler yet stronger plot line where everything ties together really well.
In Guards! Guards!, a group of dissatisfied citizens work together to summon a dragon. It’s a simple plan: summon a dragon, then have a malleable “true heir to the throne” show up to defeat it. But things do not go as planned, and it is up to the night watch, lead by Samuel Vimes, to save the day.
Vimes is my favorite character. Not just in this book, or in Discworld, or in literature, but my favorite fictional character of all time. Why do I love him so much? Well, for a start he has an amazing character arc. At the beginning of the book you see him literally in the gutter, “brung low” by the city itself. Over the course of Guards! Guards! you realize that beneath the grungy exterior is a man who really cares about injustice.
“If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.”
Yet Vimes lives in a world where there is so much injustice, where it feels hopeless to try and do the right thing. But when the dragon comes and things go down the drain, Vimes is willing to stand up and do what he believes is right even when no one else will. He serves the law, not the Patrician or any other person, the law.
What’s great about Guards! Guards! is how the secondary characters shine as well. The three other members of the night watch are all utterly memorable and continue to grow over the course of the books. Lady Sybil Ramkins, while pretty much the only female character, is absolutely wonderful and an expert on all things dragons.
Discworld books are funny, no doubt about that, but the jokes often overlay a serious core. In Guards! Guards! this is seen by how easily people accept the presence of the dragon, so long as they aren’t the ones being eaten. There’s a conversation at the end between Vimes and Vetinari, the ruling Patrician, on the nature of humanity and how Vimes need to believe that people are not fundamentally good or fundamentally bad but just people. This is an overarching idea for many of Pratchett’s books.
“One of the things forgotten about the human spirit is that while it is, in the right conditions, noble and brave and wonderful, it is also, when you get right down to it, only human.”
While people familiar with the fantasy genera may get particular enjoyment from how Guards! Guards! plays with the tropes, I would ultimately recommend this book to everyone. It’s just an excellent book, no doubt about it.