The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett. ★★★★★
The Fifth Elephant is the twenty fourth book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. While the books all theoretically stand on their own, I would recommend reading some of the other books about the City Watch first, particularly Feet of Clay.
The Fifth Elephant is just such a great book. It still has laughs, but it’s got a darker, more serious edge to it than some of the earlier novels. It contains so much thought and depth to it, that I don’t know how to sum everything up into one review. Here goes my best shot.
The Fifth Elephant breaks the usual format of the Watch novels when Vetinari sends Vimes as the Ankh-Morpork representative to the coronation of the Low King of the dwarfs, all the way in Umberwald. There, Vimes will have to deal with vampires, werewolves, and dwarf politics. But where a policeman goes, a crime is sure to be found.
“Well, he thought, so this is diplomacy. It’s lying, only for a better class of people.”
As usual, the characters are fantastic. Vimes continues to be my favorite protagonist ever, and the supporting cast is really allowed to shine as well. This book had more focus on Carrot and Angua’s relationship than any since Men at Arms, and I think it was a good move for both characters. Also, I need to have a shout out to Sybil, Angua, and Cheery, who are all awesome female characters.
Actually, there’s a lot I could say about Cheery in this. If you liked Cheery’s arc from Feet of Clay, you will love The Fifth Elephant. Basically, Pratchett started out parodying Tolkien by saying that all Discworld dwarfs appear male and that they don’t have even have female pronouns. However, in Feet of Clay, he introduced Cheery Littlebottom, a dwarf who wants to wear a skirt and makeup and be recognized as female. By the time of The Fifth Elephant, this has become a movement, with many more dwarfs now openly declaring their femininity. Of course, this is a great shock to traditional dwarf culture.
I feel so much for Cheery during this. I love her strength and her determination to be herself, despite what others say to her. There’s a lot of queer subtext surrounding her and the dwarf feminist movement, from her having to come out as a woman to dealing with hostile reactions from others.
“You’re free to wear whatever you want, you know that.“
“Yes, sir. And then I thought about Dee. And I watched the king when he was talking to you, and… well, I can wear what I like, sir. That’s the point. I don’t have to wear something just because other people don’t want me to. Anyway, it made me look a rather stupid lettuce.”
“That’s all a bit complicated for me, Cheery.”
“It’s probably a dwarf thing, sir.”
“And a female thing,” said Vimes.
“Well, sir… yes. A dwarf thing and a female thing,” said Cheery. “And they don’t come much more complicated than that.”
This is part of the larger theme of modernity versus tradition in The Fifth Elephant. Changes are taking place on the Discworld. The clacks, sort of like the telegram, is introduced in this book, and the world now seems to be a smaller and more interrelated place (sound familiar?). In the face of great change, people on the Disc are seeking ways to move forward without loosing the core of their identity.
“You did something because it had always been done, and the explanation was, ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’ A million dead people can’t have been wrong, can they?”
The Fifth Elephant was one of the more plot driven Discworld novels, and it was stronger for it. It says something when a book as amazing and wonderful and The Fifth Elephant is not even the best of the series. There’s still more to come.
“Not natural, in my view, sah. Not in favor of unnatural things.’
Vetinari looked perplexed. ‘You mean, you eat your meat raw and sleep in a tree?”
While I think The Fifth Elephant is a fantastic book that would appeal to so many people, I do think you’d get more out of it if you’ve read the previous Watch novels. With that noted, I heartily recommend it.